The Circus

Original Airdate: May 17 (2010)

This is Living Stories, featuring voices from the collections of the Baylor University Institute for Oral History. I'm Kim Patterson.

In the early to mid-1900s in Waco, circuses were the stuff of children's dreams and stirred excitement from the moment they rolled into town.

Charles Armstrong recalls circus members on Seventeenth Street, when they were performing on the Cotton Palace grounds:

"By the corner, they had a fireplug right behind where Safeway store is right now—old Safeway store. And had a fireplug, and they'd water the elephants and water the animals and carry the water to the circus ground[s] from there. And we could see all from our house."

Helen Geltemeyer remembers thinking about the Big Top while a student at Bell's Hill School:

"I always wanted to go to the circus when [it] came to town. Never did. But we had a lot of trees along on Cleveland [Avenue] side there where we could sit. They had little benches around the tree. And I decided I'd show them how the clowns would jump off of this bench. Brother, I felt like my arm went through my body, and they had to take me into the—the cafeteria and put ice on it. But I—I really did think I was smart."

Wilbert Hutchinson grew up on First Street and tells about his front-row seat to the circus:

"We lived right in front of the railroad, and I remember passenger trains coming. Like I say, we stayed in this big old house, and it had what they call banisters around there, and we would climb up on them. And we would holler and wave at these peoples when we hear. And when a circus came to town, they done all their unloading right in front of us house. And we got to see all the animal[s]. Even if we didn't make it to the circus and my dad didn't have no money to go, we got to watch all the animals. We come out and we stand there on the porch, and we watch all the unloading taking place."

Circuses could not sneak into town, not that they wanted to, as Thomas Wayne Harvey describes:

"I can remember the steam engine trains coming in here with boxcars, fifty and sixty long, in behind two different trains. And they'd set them off on the sidings down there, and they'd take the elephants to pull the wagons that had the lions and the tigers and all the other various animals. And the deals had iron wheels with rubber on it—not tires but hard rubber on it. It was odd to see the animals walk, pull, and do all these things that was done, and the calliope would go down the street whistling its tune, you know.

"They'd go down Eleventh. At that time, Eleventh Street went all the way through—it was no I-35—and it went all the way through to La Salle. They'd go out there to Eleventh Street, in between Eleventh and Fifteenth on La Salle on the far side of the street. They'd set up camp over there on about—oh, about fifty or seventy-five acres over there. I've seen the circuses come in here, and I'd be down at midnight when they'd start unloading and watch them until—you know, you just fall asleep watching them."

Since the early 1900s, circuses worldwide have struggled to stand out amid other entertainment options—namely movies, radio, and television. And in more recent years, animal rights activists have challenged the treatment of animals in circus exhibitions. But the circus has survived and continues as a memorable childhood experience.

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