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Curtis Eriksmoen, Published June 16 2013

Eriksmoen: Towns, regions came together when the circus came to ND

For 130 years, the circus has provided entertainment for the residents of North Dakota.

During the early years of circus performances in this state, the majority of a town and its surrounding region would turn out to witness some aspect of the festivities created by the circus.

A typical circus morning would include a parade led by the circus band and followed by elephants, caged animals, clowns and circus performers that would proceed down the main streets of the town.

Afterward, people would gather at the fairgrounds or an area designated for the circus where exhibits, exotic animals, concessions, rides, gaming events and other curiosity items were available.

The first performances under the big-top were held in the early afternoon. With breaks in-between performances, the shows would continue until about 10 p.m.

The term “circus” began in ancient Rome when chariot races, gladiatorial combats and other spectacles were held in an amphitheater called the Circus Maximus. The American circus started in the 1830s when showman P.T. Barnum put up a tent in a town and provided shows.

After the day’s last performance, he would have the tent torn down and then travel to the next town to put on more performances. These shows often consisted of acrobatic exhibitions, oddities and trained animals.

As Barnum’s menagerie of acts and animals increased, he needed larger wagons to haul his acts and animals from town to town. This meant that the places where Barnum and his rivals held circus events needed to be close together, and the roads between those towns had to be in good condition.

The coming of the railroad allowed circus owners to greatly expand the territory where their shows could be held. On Oct. 18, 1882, the bridge between Bismarck and Mandan was completed, and trains moving across northern Dakota Territory were available, as well as a north-south rail travel along the Red River.

According to my research, W. W. Cole was the first circus to come to North Dakota. Its first stop was July 10, 1883, in Jamestown, followed by Bismarck, Valley City, Fargo and Grand Forks on each succeeding day.

William Washington Cole began his circus career in 1871 and later changed the name to the Cole Brothers Circus, which still is in existence.

Regarding their 1883 performance in Bismarck, the editor of the Tribune wrote, “Such crowds as flocked to the immense city of canvas were never before seen in the capitol city, the large circus tent proper being filled at each performance with a delighted audience.”

In 1884, the small (one-ring) Harris Nickel Plate Circus performed June 13 in Bismarck, and the larger (two-rings) Sells Brothers Circus was hosted June 17 in Grand Forks, June 18 in Fargo and June 19 in Wahpeton.

The Fargo Argus reported that on the afternoon of June 18, 6,000 people were in attendance at the first show. Fargo’s population at the time was 10,000.

The first large (three-ring) circus to come to North Dakota was Barnum & Bailey’s “Greatest Show on Earth,” when they entertained the residents of Fargo on Aug. 18, 1888.

The circus occupied 64 railroad cars when it entered Fargo. The Argus reported on the time and work that went into making this event possible.

Three months before the circus arrived, the railroad agent for the circus traveled the route, making certain the height of all railroad bridges and tunnels was sufficient, and he then negotiated with railroad officials to obtain the lowest possible rates for transporting the circus.

He was followed by a booking agent who secured hotel and/or other living accommodations, a permit for a location to pitch the large tent, a license from the city to host the circus, contracts for billboards to be printed and displayed, and provisions for food.

Ten days before the show, a large, brightly painted advertising railroad car pulled into town with people aboard who had been granted permission to display posters. The car also contained a large steam calliope that played music, causing people to gather, who were then told about the upcoming circus.

Finally, advertising men on horseback traveled throughout the countryside slipping fliers under the doors of every rural inhabitant for miles around.

While Barnum & Bailey concentrated more on the larger eastern cities in the U.S. and Canada and frequently ventured to Europe, a competitor arrived on the scene in 1884.

The Ringling brothers of Baraboo, Wis., founded their own circus. It was reported, “by the late 1880s, the Ringling Brothers Circus had established itself as one of the largest and best-run circuses in the country.”

In 1889, they purchased railroad cars and parade equipment and were ready to put their show on the road.

In June 1891, Ringling Brothers Circus shows were performed in Wahpeton, Fargo, Grafton and Grand Forks. In June 1892, they were in Fargo, Grafton and Grand Forks. In 1893, they appeared in Pembina, Grand Forks, Grafton and Lisbon. After a two-year absence, the Ringling Brothers returned in June 1896 with shows in Fargo, Grafton and Grand Forks.

In 1897, they performed in Devils Lake, Grand Forks, Fargo and Wahpeton. While in Wahpeton, the circus experienced its first fatalities.

During the early morning hours while workers were putting up the big-top, a severe thunderstorm arose, and lightning struck the center pole, where 22 men were working. All of the employees were injured, and two men were killed instantly. A third man later died.

Money was gathered, and a stone replica, made in the image of the shattered pole, was placed in the Wahpeton cemetery, where the bodies also were buried.

It is reported that circus workers and performers frequently visit this site.

(We will continue our story about the circus in North Dakota next week.)


“Did You Know That” is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen of Fargo. Send your suggestions for columns, comments or corrections to the Eriksmoens at cjeriksmoen@cableone.net.