Tuesday, January 3, 2012

The Belles of Sellsville

The Adam Forepaugh and Sells Brothers Combined Circuses toured small towns and large towns from Easter to Thanksgiving. The Sells brothers started in 1872. They continued until 1907, criss-crossing the country and competing with the Ringling Brothers, and Barnum and Bailey.

The Sells brothers, Peter, Ephraim, and Lewis, built it to house their circus, and had their homes nearby. Until the Ringlings established the now famous Sarasota winter quarters, most circuses wintered in the north, in the home towns of circus owners. So the location is a tribute to Northern ingenuity and showmanship.

Their winter home, Sellsville, sprawled westward from the Olentangy River in the King Avenue area of Grandview. There were living quarters, barns, corrals, sheds, rehearsal rings, and stockades. There was even the “Polka-Dot School” for the children of circus workers both black and white.

I have the 1898 Route Book, written by one Frank O. Miller. His photograph is in the gallery of the Editorial Staff, a callow youth billed as the Press Agent. He has elaborate descriptions in the front of the book, gets pithier, and then has nothing to say toward the end.

Forepaugh was a horse trader from Philadelphia, also known as Vorbach. He was the first to erect a second tent and call it a menagerie. He was also the first to paint an elephant white and call it the “Light of Asia.”

Here are some of the comments that made about the female member of the troupe;

Harper, Kansas, July 26, 1898. “The weather is beastly hot. Big business in afternoon, fair at night. The elephant, Topsy, created a little excitement, while placing cages in the menagerie after the parade. She was frightened by the appearance of a chicken under the side wall and came near to going on a rampage. Our Sunday dinner had a narrow escape.”

Seneca. Kansas, August 20,1898. “Very warm day. Big business. A peculiar accident happened last night while the trains were en route. The door of Car 38 became unfastened and Florence, the fine and costly California mare, fell out on the railroad right of way. Strange enough she was not injured the slightest and was brought to camp early this morning by Watchman Clark, looking none the worse for her singular experience.”

Here is his description of the performer Madame Yucca; “How many people can lift a horse? Madame Yucca can, moreover, she can suspend an elephant in the air, greatly to the astonishment and wonder of myriads of people.” Strangely, he adds, “The permanent address of Madame Yucca is N.Y. Clipper.”

The last Belle of Sellsville I’ll mention is never named except for “Major Ray’s wife.” But here is her description; “She is twenty-seven years of age, weighs thirty-eight pounds, and is thirty-seven inches high. She is a product of Illinois. When not on exhibition Major Ray and his wife enjoy the fruits of their labors on a two hundred acre Missouri farm, of which they are the proud possessors.” The photo shows that Major Ray and his wife match in size.

So, no winter quarters in Sellsville housed Madame Yucca or the minute Major Ray family. But I’ll bet Topsy and Florence spent time in Grandview.

Christine Hayes

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