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Curtis Eriksmoen, Published July 14 2013

Circuses, carnivals, 'Wild West' shows featured N.D. natives

A number of interesting individuals who lived in North Dakota found employment in various circuses, “Wild West” shows, and carnivals.

Last week, we described the circus employment of Sitting Bull, John Baer, Two-Gun Hart, Harold Bachman and John Aasen. Let us look at a few more.

In 1922, Hans Langseth, a farmer in Richland County, N.D., was judged to have the world’s longest beard, which measured 17 feet 4 inches. For a short time, he was showcased in the Ringling Brothers Circus, but quit to return to his farm and real estate business.

In 1924, Louis L’Amour, an aspiring writer from Jamestown, N.D., found himself in Phoenix in need of a job. On Oct. 13, the Hagenbeck and Wallace Circus came to town and hired L’Amour as a roustabout. He was soon given the position of elephant handler, but left after three weeks because he “found the life tough and other circus workers uncivilized.” L’Amour later became a famous author of Western novels and short stories, several of which were made into movies and television shows.

After graduating from college in 1926, Cliff Thompson, from rural Pierce County, N.D., wanted to go into teaching, but at 8 feet 6 inches tall, he realized he could make more money as a circus giant. Thompson was hired by the Royal American Show and billed as “Count Olof.” In 1930, he left Royal American and was hired by the Al G. Barnes Circus. Three years later, he went to work for the Cole Brothers Circus. In 1939, Thompson got married, and he and his wife set up their home in Milwaukee, where he was employed as a promoter for a local brewing company. He then attended law school at Marquette University and, in 1944, became the world’s tallest attorney.

After attending the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus in Jamestown, young Vernon Liedtke, from rural Kidder County, N.D., knew he wanted to be in the circus. In 1927, he joined the Orton Brothers Circus as a roustabout. They later used him as a clown and he also played in the circus band. After marrying Gracie Orton, the great granddaughter of the founder of the circus, Liedtke “learned the art of the trapeze” and developed his own act on the “sway pole” doing “handstands and other acrobatic feats” 100 feet in the air. Because of the Great Depression, the Orton Brothers disbanded their circus in 1932, and Liedtke went to work for the Shrine Circus. In 1950, he joined the Bertram Mills Circus in England, where he remained until a fall from the pole claimed his life in 1957.

Owen Mickel, born in Emmons County, N.D., was known professionally as Montie Montana. He was considered the “world’s greatest trick rope artist” when he joined the Al G. Barnes Circus in 1933. After a year with Barnes, Montana went on to appear in movies, perform rope tricks at state fairs, and become a headliner in other promotional endeavors. In the early 1970s, he resurrected the Buffalo Bill Wild West Show with his son Montie Jr.

James Zaharee, who was raised on a farm near Max, N.D., achieved fame by becoming the world’s most amazing miniature writer. In the mid-1930s, he wrote the entire Declaration of Independence on one side of a grain of rice and the Gettysburg Address on a single strand of hair. In 1937, he joined Max Goodman’s Wonder Show. Except for his time spent with the Marines during World War II, Zaharee remained with Goodman until the late 1940s.

In 1938, young Peggy Lee was working as a cook and waitress in a cafe in Balboa, Calif. After her employment was over, the only work she could find was as a barker at a nearby carnival. Lee later achieved fame as a popular singer, first with the big bands and eventually on her own.

Dick Brisben grew up in Jamestown. Despite the fact that his left arm was only a stub and his right arm was shortened at the elbow, he learned to type and play the electric organ. In 1960, he was hired by the Ward Hall Sideshow. Because Brisben’s ankles were connected directly to his hips, he waddled as he walked and was billed as the “Penguin Boy.” He became a main attraction with Ward Hall for 27 years and looked at his handicap as an opportunity that allowed him to purchase a nice home in southern California.

In 1979, Mike Burck, a resident of Hillsboro, N.D., dropped out of the University of North Dakota to earn money as keeper of the tigers for the Shrine Circus. At the time, his older brother, Wade, was a famous tiger trainer for the circus. After a couple of years with the circus, Mike quit and jokingly commented, “My mother only raised one fool.”

Next week we will highlight the remarkable career of Wade Burck.

“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.