Barnum Brings Circus Spectacle to Stratford  by Lynda Greve    Stratford- Perth Archives

P.T. Barnum's travelling circus was a frequent attraction in early Strafford. Each arrival was heralded by large crowds of curious onlookers, intently watching as the setup of his latest extravaganza was revealed.

 The July 9, 1883 circus program here included world-famous Jumbo the Elephant, "the biggest Mastadon — or whatever he is in or out of captivity." Headlines read "Jumbo Salutes His Friends of Canada."

(Sadly, Jumbo was Idled by a Grand Trunk Railway locomotive in the yards at St. Thomas in 1885.) Click below for Youtube History 

General admission in 1883 was 50 cents, children under nine 25 cents, and absolutely no free tickets would be given away according to the newspaper advertisement in the Stratford Times.

P. T. Barnum never missed an opportunity to exploit misfortune. The Sept. 12, 1887 circus event here featured the polished skeleton of the former Jumbo along with Alice, his affectionate and distressed companion. The Daily Herald provided great detail about Jumbo, including a description of his hide mounted separately on a wagon inside the main tent. The main tent alone covered nearly an acre, being 385 feet long and 232 feet wide.

The Herald was much impressed by Morris B. Warner, press agent for Barnum's show. He "made things pleasant•for the newspapermen and their families, the press boxes being all filled at both performances."

Perhaps the enthusiasm evolved from free admittance or cheap seats for members of the press. Admission was unchanged from 1883 but the "absolutely no free tickets given away was not in evidence in the 1887 advertisement. Gratuities were always good for business.

     *   Click video for Jumbo's History

The Beacon Herald expounded about country residents setting aside plows to go to town, "drawn irresistibly by the aggregated wonders which the greatest showman of the time presents under canvas." All roads were reportedly filled with conveyances headed for Stratford. The weather was fine and excitement was high. On Sunday, crowds hung around watching the tents being pitched, alongside preparation of meals for the army of employees.

Dense crowds lined sidewalks along the procession route. At 10 0'clock the "Free Street Parade" appeared from Queen's Park, moved along the main streets and returned to the starting point. Included were a bandwagon drawn by eight horses, three open cages of big cats along with trainers, a procession of elephants, camels, small ponies and a steam organ. A new feature, a bell-ringing instrument manipulated from a keyboard was "unless our ears are mistaken, yet capable of much improvement."

The parade was advertised to start at 8 a.m. Having arrived in town at 4 a.m., perhaps everyone needed a short respite before the spectacle commenced. five performances were scheduled with reserved seats available at the Beacon office for an unspecified fee. Not every newspaper gave rousing accounts of the performances. The Listowel Standard of Sept. 16, 1887 commented "we think on this occasion a great many expected to see a great deal more than they did, and were consequently disappointed." Attendance was estimated by the Standard to have been upwards of 20,000 people. Perhaps the Stratford papers got it right after all.

Circuses were the rock concerts of the 1800s. These spectacles continued to fascinate all ages well into the 20th century until the allure of strange and outlandish attractions faded.