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Hunt County 'Giants' Found Circus Life Rewarding

In American towns above the crossroads level after the Civil War, circuses occasionally or regularly relieved the dearth of formal amusements. Traveling across the country on the railroads, circuses offered a varied form of entertainment from clowns and high wire and animal acts to side shows.

In the 1880's, four Hunt County brothers--Guss Shields, Frank Shields, Jack Shields, and Shade Shields--were a featured attraction of the Barnum and Bailey Circus, entertaining and amazing countless audiences with their unusual height. The brothers, billed the "Texas Giants," joined the circus in 1879 after an agent from Barnum and Bailey's "Greatest Show on Earth" visited them at their home in the Merrick community, east of Kingston.

The brothers traveled with the circus over most of the eastern part of the United States and Canada, visiting the large metropolitan centers and hundreds of smaller cities.

For farm boys from Texas, the life was rewarding and exciting. They received a salary plus any extra money they could earn from the sale of photos of themselves (at ten cents a piece). Guss Shields estimated that they each made about six dollars a day for "no responsibility, nor no work;" that is, if you don't count the time they were on exhibition, which ran from noon until 5:30 PM, off an hour for supper, and then on exhibit until 11:00 PM.

When on the road with the circus, the brothers stayed at luxury hotels and took their meals at the circus concession. Writing from a Saint Louis, Missouri hotel in 1883, Guss Shields bragged, "We have a nice room. We enjoy a good spring mattress, and the bed bedstead is supposed to cost twelve dollars to fifteen dollars; we have a marble-top wash stand, marble-top bureau, and from appearances, marble must be very cheap, for the fire board and from the fire board to the floor is all marble and even the hearth is marble. I am writing on a marble-top center table and my idea is that it more extravagant than anything else."

Guss, who stood seven-foot ten-inches, was the oldest of the giants, born in 1851. Before entering the circus, he had taught school and was noted for his religious piety, serving as church clerk and church treasurer of the Pleasant View Baptist Church in White Rock. He married in 1874, but his first wife died of smallpox in 1877 and he remarried on November 4, 1880.

Frank Shields, seven-foot eleven and three-fourths inches and the second oldest Shields giant, was born in 1853. Married three times, he had fourteen children by his third wife. He second wife dying of smallpox when the family was exposed to the virus while traveling with the circus.

Jack Shields, also seven-foot eleven and three-fourths inches, was born on August 21, 1859, and died on October 27, 1896; he was married to Martha V. Johnson. For a time after leaving the circus, Jack ran a grocery store in the then thriving town of Kingston; later he joined forces with his younger brother to operate a saloon east of the northeast corner of the Hunt County Courthouse square.

We know the most about Shade Shields because he was the youngest of the Shields Giants, born in 1860, and was the last one to die. Although he stood a mere seven foot eight inches, Shade was the only one of the brothers that continued his circus career into the 1890's when he appeared in the Buffalo Bill Wild West Show, Forepaugh Sells Circus, and John Robinson Show. Like his brother, Frank, Shade was married three times. His first wife was Anne O' Brian, a giantess born in Ireland who was with the circus. After retiring from the circus, Shade lived in Greenville and then moved to Hornersville, Missouri, where he was elected mayor and Justice of the Peace. He died in 1939.

The Shields Brothers' show business careers lasted less than a decade, but their unusual size and their association with the Barnum and Bailey Circus make them special. Weldon Shields of Greenville, a grandson of Jack Shields, has recognized their uniqueness and has written a wonderful book on the Shields Brothers, appropriately called the "Texas Giants," published in 1972.

(February 28, 1988, The Greenville Herald Banner, "Blackland Memories" by James Conrad) (Picture: Hunt County Giant--Jack Shields, seven feet eleven and three-fourths inches, stands next to an average-sized man in the 1894 photo from "Texas Giants" written by his grandson, Weldon Shields, of Greenville)

Submitted by Sarah Swindell

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