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Curtis Eriksmoen, Published June 22 2013

Eriksmoen: Fargo native, lawyer credited with saving nation’s circus industry

The circus industry in North Dakota has provided entertainment and enjoyment to the state’s residents for more than 100 years.

During the 23 years that circuses first traveled to the state, from 1883 to 1905, they performed only in towns and cities along the main routes of the Northern Pacific (NPRR) and Great Northern (GNRR) railroads, which today correspond with the routes of Interstates 29 and 94.

People who lived in Fargo, Valley City, Jamestown, Bismarck, Dickinson, Wahpeton, Grand Forks, Grafton and Pembina had multiple occasions to attend a circus in their community, but other North Dakotans had to travel long distances to have that opportunity.

By 1906, many of the branch lines of GNRR and NPRR had been completed, and the Soo Line was becoming established in many rural areas. That year, the Gollmar Brothers Circus went to North Dakota, and besides putting on shows in the usual places, they also came to Carrington, Cando, Rugby, Devils Lake, Lakota, Langdon and Mayville – a list that grew over the next few years.

The Gollmar Circus suffered a big loss on June 21, 1908, when its train hit another train head-on just outside of Medina. Much of the equipment was destroyed, and 24 animals were killed.

From 1883 to 1900, nine different circuses performed in North Dakota, with Ringling Brothers being the most active by coming six times.

During the first decade of the 20th century, 10 circuses crisscrossed the state, with the Ringling Brothers and Gollmar Brothers both venturing to North Dakota four times.

The second decade was the golden age of the circus in North Dakota, especially in the five years before World War I. In 1912 and 1916, four different circuses toured the state. There were five in 1914, six in 1913 and seven in 1915. Seventeen different circuses came to the state during the decade.

The major circus putting on shows in North Dakota at the time was the Al G. Barnes Circus, making stops in the state during six years of the second decade. The Yankee Robinson Show was here five times and Ringling Brothers and Gollmar Brothers each appeared four times.

Circus activity slowed down after the first World War. In no year since the war has more than three different major circuses appeared in North Dakota.

Many circuses went out of business and others merged. In 1919, the Ringling Brothers purchased their main competitor, Barnum and Bailey. Costs increased dramatically for circus rental space as suburbs began to appear, eliminating the cheap rental areas adjacent to cities. Because of the growth of unions, wages for all types of labor increased regardless if the workers were with a union.

Attendance also declined as people found other forms of entertainment. Motion pictures and radio became popular, and baseball had become the national past-time.

The Great Depression hit the remaining circuses very hard. From 1931 to 1934, there were no circus performances in North Dakota.

A Fargo native stepped in and is credited with almost single-handedly saving the industry: Melvin Hildreth Jr., a powerful and influential lawyer in Washington, D.C.

Hildreth was born in Fargo in 1890 to a highly successful attorney who went on to become U.S. District Attorney. Mel Jr. grew up in Fargo and became fascinated with the circus whenever it came to town.

As a youngster, he organized his own circus with several friends, which he ran for five years. With gymnastic acts and a wide array of stuffed animals, Hildreth was able to command admission prices of five cents per person.

He obtained his law degree from Columbia University in 1916 and joined his father’s law office in Fargo. During World War I, Hildreth was decorated for bravery and, shortly after his discharge, became a law professor at Howard University in Washington.

In the late 1920s, Hildreth founded the organization, Circus Fans of America and was elected president. With the onset of the Great Depression, circus owners began contacting him asking what could be done to try to keep them solvent.

First, Hildreth would look at their tour schedule and frequently make suggestions for a different route that would be more profitable. Three circus owners (Robbins Brothers, Cole Brothers, and Hagegbeck-Wallace) followed his advice and re-routed their tour through Canada.

Hildreth worked with circus owners to try to obtain loan assistance from the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, and in 1931, he attended the formation meeting for a “Fair Trade Practices Agreement” in Washington to make certain that “circuses and other overland traveling amusements got a fair shake.”

He often represented the circuses “pro bono” in legal matters and was known to provide circus owners with trucks, a new marquee and fresh paint jobs on all equipment.

Hildreth was not able to save all of the circuses, but he certainly made a difference during the Great Depression.

Next week we will conclude our history of the circus in North Dakota.

“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 atcjeriksmoen@cableone.net.