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Greatest Show on Earth

11/08/2011 10:11AM ● Published by Style

The arrival of the one-ring circus marked the event of the season in early Placerville and other mining communities throughout the Mother Lode.

Weeks before, billposters appeared on fences and in shop windows announcing coming attractions like “Clown Equestrian Tumbler, Vaulter, Greek Warrior and Indian, George Peoples;” “The Shipwrecked Sailor;” and the “Indian Rubber Man.”

By the time H.C. Lee and John Marshall organized their National Circus in 1852, the population of many of the mining camps had grown quite large, at least large enough that their enterprising business found it profitable to visit the Gold Country. The construction of a ferry at Murderer’s Bar allowed the troupe to make an excursion down into the deep canyon of the American River to Salmon Falls, Pilot Hill, Coloma and Georgetown.

Lee and Marshall’s National Circus came to Placerville in 1853. They set aside one of their scheduled performances to benefit the Neptune Hose Company; the evening performance on August 22 netted the Company $900 to pay for badly needed fire-fighting equipment.

Circus owner and performer Joseph Rowe also found touring the Mother Lode a commercial success. When Rowe and Company’s Pioneer Circus arrived in Placerville in April 1856, the horses and ponies were taken to the nearest livery stable, while elephants, camels and other animals remained on a lot on Circus Hill. Young boys, many of whom had walked several miles for the event, competed for the job of watering the animals in exchange for a free pass to the big show.

In these early days, the circus had but one small tent and one ring. A large, eager crowd gathered to watch workers pitch the canvas pavilion atop Circus Hill. Meanwhile, a parade began forming, and soon, everyone left and walked down to Main Street to await the colorful procession that followed.

At show time, people excitedly took their seats upon narrow, backless, wooden benches and purchased their popcorn, pink lemonade or peanuts. The grand pageant of brightly dressed riders and vibrantly decorated animals then entered the arena, thrilling the audience. After the procession, the band took their seats near the tent’s entrance and struck up a lively tune. The main acts followed. Equestrian riders wowed the crowd with daring feats and expert horsemanship. “This riding is different from what it was in the country, when I was a girl, when we had to ride double on a pillory,” said one of the impressed spectators. “But what agility they show! It seems as if they were set on springs like a feather bed, and that every bone in ’em was made of whale bone.”

By the time “blackface” singers performed the final olio, the circus work crew had already started knocking down seats and loading them into wagons, and readying the animals for the journey to the next town. The canvas sides of the tent were removed and stowed away, the coal-oil chandelier tucked in a safe place. Workers took down the trapeze from the top of the tent and pulled down the center pole. Reluctantly, the crowd slowly drifted toward their homes, ever hopeful that the circus would again come to town.

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