Curt Eriksmoen, Published July 06 2013
Did You Know That: Many famous North Dakotans worked for circuses
A few were actively recruited by a circus or Wild West show. Some saw this as a way to display a special sort of talent. Others joined because of the adventure and excitement, and some used this opportunity to get away from home. But most joined because they needed the money.
Most circus employees were not performers but general laborers needed to set up and tear down the tents and exhibits, feed and tend to the animals, and provide security. The general term for these workers was “roustabout.”
Circuses, carnivals and Wild West shows were a major employer in the U.S., providing work for nearly 100,000 people per year during the first half of the 20th century. The largest, Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey, employed about 1,500 people a year.
The first noted person from what is now North Dakota to work for a circus was Sitting Bull, who was a headliner for Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show in 1885.
T?at?á?ka Íyotake, a.k.a. Sitting Bull, was a Hunkpapa Lakota Sioux spiritual leader who, as a tribal chief, led his people against the policies of the U.S. government. He was given much of the credit for defeating the forces of Col. George Armstrong Custer at the Battle of the Little Big Horn in 1876 and continued to gain American recognition by eluding the soldiers sent out to capture him and his followers.
In 1881, Sitting Bull surrendered and was sent to the Standing Rock Agency where he was regarded as a prisoner.
Cody, who knew Sitting Bull, worked to obtain his temporary release to travel with his Wild West show. The tribal leader helped draw large crowds for whom he would ride around the arena on his horse.
Although he was paid only $50 a week, Sitting Bull proved to be an astute businessman by selling pictures and autographs to the masses who attended the show. After four months with Cody, he returned to Standing Rock, where he was killed by Indian police four years later.
According to my records, the second person to join the circus who would make a name for himself in North Dakota was John Baer.
Baer grew up in Appleton, Wis., and became known for stunts he performed on his bicycle.
In 1904, he enrolled at Lawrence College and performed with the Gollmar Brothers Circus during summer breaks. With Gollmar, Baer did trick bicycle riding to earn money to help pay for his college education.
In 1909, Baer moved to Beach, N.D., where he managed the city’s public water system. He was also a skilled artist and began drawing political cartoons for publications of the Nonpartisan League.
In 1917, he was elected to the U.S. Congress, the youngest person in North Dakota ever to hold that office. He was re-elected in 1918 but lost in 1920. Baer then became famous as a political cartoonist for a national publication.
In 1911, a teenage runaway from Brooklyn, going by the name of Richard Hart, joined a circus in Wichita, Kan., as a roustabout and traveled throughout the U.S. and Central America.
It was Hart’s ambition to become a circus marksman, and he spent hours shooting circus pistols at cans and bottles acquiring the nickname “Two-Gun” Hart. He left the circus to enlist in the U.S. Army during World War I.
After his discharge, Hart became a federal agent who was responsible for enforcing Prohibition laws on the Winnebago Indian Reservation in northeastern Nebraska. In 1925, he became a Prohibition agent on the Standing Rock Reservation.
Hart concealed his real identity until 1951 when it was revealed that his real name was Vincenzio Capone, the oldest brother of Al “Scarface” Capone.
Harold Bachman was a child protégé on the coronet in rural Renville County. His musical ability was widely recognized, and the leader of the band at the North Dakota Agricultural College, now NDSU, recruited him to play as his chief musician while Bachman was still in high school. When Clarence Putnam, the conductor of the NDAC band, became ill in 1910, Bachman filled in as conductor.
During the summers of 1913 and 1914, Bachman joined the Al G. Barnes circus band.
During World War I, he formed “the first engineering band with any field regiment in the U.S. Army.” Bachman’s band was so successful at increasing the morale of the fighting troops in Europe that it was named the Million Dollar Band. After the war, the band won accolades in the U.S. and became a mainstay on national radio.
John Aasen grew up in Sheyenne, New Rockford, and Leeds, N.D. He had a malfunction of his pituitary gland and soared to the height of 8-foot-9. From 1916 to 1919, Aasen was the featured giant of the Sells Floto Circus. From 1920 to 1922, he became the highest-paid performer with Charles A. Wortham’s traveling carnival.
He was with the Rhoenix Carnival Company in Hawaii from 1924 to 1925, the Rubin & Cherry Shows in 1925, and the Dutton Circus from 1926 to 1927.
In the late 1920s and early 30s, Aasen became the most famous movie giant, appearing in pictures with Harold Lloyd, W. C. Fields, Laurel and Hardy, and the Our Gang ensemble. His declining health forced him to retire at an early age, and Aasen died in 1938 at the age of 48.
Next week, we will examine the lives and careers of more fascinating people who lived in North Dakota who worked with the circus.
“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 firstname.lastname@example.org.