Circuses Come to Mankato

Elephants on Front Street

By Hilda Parks

July, 1897 must have been a delightful time for children living in Mankato.  The circus came to town twice in two weeks.  It was two circuses, both claiming to be the biggest and best in the world:  “The Big Barnum and Bailey Show” and “Ringling Bros. World’s Greatest Show: The Mastodon of Modern Shows.”

Circuses making stops in Mankato was not unusual.  Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show had been here in August of the preceding year.  Cook and Whitby, The Sells Brothers, Adam Forepaugh, and Norris and Row circuses all made Mankato stops in the ten years before or after 1879.

The local newspapers must have also been happy.  Full page advertisements ran for weeks, often only a page apart.  The advertisements extolled each circuses offerings.  Barnum and Bailey promoted: 20 Fine Camels and Dromedaries;  Only six trained zebras in the world;  1 towering graceful giraffe, only one in America; a team of 40 matched horses driven by one man; collections of rare, curious, out-of-the-way displays, giants and pigmies, human being 9 feet high;  and “Great Peter the Small, 28” high and weighing 6 ½ pounds.

Ringling Bros. advertisements offered: Lockhart’s Troupe of elephant comedians; the largest managerie [sic] on earth; five herd of elephants big and little;  Keddah – the sacred white elephant of Siam; largest male hippopotamus alive; and the handsomest horse ever seen.

Neither circus was averse to belittling the competition.  “Don’t be cajoled by the Pretentious bluffs, or false statements of other shows.  Don’t be humbugged by spurious advertisements or grossly exaggerated pictures,” warned Barnum and Bailey’s advertisements.  Both companies included glowing reviews from newspapers in cities they had previously visited.    

Interestingly neither advertisement gave a location for their circus.  Twelve acres of tent, as promised by Ringling Bros. would probably be hard to miss.  The Free Press  did report that their parade, beginning at 10:00, would proceed on 3rd Street from the show grounds to Liberty Street, to Front Street and back to the show grounds.  Those coming to see the parade were asked to keep their teams off Front and Third Streets.  “Every farmer who owns a horse will drive in” suggested a writer for the Mankato Review.  Even excursion trains would be arriving in town.

Sometime early morning on July 3, five special trains, with cars twice the length of ordinary rail cars, brought the Ringling Bros Circus to town.  By 9:00 their tent was set up, able to hold 12,000 people.  The parade began at 10:00,  Unlike their competition, they reminded the public, the parade would be a pageant, illustrating national and international events.  For example, the British in India would be represented by an elephant battery pulling cannons.  An Arabian caravan would demonstrate how people and trade goods were transported across the desert.   There would be a separate children’s parade with baby animals, and floats depicting Mother Goose poems.

Performances, with 300 performers, were at 2:00 and 8:00.  Admission, for either show, was $.50, with children under 9 paying $.25.  “The admission price only the same as charged by inferior shows,” Barnum, and Bailey slyly mentioned.

The Ringling Bros. show was a great success.  Combined with other July 4th observances, it brought 12,786 to the afternoon performance, even though it was an “exceedingly warm” day.  The evening performance was not as well attended because storms had come up.

Barnum and Bailey arrived in town on Wednesday, July 14, only 11 days later.  There had been heavy rains, and roads were muddy.  Despite the weather conditions, close to 10,000 attended the afternoon show, and the 8:00 show drew twice the number that had come out in the bad weather for the evening performance of Ringling Bros.  A reporter for the Mankato Review declared Barnum and Bailey “without a peer in this country.

Mankato still had not had enough of circuses.  The MacMahon Bros. One-Ring Circus put on a show in August.  Ringling Bros. was back in 1899, drawing 17,000 people to two performances.

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