Perhaps no phrase ever brought more excitement to the citizens of Greene County than the words … the Circus is coming to town!
Young and not so young fans of the circus waited with great anticipation after the colorful signs were posted on telephone poles and in store windows giving the exact date the caravan would arrive. The circus performers and animals always arrived by train. Those folks who were fortunate enough to be there when the train was unloaded could view a spectacular sight. Some of the local boys would help unload in return for passes to see the big show.
First the big tent would be laid out, and the circus folks would put up the poles and pull the ropes taut with the help of the elephants. Once the tent was in place, bleachers were placed for those who would later come to watch the performances.
Soon the animals in their cages were placed nearby, the elephants were tethered and the horses tied to secure posts.
It seemed that all was in readiness for the show to begin, but there was one more important part of getting ready for the circus. A parade was held to further encourage attendance.
Down the street they would come, acrobats, jugglers and clowns with their painted on smiles waving and greeting the eager observers.
Soon the elephants would make their appearance each with a trainer to escort them and a beautiful lady with sequined costume sitting on the elephant’s back as she waved to the spectators.
Next, the lions and tigers would appear, walking around inside their cages placed on a wagon. Horseback riders would have satin costumes. Depending on the size of the circus, there could be one to three rings inside, each showcasing different performers.
Everyone would hold their breath while the tight-rope walkers crossed a rope high In the air, taking each step slowly, and when the walker reached the other end of the rope, the audience would sigh in relief.
Then the trapeze artists ascended to their swings high above the heads of the audience. With perfect timing one would let go of the bar, summersault to the other and just in time be grasped to safety. Often the process would be repeated as the performer went back to the original swing.
I don’t think Alonzo Hiwanda appeared with the circus in Greene County, but the native was a star performer on the circus circuit. He was raised in a farm in Greene County, and became very strong. A contest was held at the fair when the traveling strong man challenged any and all to a lifting contest. Encouraged by his friends, George Day entered the contest and bested the strong man.
He decided to make that his career, and joined the circus. He decided that his name was not dramatic enough for his act and so became professionally known as Alonzo Hiwanda. One of his favorite feats was to have two large men sit astride a barrel full of water and proceed to lift it, holding the entire thing on his chest, secured with his teeth and no hands. In harness, he could lift 2500 pounds.
During his circus career, he met and married Maggie who was a chariot driver for the circus. When they retired from the circus they moved to Xenia where he opened a movie theater. He boasted that he had “talking movies” during the era of silent films. His nephew could read lips and repeated aloud for the audience what the actors were saying. Due to heavy movie theater competition, he decided to lower the price of admission from 10 cents to a nickel. Maggie managed the hotel dining room at the Pennsylvania RR Station in Xenia for many years.
Richard E. Conover was passionate about the circus. As a child, he begged to see a circus, but was never allowed. As an adult, his interest grew and he became one of the leading authors of circus history.
One of his publications included the story of the Robinson Circus which was in business over 100 years. The name of the publication was “Give Them a John Robinson,” a phrase was used to mean “cut the show short.”
Richard was born in Kings Creek, Ohio in 1904, graduated from The Ohio State University with a degree in electrical engineering which eventually led to employment at Wright Patterson AFB and a home in Beavercreek.
For Richard, the love of the circus was life-long. When the children were in school, he would write a note to the teacher explaining that the entire family would be attending the first day of the circus and therefore the children should be excused that day. That even applied when daughter Sally was in college.
All three children followed their father’s love of the circus. Albert constructed miniature circuses including a model of the Robbins Brothers Circus with 72 railroad cars loaded with equipment. This was an “O” gauge train which took 18 feet of track space.
Jake designed and made full-size equipment for trapeze artists, clowns and even cages for animals, a business which had been continued under the direction of his sons.
Baraboo, Wisconsin is the home of the circus museum. There is a circus wagon dedicated to Richard and a bench nearby in honor of Jake and his wife Mary. That site also has information about Alonzo Hiwanda.
Joan Baxter is a local resident and weekly historical columnist.