Benton County Pioneer Life

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Pioneer life in the Benton Co. WA area

Circus Came in 1891/Tom Thumb was Here

Tri-City Pioneer
Tri-City Herald, Sunday, 17 June 1962

Kennewick and Pasco received their first glimpse of a circus in the late spring of 1891. The Tri-City region was too thinly populated to warrant an exhibition of a circus the size of Barnum & Baileys’ “Greatest Shows on Earth.” These shows had fulfilled their engagements at Seattle, Tacoma and other larger cities in that area. They were now making their way eastward toward Spokane. We were living at this time in a large two story house that father had built near the Columbia River, quite close to the Transfer Ferry Landing. It was only fifty yards to the railroad tracks.

One morning we children were awakened by a great turmoil of shouting and strange noises. We children arose and dressed in a hurry. Came downstairs to behold 50 or 75 brightly painted circus wagons loaded about five to a flat railroad car. The two ferry stern wheelers were swamped by this job of transferring all this freight across the Columbia to the main N.P.R.R. tracks at Pasco, which would take the circus to Spokane.

As the day wore on it was necessary for the circus to feed and water the animals and to take care of the circus performers and employees. The cook tent was put up almost in our back yard. We children got a great thrill in seeing so much of the real circus life. We saw General Tom Thumb, the midget and his small wife. Also Jo Jo the Dog-Faced Man and all the freaks Mother chaperoned us and the neighbors’ children all day until the last wagon was ferried to Pasco.

Phineas Taylor Barnum was born at Bethel, Conn. in 1810 and died in 1891. The year that the circus passed through here. He was perhaps one of the world’s greatest showmen. At 19 he was married and engaged in many activities, from running a country store to publishing newspapers. He had a sharp intellect and a keen sense of humor. He was accredited with saying that a “sucker is born every minute” also “that the wisest people like to be fooled.”

When Barnum took his first show to Europe he made an instant hit In London and was presented to Queen Victoria. While in Europe he heard Jenny Lind, the Swedish Nightingale. He induced her to come to America under his management for a series of concerts. He paid her a thousand dollars a night. The tour continued for six months, It was a great success both artistically and financially. Many stories are told of his keen wit.

One of the oddities of his side-shows was billed as a “horse with its head where its tail should be.” The suckers on admission to the tent saw to their surprise a horse tied by its tail to the manger. It was reported that Tom Thumb became addicted to strong drink and Barnum had a hard time keeping him sober enough to perform his act. Barnum would lock Tom in his quarters to keep him sober. Tom was shrewd also. He bought some long stem clay pipes and a large gimlet and bribed a roustabout to buy some whiskey. He instructed him to drill a hole in Tom’s door. Plug the stem of the pipe with a match and insert it through the gimlet hole of Tom’s door. Then pour whiskey in the bowl of the pipe. Tom would pull out the match and drink the whiskey through the stem of the pipe and be drunk when the time for his act arrived.

These mammoth shows are a thing of the past. The present day circus is Indeed a much smaller show. Television displays the larger extravaganzas’ right in your parlor with sound effects and everything but the smell of the sawdust ring. The eyes and the ears have been satisfied but in some instances the nostrils have been offended. But leave it to the scientists, they perhaps will soon invent a sweet smelling tv.

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