The Circus on Long Island or Those spine Tingling, Brain Boggling
Tales that Have Survived the Years and Are Now a Superlative and
Mesmerizing Part of Our Fabulous, Hullabaloo of a Heritage!
It’s tremendous, thrilling and stupefying. It’s a list of adjectives found only in a world of artists that
include the fastest, largest, longest, strongest and other dimensions that tease the imagination. It’s the
circus. And Long Island has had a relationship with the circus that stemmed from early rural and small
town life that appreciated anything that was not mundane.
The circus was introduced to America shortly after the Revolutionary War. In 1770, the first lion
arrived in the new world and the camel followed soon after with a mass of other exotic creatures. All of
this was old hat to Europeans, of course, who were accustomed to being entertained by troops of acrobats,
wild animal trainers and other dare-devils since medieval times. In America, the first circus opened in
Philadelphia on April 3, 1793. It was presented by John Bill Ricketts, a man who organized the great
circus of London. Ricketts brought a show to the new nation that included a number of daredevil riders
and show horses. Americans appreciated good riding skills and flocked to the circus to witness feats of
horsemanship. President George Washington attended this circus and marveled at the stunts performed
by horse and rider. It seems that after the attendance by Washington, Americans followed suit and circus
shows began to roam throughout the country, finding their way into practically every hamlet and city.
Long Island was also included in the routes of these early circus caravans. Port Jefferson was quite
a comfortable village in the mid 1800s when the circus came to town in May. At that time, one resident,
Daniel Hildreth, was impressed by the event and wrote his account of the circus in the Long Island Forum.
Mr. Hildreth recalled “a caravan of wild animals” exhibited at the harbor area. “There were as many as
96 horses that drew this great caravan with 50 men guiding the horses.” This may well have been the
grandest show on Long Island for its date. A special feature of the show was “King Pharaoh’s Chariot”
drawn by a team of five span of horses. The wagon was 27 feet long and 16 musicians rode on the wagon
and sang the praises of great King Pharaoh.
King Pharaoh, himself, had a history completely rooted in Long Island. It seems that a great
showman, P.T. Barnum, discovered Long Island sometime after the Civil War. Mr. Barnum found
pleasure in Westhampton Beach where he enjoyed the water. He was also impressed with a Montauk
leader named Stephen Pharaoh who was an outstanding walker. Barnum gave him the title “King of the
Montauks” and entered him in competition against many other fast-paced walkers. Apparently, this
Indian chief was a success in the show, if the size of his entourage is any indication of his popularity.
In another Forum account, John Mount, a correspondent to the Port Jefferson Times, witnessed a great
circus event in 1850. He waited eagerly, along with other residents of Port Jefferson, for the arrival of the
circus. He recalled the procession of the circus 10 a.m. in the vil1age. Musicians rode in four horse-drawn
carriages of chariot design. Then, there were horseback riders and wagons filled with exotic wild animals
The procession circled the Setauket millpond and finally stopped at Smith’s store in East Setauket.
One of the clowns in the troop rode into the store on horseback and created a stir by falling off the horse
and playing ill until liquid refreshment was served to him and others in the troop. More circus antics were
in store for the clowns and those in attendance. An elderly woman, who was rather ill-tempered, fell into
the mud and buzzed away in anger after being rescued in jest by a clown, perhaps the same one who
imbibed at Smith’s store. In any case, Mr. Mount noted that a storm broke in the late afternoon and
most of the spectators weathered it out even though the tent leaked in many places. Others, however,
took refuge in neighboring stores and other business establishments. All in all, it was an exciting event.
It is evident that the great circus entrepreneur, PT Barnum was quite taken with the hamlet of Port
Jefferson. He spent much time in attempting to make Port Jefferson the winter home for his great
circus. On April 10, 1871, Barnum brought his circus to Brooklyn. There were three acres of canvas and
10,000 spectators thrilled to the greatest feats, parades, side-show attractions and every other sight
imaginable. Barnum’s traveling show was a success, but he needed a place to base his throng during the
winter. Where else could he take such a magnificent display of glorious, spine-tingling hoopla than to the
subdued, rural hamlet of Port Jefferson?
Robert Pelton, curator of the Barnum Museum in Bridgeport, Connecticut, commented on Barnum’
s plans. “Barnum had the circus in the first few years, in the 1870s, in New York City and apparently that
was not a convenient location for him, so he was considering either Bridgeport or somewhere in Port
Barnum began to buy substantial amounts of land In Port Jefferson. He purchased much of the
Brick Hill area and property on the corner of Oakes Street and Randall Avenue. He needed one expanse
of meadow to use as grazing land for his animals and his show would be completely housed for the winter.
However Barnum never was able to purchase that piece of meadowland.
In 1880, he left Port Jefferson abruptly after local opposition forced him away. Was it the animals
and their odorous presence? Perhaps not everyone viewed the circus scents with the same olfactory
interpretations as that of a child. Perhaps the strangers made the local folk somewhat uneasy. In any
case, Port Jefferson’s loss was Bridgeport’s gain. “He had substantial investments in Bridgeport. He had
been in Bridgeport for some time, 30 or 40 years before be brought the winter circus here,” noted Mr.
Pelton. “He was also an investor and on the Board of Directors of the Bridgeport-Port Jefferson Ferry
Company.” Now, only Barnum Avenue runs to the dock in remembrance of the man who loved the town.
“He was one of the early supporters of that ferry business. So, in a sense, he has a partial investment in
Long Island, both in land and in a working business.”
Apparently, Mr. Barnum still frequented Long Island and profited more from its land. In 1884, he
was once again in Westhampton staying at a farm that took in boarders for the summer. An account of
Barnum’s fondness of Westhampton and the water is found in his autobiography “Struggles and
Triumphs; Or Forty Years Recollections of PT Barnum” published in 1855. “Mr. Howell’s farm lay close
upon the ocean and I found the residence a cool and delightful one. Surf bathing, fishing, shooting and
fine roads for driving made the season pass pleasantly,” wrote Barnum.
However, he was a fortunate man or perhaps an unfortunate one in not being able to escape from his
work. As he strolled on the beach one day, he found a 12-foot whale on the shore. The whale was dead but
still free from decay. Mr. Barnum sent the whale to be treated and then he exhibited it in order to pay for
the summer vacation.
Pleasing an audience is any circus performer’s means of deriving pleasure from his art. One circus
follower, Paul Van Thomme, is an enthusiast who has gone one step beyond the rank of pleased
spectator. Mr. Van Thomme, who creates miniature circus displays, has researched the history of the
circus on Long Island and remembers the Barnett Brothers circus when it played in Babylon during the
“The circus lot used to be behind my house through the woods and I could hear them setting up the
circus in the early mornings.” His interest peaked when reading an account of the Barnett circus in
“Bandwagon” the official publication of the circus historical society and he began to research past circus
events in the Babylon Leader. “We had a lot of big shows play on Long Island,” noted Mr. Van Thomme.
“They were probably as big as Ringling Brothers.”
The two types of circus transportations during the l920s and 1930s were railroad and trucks.
“Railroad circuses played towns on the south shore and then they would go to Huntington and go back the
same way. There were only three railroad circuses that played on the Island. All the rest were truck
shows,” explained Mr. Van Thomme. The Sparks Circus, Walter L. Main Circus and the Downie Brothers
Circus rolled in on the tracks with style and excitement such as the 1922 arrival of the Walter L. Main
Circus in 35 double length railroad cars filled with every imaginable creature and entertainer.
In a caravan of trucks, however, came shows such as Hunt Brothers, Barry Brothers, Eddy Brothers, and
Hagan Brothers. But whether by road or rail, the keyword was excitement and the object was to create a
bigger and better show each year.
“After the main show was over, they would have a western show. You would pay a quarter or a
nickel or dime in those days to stay in the tent after the show and the cowboys would come in chasing the
Indians. They would have rope tying and have a regular western. What they usually did was get the
Hollywood cowboy stars to go on the road with them. There was Tom Mix and his famous horse Tony...
these were in the 30s.”
Ads that ran in the newspapers presented the Long Ranger with Barnett Brothers in their three ring
circus and Buck Owens and Jack Hoxie with Downie Brothers. A typical ad of the 1930s boasts “100 star
acts, 500 people, 30 dancing horses and 2 herd of performing elephants with the Hannefords, Frisco’s
Seals and a 50 cent admission for adults, 25 cent admission for children.”
Ah, but by 1951, Ringling Brothers presented “a royal horse show only found in the French Forest of
Fontainebleau with barebacks, fliers, 100 clowns. A tribute to our newest slate featured ‘Luawana,’ the
Aloha girls afloat, bears, three troops of horses, sea lions, jockey dogs, nine herds of elephants, baby
gorillas, and the 1951 invasion of Europe’s topflight thrills in desperate deeds of daring, the Great
Morituris and their startlingly sensational Pendulant Globe of Death.”
Today and in the past, the circus existed to please, thrill and appeal to the dreamer or the small
child in everyone. It’s the smell of danger and the things wild and wonderfully strange. It’s the taste of
all the popcorn flavored by ooh’s and aah’s and craning necks and eyes glued to daring thrills of delight.
It’s a place of history that is purely frivolous, a memory that is pleasurable and a moment in time when
all might become escape artists of a sort. The spectator’s memories that have transcended time proves
this to all.
|First Published in Long Island Heritage