Circuses were occasional visitors, but by no means frequent ones, to Wellington County in the second half of the 19th century.
Troupes played in Fergus and Elora in the 1860s, but those were small outfits. They often advertised themselves as menageries, and they featured exotic animals along with some clowns and acrobatic performers.
Full-scale circuses as we know them today came a little later. Rail transportation, invariably with a special train, made moving from town to town feasible. The biggest circus of them all, P.T. Barnum’s outfit, played Guelph in 1883 and again in 1885. Barnum, with an immense publicity crew, expected to draw crowds from a radius of 50 miles, most of whom would also travel by train.
Smaller outfits would set up in small towns for one-night stands. One such circus was that of Frank A. Robbins. His circus played Mount Forest on August 25, 1887, a day after a show at Wingham and a day before Orangeville. All three towns were on the same Canadian Pacific rail line.
Frank Robbins was an excellent example of the career circus man of the late 19th century. P.T. Barnum is today regarded as the best example of the type, but he was more of a showman promoting a variety of entertainers. Barnum didn’t get into the circus business until he was in his 60s.
Robbins, on the other hand, was only 15 when he joined his first circus in 1870. During his youth he worked for a year for Barnum’s sometime partner, George F. Bailey, and for Barnum himself from 1876 to 1878.
Robbins started his own circus in 1881, and achieved immediate success. Six years later, when he toured southern Ontario, he had 100 performers in the show, some of whom doubled as stage hands and workmen. There were perhaps another 50 employees and animal handlers, and a few advance men who would place advertisements, tack up posters, and rent suitable grounds for the show.
An interesting aspect of the Robbins troupe was that it was racially mixed, with several Negroes working as performers, stage hands, and labourers. That situation may well have caused difficulties in some locales in both the United States and Canada.
The Robbins show toured using 36 railway cars. That may well have meant two trains on the lightly-constructed Canadian Pacific line through Mount Forest. By comparison, the Barnum & Bailey circus, at its largest, required more than 100 cars, and usually moved in three or four trains.
Robbins advertised a two-ring show, not quite in the league of Barnum’s three-ring extravaganza, but sufficient to keep the attention of even the most jaded of spectators.
Taking a cue from Barnum, Robbins’s promotion material promised more than he delivered. His advertisement for the Mount Forest show claimed 13 elephants would perform, and the illustration showed eight of the pachyderms waltzing in the ring. According to circus historians, the Robbins circus had only six, but a Mount Forest reporter swore that he counted nine of them.
In a similar vein, the posters claimed the circus carried three bands of musicians, but reporters present at Mount Forest counted only two.
During the latter decades of the 19th century a number of circus performers built up great reputations. They would sign with one of the touring circuses for a season. The next year they might sign again. Just as often, they would accept an offer from a rival operator.
Robbins had several first-rank performers when he visited Mount Forest. Most famous was Charles W. Fish, who had an international reputation as a trick bareback rider. His act included various jumps on and off his horse, and impressive acrobatics on the horse that seemed to defy gravity. After a couple of years with Robbins he joined the Ringling Brothers circus, remaining with that show until his death in 1895.
Two other famed equestrians with the Robbins show were the Jeal sisters, Linda and Eleanor (who billed herself as “Elena Jeal”). The show included the obligatory snake charmer, several gymnasts, and a trick marksman.
Staging shows day after day in different towns required an impressive amount of planning, co-ordination, and precise timing. For the performances on the Canadian Pacific branch through Mount Forest, the train or trains arrived in town no later than 6am. The members of the circus crew and the performers, at least 150 in number, had to be provided with breakfast. The cooks not only had kitchen duties, but they had to keep the larder in their dining car stocked and replenished.
While some of the crew unloaded the tents and the equipment needed for the performance, the animal handlers dealt with the animals. Elephants and horses had to be fed before helping to put up the tents, and the other animals had to be fed and groomed as well.
The animals and equipment would be assembled for a parade that commenced at 10am. The grounds opened at 1pm, and crowds were welcome to look at sideshow attractions until the first performance at 2pm. It lasted about two hours.
Some of the performers and labourers tried to catch an afternoon nap, and then readied themselves for a second show. The gates opened at 6pm, with the performance an hour later.
By 10pm, the dismantling operations were underway. Some of the crew had slept during the day: taking down and setting up was largely a night job. Everything would be packed and aboard the train by 2am if everything ran properly.
Sometimes there were problems. The men worked by torch light and had to watch their steps and movements. Sometimes the weather didn’t co-operate. Wind and rain could make the dismantling of tents a difficult chore, and could delay the departure. A couple of hours later it all began again.
The Robbins circus of 1887 had a smaller tent that displayed various exotic animals in their cages. It rivalled some zoos, with various mammals, reptiles, and birds. Some of the animals would perform at the shows. The main tent had two rings and a central platform, almost entirely surrounded by seats. Robbins took special care to provide comfortable seating, something not done by most rival circuses.
The show opened with Alna Danjanet, a snake charmer. Andrew Gaffney, a strongman, followed her, impressing the audience by juggling cannon balls. One of the elephants performed comic stunts between the other acts, which greatly amused the audience. The other elephants performed several routines and drills, including dancing in pairs.
Charles Fish, the star of the show, followed the elephants, riding around both rings as he performed tricks on his horse. Then came Chevalier Paine with his pistol and rifle, giving an impressive demonstration of trick shooting. Some observers thought that Fish and Paine could have offered a good show all by themselves.
Mount Forest’s editors were impressed with the show, and regretted that it had not attracted a full house. The Mount Forest Representative’s man thought it was the best show ever offered in that town.
There was only one unfortunate incident at the Mount Forest performances. A lout named Tom Hill, from Normanby Township, attended the circus amply filled with whiskey. He objected to black performers and stage hands, and began following them around, hurling insults and ridicule, and challenging them.
Several took him up on the offer. Bruised and bleeding, he was barely able to stumble off the grounds after receiving a severe pounding. Hill was further enraged when the local constable refused to lay charges against the circus men.