Preserved whale drew crowds to Fergus in 1936

Freak shows and and exhi­bitions of unusual natural phe­no­mena were popular with 19th century audiences.
They ranged from the low end circus side-show freaks to the high toned and educational, exemplified locally by David Boyle’ museum in Elora during the 1870s. The depression era of the 1930s produced some­thing of a revival in unusual exhibitions: a travelling side­show could provide a steady income when alternatives were few.
One such travelling exhibi­tion stopped at Fergus in Aug­ust 1936. It was a whale, reput­edly weighing 68 tons, measur­ing 55 feet “from its powerful tail to its cavernous mouth,” and was carried on a specially-made flatcar that was 100 feet long.
The whale was named Col­os­sus, and was reportedly caught off the California coast in the late winter of 1935 by a ship belonging to the Eureka Whaling Company, of Long Beach.
The company preserved the whale, and during the summer of 1935 its employees took the monster on tour across the United States by rail. With it were a number of specimens of other marine life, including a giant octopus, a shark, sting rays, a family of five live pen­guins, and a special attraction: Mad­am Sirwell’s European Flea Circus.
Captain Jack Lampe, skip­per of the “Hawk,” the vessel that caught Colossus, was also on the tour, with 20 of his crew. As part of the show, the Cap­tain gave lectures on whales and whaling techniques.
Those were the attractions of the 1935 show, which stop­ped at many locations in the United States, and particularly the mid west, where few people had ever seen a whale or the ocean. The tour of 1936, which in­cluded Canadian stops, includ­ing Fergus, was scaled back con­siderably from that of the previous year. The one com­mon element was the special flatcar which carried the whale. The car, according to the pub­licity, was the longest ever con­structed, and required special handling wherever it went. The side and ends of the car dropped down to form plat­forms. That allowed spectators to walk all around the pre­served whale. At several points there were small elevated platforms to allow youngsters to better see the great beast. The car also had lights for viewing at night.
The list of attractions that accompanied Colossus in 1935 was not as extensive on this tour. The penguins, reportedly dir­ect from Admiral Byrd’s Little America, and Madame Sirwell’s trained fleas were in Fergus, but many of the other marine attractions were not.
Neither was the good Captain Lampe. Instead, a re­tired sea captain and former whaler, Captain David Barnett, accompanied the whale, gave talks on whaling, and led a crew of 20 sailors who chatted with spectators and visitors. Captain Barnett, the posters said, had spent 56 of his 72 years at sea on whaling vessels.
The Eureka Whaling Com­pany had an advance man in Fergus, a fellow named H.R. Keele. He was in charge of post­ers, and he spent some time with News Record editor Hugh Templin. Keele must have been able to talk up a good story. The usually skeptical editor was sufficiently intrigued that he ran two stories about the com­ing attraction.
The big flatcar bearing Colossus arrived in Fergus on the morning of Aug. 17, 1936, and with the other cars in the exhibit, was switched by Cana­dian National to a siding on St. Patrick Street, near the weigh scales, and close to the present site of the Fergus Curling Club. The exhibition was open to the public from noon until 11pm, with admission pegged at 15 cents for adults and 10 cents for children.
The other day I was chatting with my friend, Bob Gow, of Fergus, about Colossus. Al­though a young boy at the time, he remembers the exhibit well, and the overriding smell of formaldehyde around the loca­tion. He does not recall paying any admission to the attraction. Undoubtedly there are many other people in the area who visited the big whale on that Aug­ust day 71 years ago and who have memories of it.
The most intriguing aspect of the show is not that the promoters were able to haul the     whale all over North America for at least two years, but that they were able to preserve it. How much formaldehyde would it take to preserve a speci­men weighing 68 tons (or whatever the actual weight was) and 55 feet long? Did the whale eventually decompose, despite the preservative? The only references I have seen to this whale come from 1935 and 1936, so it would seem that the grand tour of Colos­sus ended in the fall of 1936. Whether it was a money­maker for the promoters is also a valid question. The whale seemed to be touring with a crew of at least 25 people, all of whom had to be paid, fed, and housed. There would also have been considerable bills from the railways for hauling the cars from place to place and switching them to sidings, and promotional costs. All that adds up to a lot of 10-cent and 15-cent admissions.
That August 1936 stop in Fergus was probably the last one in this area of a travelling sideshow attraction. The public has grown more sophisticated since then, and such an attrac­tion would today be considered tasteless and inappropriate. As well, the cost of operating such a travelling show would be prohibitive now, even if the old railway lines were still in place.
At this season, as the calen­dar is about to flip over to a new year, it is appropriate to reflect on the ways our ideas of entertainment have changed over recent decades.
We all have become more sophisticated, but in the pro­cess, have lost some of our sense of wonder as well.  

Stephen Thorning