When the Circus Came to Town
(written by Megan of the Archives Staff)
Circus wagons, animals, clowns, acrobats and the big top. These words embody the traveling shows that traveled the United States first by wagon or boat, and later by railroad, and made many stops over the years in La Crosse.
Undated photograph (perhaps 1920-30’s) of spectators entering the big top
In one early newspaper story, dated August 20, 1861, in the Tri-Weekly Democrat, Dan Rice’s circus troupe had a problem with their 4,000 pound trained rhinoceros on Monday, August 11th. The steamer carrying the Rice troupe from Prairie du Chein to La Crosse was jostled by the wake of another steamer and in the scuffle the cage holding the rhinoceros was knocked into the Mississippi River. The editor of the Democrat, Mark "Brick" Pomeroy, decided to embellish the story and claimed that no one found any sign of the big critter.
Pomeroy went on to claim that by Saturday of that week, at a slough about 5 miles south of La Crosse, the rhinoceros had taken up living there and was coming out of the water to eat in a farmer’s cornfield. The animal frightened some men who were working in the cornfield that Saturday. A later story, on August 30th, described how several men, including an agent of Dan Rice, captured the rhinoceros and brought him to La Crosse. He was housed in a stone stable while a cage was made. After that was accomplished he would be sent to join the circus troupe in Milwaukee (if that rhinoceros knew what a Wisconsin winter was like, he’d have been happy to be captured).
If you read accounts in other La Crosse newspapers, the truth of the story was much more somber: the rhino drowned. However, "Brick's" story spread as gospel out east.
Other La Crosse newspapers noted other visiting circuses. In June 1885 a crowd of 12,000 attended the Sells Brothers Circus and street parade and in July 1887 the Sells Brothers circus set up at the State Street grounds (near the current location of 17th Street and State Street).
Barnum’s greatest show on earth set up their mammoth tents on the State Street grounds in September 1886 and had a street parade. In July 1899 the Ringling Brothers circus set up near the baseball park (about where 1812 West Avenue South is today) with 12 acres of tents, 300 performers, 500 horses, and 25 elephants.
For more information about historical happens in La Crosse please come down to the La Crosse Public Library Archives.