In LaPorte, the circus has come to town since the 1800s

barnum spaciousplanet

An early Barnum & Bailey poster, courtesy of

   Like so many towns across the nation, LaPorte has hosted its share of circuses — some well over a century ago.

   Mary Blair, an early resident, recalled that circus grounds were located at the head of Madison Street in an orchard located roughly between A and B streets and fernFirst and Second streets. She said some shows dated back to at least the 1840s — primarily small units that traveled by horse-and-wagon caravans.

   In the LaPorte County Whig issue of May 12, 1849, an article stated that “Mabie’s Circus exhibited here on Wednesday last and we understand that the receipts were hardly sufficient to meet expenses and tax bills.” That circus was organized in 1840 by Ed and Jere Mabie, with Seth B. Howes as manager. It traveled with 50-75 horses and sold out in 1860 to Adam Forepaugh, who later had a renowned circus that played several times in LaPorte.

   Martin F. Barlag, a local resident, wrote some of his reminiscences of circuses in LaPorte. He said the circus would come into town by train and be sidetracked on what was known as the “team track,” so called because local Teamsters would be hired to transport the wagons from the siding to the show grounds. This track was a siding of the Lake Erie & Western Railroad, located east of Tipton Street parallel to the New York Central tracks.

   His recollections were of the wagons beginning their trek to the show ground at daybreak. First to be moved was the Big Top. The wagons containing the animals and the steam calliope would not be moved until time for the Big Parade. The parade started down Main Street (now Lincolnway), escorted far in advance by the blare of the calliope. The parade route was Main Street to Tyler, then to E Street to the fairgrounds (now the site of LaPorte High School). There were generally two performances, afternoon and evening.

   Since the time of Phineas Taylor Barnum, the American circus has been a popular form of amusement. Originally it consisted of one ring and perhaps six performers, but it grew to three or four rings with as many as 3,000 people. Before circus companies owned their own railroad trains excluding the engine, they traveled in teams.

   Information promoting the circuses appeared in local newspapers. In 1858, Dan Rice introduced the “Herd of Sacred Cattle,” the “Charge of the Mamalukes” and the “Blind Talking Horse.” Satterlee, Bell & Co., also in 1858, offered T.W. Tucker, “the Greatest Contortionist or India Rubber Man Now in the World.” Oliver Bell did “a daring and perilous act of jumping through a hoop of steel daggers.”

Adam Forepaugh

An 1887 Adam Forepaugh Circus advertisement. (courtesy

   In 1867, Yankee Robinson brought his “Colossal Moral Exhibition” of nine shows to LaPorte, featuring a Consolidated Menagerie. Van Amburgh & Company came in 1871 with his Great Golden Menagerie and grand pageant one mile in length. He advertised that “aside from the absence of anything immoral, it furnishes interests to everyone.” G.G. Grady’s “Great American Circus Mammoth Menagerie and Gratuitous Balloon Exposition” was in town in 1873. It advertised having “800 men, horses, beasts and birds.”

   Adam Forepaugh brought his Great Centennial Show to LaPorte in 1876. It was “beyond precedent and belief in actual magnitude.” It was under eight center pole tents — classic, moral and refined. They offered comfortable seats with back and foot rests at the small sum of 25 cents each. His show returned in 1877 and 1882. In 1882, he offered a street show. By then gambling had raised its ugly head and he warned that “under no circumstances are games of chance or gambling permitted on the grounds.” Mr. Forepaugh suggested the proper “authorities join in the suppression of the prevalent vice.”

   Sells Bros. brought the 8-foot Giant, Little People, The Dog-Faced Man, The Wild Man of Borneo, and Last of the Montezumans among 1,000 Wonderful and Curious Freaks in 1885. They also had 12 kinds of music. Ringling Bros. appeared in 1893 and again in 1896 with a Large and Living Giraffe and a Golden Steam Calliope. On July 1, 1905, five long trains of double-length cars of Barnum & Bailey’s Greatest Show on Earth unloaded in the Lake Shore yards.

   Many circuses came to town later, also. Ringling Bros. & Barnum & Bailey arrived Aug. 1, 1946. The three-ring Cole Bros. Circus appeared on the circus grounds on Philadelphia Street opposite the former state highway building in 1947. It featured Baby Dorothy, the youngest elephant ever imported to this country.

   Those are just a sampling of early circus events in LaPorte, with later circuses using the Civic Auditorium as their “grounds.”

FERN EDDY SCHULTZ is LaPorte County’s official Historian. Visit the LaPorte County Historical Society Museum, 2405 Indiana Ave., and its website,, to learn much more about LaPorte County’s history.

2 Responses to “In LaPorte, the circus has come to town since the 1800s”

  1. Jon Beach

    Jan 24. 2011

    There will be a Circus in LaPorte next month too at the Civic Auditorium. LaPorte Shrine circus is back.

    Reply to this comment
  2. Rory Cubel

    Mar 21. 2011

    I remember our father walking us to a circus big top tent back when I was about 6 years old in 1955. The tent was set up at the site of the present day LaPorte High School. Back then, it was a crab grass ridden field of mud, after a rain. I barely remember the trapeze artists and clowns.There was the smell of popcorn and straw. It was,I believe, one of the last appearances of Barnum & Bailey Circus under an outdoor tent, that year.

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