Skip to content

REMEMBER THIS: The greatest show on Earth

Mary Harris looks back at a time when Barrie was a regular stop for some of the biggest circus shows

In his reminiscences penned for the Barrie Examiner, Fred Grant, the well-travelled newspaper man and notable Barrie historian once wrote that there existed an unofficial school holiday during his boyhood in the 1870s. Absences on circus day were ignored, as no boy would likely turn up anyway.

When the railway made its way to Barrie, it brought the world with it. Each summer, the most extravagant and thrilling of the American circus shows arrived in our town and created a great deal of excitement.

Ahead of the show, large and ostentatious ads would appear in the local newspapers and feature eye-catching drawings along with the most flowery adjectives imaginable. In August 1863, L.B. Lent advertised that he would be arriving in Barrie with his “New Monster Equescurriculum.”

Lent, like other showmen before him and after, brought several different exhibitors with him and presented them all under “one pavilion.” That summer, the circus goers of Barrie were treated to a variety of acts that included a troupe of acting bears, a sacred bull from Hindustan, performing dogs and monkeys, leaping buffaloes and the usual acrobats and clowns.

In the years that followed, all of the major circus acts of the continent made a stop in Barrie. From the productions of Levi North, Dan Rice, I.C. Taylor and John ‘Pogey’ O’Brien, all the way to Barnum and Bailey, each circus extravaganza was more sensational than the last.

Young lads had begged extra chores from their mothers or rummaged through their neighbourhood to collect bits of scrap metal to sell in order to raise the 25 cents necessary to buy a circus ticket. An extra 10 cents would get them lemonade and popped corn.

For no charge at all, the unloading of the rail cars was a spectacle in itself. What followed was a parade from the railway station through the streets of Barrie to the circus venue.

In earlier days, circus acts managed to find their way to Barrie over country roads by way of wagon convoys pulled by elephants, horses and mules. Queen’s Park was an idea location due to its proximity to two creeks. Legend has it that the beasts of burden could temporarily lower the water level of Kidd’s Creek with their thirst.

Circus fever lasted beyond the actual event, according to Grant. Local children were keen to keep the fun times going by organizing backyard circuses of their own. They created menageries of chickens, dogs and mice, enlisted friends who could perform a cartwheel and sometimes sent a cat off the roof of a woodshed with their mother’s Sunday parasol as a parachute.

Circus day in Barrie really was a big deal back then and it is quite amazing to think that the most famous names in circus history made visits to this community. By the 1880s, sideshow acts had become somewhat of a bigger draw than the animal acts.

In 1885, Krao, the living missing link came to town with the John B. Doris Circus. Presented as a “specimen of Darwinian theory,” she was actually a nine-year-old Laotian girl with the condition known as hypertrichosis where the body is covered with hair.

Waino and Plutanor, billed as the Wild Men of Borneo, made at least one appearance in town. They were tiny, at about 40 inches tall and 45 pounds each, but immensely strong. Their backstory detailed their capture in Borneo after a fierce battle with armed sailors. In reality, they were Hiram and Barney Davis, mentally disabled brothers from Ohio.

Requiring no cooked-up backstory were Anna Swan and Martin Van Buren Bates. Anna was born in Nova Scotia in 1846, weighing 16 pounds at birth, and grew rapidly from there. On her 12th birthday, she was six-foot-five. This unusually tall woman was seven-foot-11 when she joined the circus.

In 1871, Anna Swan married Martin Van Buren Bates, the nearly eight-foot Kentucky Giant. The pair, billed accurately as the tallest couple in the world, toured the world together.

Barrie also saw the likes of Annie Oakley, Buffalo Bill, JoJo the Dog faced Boy and Colonel Tom Thumb over the years.

In one of the usual post circus newspaper reviews, a Barrie reporter quipped that the three-headed girl act was not exactly as advertised but, on the whole, the circus had been quite good.

Reader Feedback

Mary Harris

About the Author: Mary Harris

Mary Harris is the Director of History and Research at the Barrie Historical Archive. The Barrie Historical Archive is a free, online archive that centralizes Barrie's historical content.
Read more