The Star Beacon; Ashtabula, Ohio

February 19, 2012

Sir Henry’s last ride

Horse monument harks back to time when the Windsor area was home to the mud circus

Staff Writer

— For more than 120 years, a white marble circus horse has stood in Windsor Township as reminder of both the glory days of mud circuses and a tragic romance.

The horse thus memorialized is Sir Henry, the star of the Hamilton and Sargent New York Circus. An inscription at the base of the monument reads “Sir Henry, The Champion Trick Horse.” His front legs rest upon a stone basket, a cutaway of which reveals a sleeping pug dog. Legend has it that the dog, whose name was not recorded by history, slept in Sir Henry’s stable and was his constant companion.

The carver of this monument is documented as Howard A. Brigden, a Mesopotamia artist. Born in 1841, Brigden was a Civil War veteran, among the first men from Trumbull County to enlist in the Union Army upon the beginning of the hostilities. One of Brigden’s early sculpture projects was a monument to the Civil War dead. Working with his mentor, Walter Supple, Brigden carved the eagle that tops the monument, which still stands on the Mesopotamia village green.

Nearby, in the Fairview Cemetery, many examples of Brigden’s stone carving skills mark the graves of cherished citizens. The most poignant of these stands as a memorial to Dio L. Reynolds. Dio was 6 when he died from a fall out of an apple tree. His dog was inconsolable, and for weeks lay under the tree, his paws holding fast to Dio’s hat.

Brigden’s carving captures in stone that heart-breaking love between a dog and his master.

The Sir Henry monument appears to be part of a greater body of circus-inspired art. In Bristolville 11 years ago, a cut-stone lion attributed to Brigden brought a whopping $75,000 at auction. Not all art historians were convinced, however, that the lion was Brigden’s work.

A Plain Dealer Magazine article published Nov. 30, 1947, tells of a visit with Marshall Hamilton’s daughter, Zella Newshuler, who lived on Route 45 in Orwell. The reporter stated that stone animals once belonging to a local circus man were placed on the front yard of the house every summer. It’s possible, therefore, that Sir Henry was just one of several animals from Hamilton’s circus thus honored in stone. Was the Bristolville lion one of these gone astray?

An article written in the 1960s for the Ashtabula County Historical Society makes an intriguing mention of a “lovely old painting of the white circus horse” hanging in he home of Newshuler, who was a bookkeeper for the Hilliard circus. The article also confirms that the circus animals carved in stone and wood were those from the Hamilton circus.

The Sir Henry monument is not dated. “Artists in Ohio, 1787-1900,” has an entry for Brigden and dates the Sir Henry monument to 1871, after the beloved horse died following a performance. But there are other references that suggest Sir Henry did not leave this life until as late as 1887 and that the monument was carved while he was still alive.

The story of Sir Henry’s owner is about as murky as the date of the monument. “Professor” Elwood Hamilton came onto the Windsor scene some time after 1860. By 1874 he was well established in the township. A map from that year shows Hamilton owning dozens of acres of land along what is Route 322 today. Hamilton also owned property with a person named Hoskins; all of Hamilton’s property holdings were near or along the county line.

The 1878 “Williams Brothers History of Ashtabula County” pays homage to the professor with a full-page line drawing of his Windsor Township real estate.

The drawing depicts a home, spacious barn and numerous smaller farm buildings, plus, the monument of Sir Henry on the front lawn. An inset shows a round top circus and a team of eight speckled horses pulling a huge, ornate wagon loaded with a circus band.

Frustratingly, despite devoting an entire page to a drawing of his home and circus, not one word is given to a biography. Circus owners did not demand the respect of historians that lawyers, farmers, doctors and pioneers garnered in those pages.

The 1880 Census provides a picture of Hamilton and his family at that point. He was 48 and his occupation was “proprietor of a circus.” His wife, 25, was Josephine, and they had two children. Evaline, 14, was born to another wife, in Massachusetts. Elwood and Josephine had a daughter, Belle, 10. A son, Frank, would be born to them after the census.

For a sense of Hamilton’s circus enterprise, we must turn to Walter L. Main, the king of Ashtabula County’s circus industry (see Odd Tales of the previous three Sundays). In the 1870s, when Main was growing up in Trumbull County, several mud circuses existed in the southern part of the county — they were called “mud” because that was their typical operating venue. One suspects the term also depicts their status in the entertainment world.

Main’s father, William, was a horse trader and he therefore had dealings with these circus owners. From an interview Main gave in 1922, it can be established that a Hilliard & Skinner’s Variety and Indian Show existed at Orwell in 1872, and the Hamilton, Blanchard & Carver’s Wagon Circus at Windsor in 1873. Another source shows that a Hilliard & Hamilton Circus existed in 1875.

Horses did more than provide entertainment with their tricks; they also moved the wagons from town to town. In 1873 William Main’s service to Hamilton’s operation was to provide four horses that hauled the bandwagon. But Main’s contribution was only 10 percent of the total horsepower required by this relatively small mud circus that went all the way from Windsor to Fort Scott, Kansas, that year.

Interestingly, financial panic hit the nation during the 1873 season, which forced the show to abruptly close. It was placed on railroad cars and shipped as far east as Cleveland, from which point it was driven back to Windsor, the show’s winter quarters.

Main’s recollections of Sir Henry were that Hamilton broke and trained the horse and then created a circus around him. The fact that Hamilton could build a circus around a single act suggests that Sir Henry was a very impressive animal, indeed. It also would be Hamilton’s downfall as a circus owner.

When other Windsor farmers saw Hamilton’s success, they surveyed their equestrian stock and caught the circus fever, as well. Charging a dime or quarter for the privilege of watching your farm animal do a few tricks must have seemed a better way to make living than trying to coax a crop from the Windsor soil.

“... at one time it seemed that all the young men of that section were in the lightning rod or circus business ...” noted Louis E. Cook in a 1922 article that was based upon interviews with Main. Circus fever was so pervasive in the township,  school teachers found it difficult to keep their students’ interests focused on the three R’s. One of the lady teachers developed a little poem to remind her students that too much circus dreaming would lead to ruin:

And there is Bill Main, who lives on the hill.

He owns a farm which he dislikes to till.

So he travels with a circus all the summer.

And lets his farm be still.”

While the little poem sent Main back to the farm for a season, it did little to discourage Hamilton and his brothers Morgan, Blank and Seam (sounds like a law firm)  from investing in the circus. Main commented that Morgan and Blank were “successful from the start,” although not sufficiently so to earn a spot in the history books.

A Windsor resident by the name of Mile Skinner, and his brothers, also started a circus, which featured a team of spotted horses, perhaps those featured in the Williams Brothers drawing.

In 1877 and 1878 Elwood Hamilton’s circus was known as the Prof. E. Hamilton & F.W. Sargent New York Circus, which featured a 100-foot tent. William Main was assistant agent for the show. The following year Hamilton & Sargent also operated as the Great New York & Grotons’ Gold Band.

In the 1880 circus season, Hamilton’s name appears with Pullman. The following  year and thereafter, Hamilton’s name is not associated with any American circus. Hilliard, the subject of a future Odd Tales, remained in business or partnership with others during that decade.

This scant evidence of  Hamilton’s career suggests that Sir Henry died circa 1880 or earlier. And if the Brigden entry in the “Artists in Ohio” is correct, Sir Henry was carved while still alive. There is some doubt about that 1871 date, however. Brigden was, still learning his craft at that point and Sir Henry’s monument is very well done. Further, the aforementioned Plain Dealer Magazine article noted that Sir Henry died “60 or so years ago,” which given the 1947 publication date, moves Sir Henry’s death into the 1880s.

Sir Henry is buried on Hamilton’s property near the Geauga County line. But the monument stands to the west of there. Why?

The answer is in the romance.

Elwood Hamilton remained in the township for several years after the death of his beloved trick horse and folding of his circus tent. Shortly before the turn of the century, Elwood’s son, Frank, fell in love with Helena “Lena” Turner, daughter of Warren and Carrie Turner. Warren Turner was the town’s blacksmith, so it is very likely the two families got to know each other through the horse/blacksmith connection.

The couple were engaged to marry. While Lena remained in Windsor to work on her wedding dress, Frank headed west to visit relatives. While in Texas, he became ill and died shortly thereafter.

The news devastated Lena and appears to have driven Elwood out of Windsor. Shortly thereafter, he packed up and moved to California, where he disappears into history.

Back in Windsor, Lena found love again and on May 9, 1904, married Edmund “Ned” Counselman at Windsor Mills. They purchased a house that stood next to her parents’ home, and shortly thereafter the monument of Sir Henry was moved from the Hamilton farm to the front yard of the Counselman property, a gift from the family of the man whose love Lena was denied.

Tragedy struck Lena again in 1910 when Ned’s life was snuffed out by appendicitis. Lena was left with two young children, Herman and Ruth, to raise by herself. Her seamstress skills were pressed into service to support the family.

Charles Myers would rescue Lena from this situation. After they married, the family moved to Middlefield, where they operated a meat market. Lena died in 1968.

Only Sir Henry remains, and, like all of us, is starting to show his age. Time and acid rain have smoothed his details and perhaps even removed the elusive date of origin. His story, however, is timeless.

Read more Ashtabula County history stories, including a recent post about Walter Mains’ Wild Men of Borneo and Geneva’s famous delivery horse, as well as columns by Carl Feather at his blog,