George Day was born Aug. 16, 1860 on a Greene County farm. As a young man, he was responsible for many chores on the farm, such as loading bales of hay, and working in the fields, pushing a plow. By the age of 19, he was a very strong man. He developed his strength by lifting more and heavier bales of hay, and even lifting some of the farm animals from time to time.
When the circus came to town, George was one of those most eager to attend to see the sights. The trains would bring all the animals, tents and performers to the site where everything was unloaded. Usually there would be a huge parade with the elephants ridden by pretty girls in bright costumes, and more wonders, making it a “must see” for everyone.
Young George was very impressed by the circus and wanted to be a part of it. He finally got his wish, and spent many years traveling from place to place with the circus train.
George attended an event near his home where a strong man challenged all comers to lift more than he. George entered the contest and bested the strong man. He began to think this might be a career move for him.
It was at the Greene County Fair of 1879 that he got his start. His first “on stage” appearance was when he was known as the “man with the iron jaw”. He put a device between his teeth which was fastened to a huge barrel. The barrel was filled with w3ater which made it weight approximately 500 pounds. He then had two grown man sit astride the barrel, each man weighed in the neighborhood of 260 pounds. Then he put the device between his teeth, lifted the barrel and the two men and held them, balanced on his chest, a weight of more than 1,000 pounds.
In 1880 in Xenia, he was pitted against two other strong men. The home folks were anxious to see the local boy win the competition, of course, and were there to cheer him on. He bested the other two by lifting a monument weighing 1,155 pounds. The other two strong men could not budge the stone. For his efforts, he received a gold watch and chain and a gold medal which was awarded by an admirer. The medal was stamped with a likeness of Day and the monument he lifted.
He finally got to join the Sells Brothers Circus, and that was when he changed his professional name to Alonzo Hiwanda. Some programs listed him as Alonzo the Strong Man. His wife, Maggie was also a circus performer, thought to have been a chariot driver.
The 1891-92 year was probably his best. He weighed 247 pounds; his arm muscles measured 18 inches. On one occasion that year, he lifted in harness a number of men on a platform. The total weight lifted was 3,760 pounds. In Portland, Oregon that year, he won a $100 wager by lifting the wheels and axel of a train off the track with a weight of 1,100 pounds.
According to the records of the Circus Museum in Baraboo, Wisconsin, he left the circus to tour independently. He traveled around the country to various fairs and shows where he would show off his massive strength. He took on challengers, but seemed to be unbeatable in the weight-lifting arena.
It was said that at one time he even traveled with a 200 pound anaconda which he used in his act.
In time, however, he decided that the travel and lifting was no longer what he wanted for the remainder of his life, so came back to his native Greene County, along with wife Maggie.
He opened a movie theater in town, known as the “Star Theater”. At first he charged 10 cents admission, but quickly found that other theaters were charging only 5 cents, so he lowered his price. His theater was unique, however. While all the other movie theaters were showing silent films, he advertised that he would provide “talkies.” This drew quite a crowd, as might be expected. The movies shown were still silent movies, but he had a nephew who could read lips, and would then lip read the actors, relating in appropriate voices what was said. Captions across the screen continued to be shown as at the other theaters, but it must have been a lot of fun to have someone reciting the lines as well.
George and Maggie lived in the European Hotel, which was opposite the Pennsylvania Railroad Station. Maggie managed the restaurant in the hotel for several years, with many compliments on the quality of the food prepared there.
Finally, George got tired of show business. He had been on the road for many years as a performer, and then for some years, owned the movie theater. It was time to retire for good.
He and Maggie moved to Fayetteville, N.C. When George was 62, he was visited by a reporter from Cincinnati. It was reported that George (aka Alonzo) was a “good man with brawny muscle, who weighs 2320 pounds and says he thinks he can lift 1,000 pounds, although he has not practiced for many years.”
Joan Baxter is a Greene County resident and long-time historical columnist.