The Star Beacon; Ashtabula, Ohio


January 29, 2012

Geneva’s ‘Main’ attraction

Walter L. Main was king of Ashtabula County circus royalty

Elephants, tigers, lions and horses. Had you lived in the rural, western portion of the county some 130 years ago, it is likely these would have been your winter neighbors, along with an assortment of show people employed by local circus owners with surnames of Hamilton, Hilliard, Reeves and the most famous of them all, Walter L. Main.

Main’s circus wintered in the Geneva/Trumbull Township area, whereas Hamilton was associated with Windsor, and Hilliard and Reeves with Orwell. Over the next several weeks, we’ll look at these Ashtabula County men of the big top and the odd, and often tragic, tales that were part of their lives.

We start with Walter L. Main as a child in Trumbull Township some 145 years ago. Walter’s parents, William and Elizabeth, were engaged in the hotel business, but William’s primary line of work was horse trading.

Walter, born July 13, 1862, in Medina County, lived a secluded life in the Trumbull Center hamlet, where the sight of a circus wagon was about as rare as one today.

Nevertheless, the young Walter heard stories of the big top from his father and the men who gathered at the local tavern. By 1872 Walter’s vision of the circus had become so grandiose that he managed to arrange a contract with Hilliard & Skinner’s Variety and Indian Show, which opened in Orwell. It was Walter Main’s claim in interviews that he gave during the latter years of his life that, at the age of 10, he did the negotiating with the circus owners for a team of horses that his father provided the circus for $50 a month.

On May 1, 1872, the 9-year-old Main traveled to Orwell and saw his first circus performance. The die was cast.

A series of circus contracts followed for horse-trader William Main. In 1873, he traveled with the Hamilton, Blanchard & Carver Wagon Circus. The circus was headquartered in Windsor, and Walter walked from Trumbull to Windsor, and back, at the age of 11 so he could see the opening show.

Walter spent his first year on the road in 1874, when his father branched out as an impresario with Brown’s Concert Company. The owner, Mr. Brown, was a blind man from Burton. The Mains’ job was to act as advance men for the act, which consisted of Brown and his daughter.

In 1875 William Main worked with Hilliard & Hamilton’s 40-horse circus. The following year he stayed home and attempted to farm 105 acres, but after grossing only $300 from the farm, William Main decided there was more money to be made and fun to be had on the road with a circus. During the circus season of 1878, Walter stayed home with his mother and ran the farm — into the ground. Frustrated by the failure of that enterprise, Walter began building his own circus. He traded the farm’s cows for horses and wagons and, in partnership with his father and Ephram Burdick — a slick horse trader and neighbor — built the infrastructure for a small circus. All the stakes, tent poles and seats were constructed at the farm by the Mains and Burdick.

Their little show opened May 10, 1879, at Trumbull Center. They had a 50-foot round-top tent and four horses, but only one of them, named Herald, performed.

Their neighbors derided the homemade circus, but the Mains, including ticket-taker Elizabeth, took the show on the road that summer and made a net profit of $1,000. Much of that success was due to Walter’s work as the show’s official representative and advance “man” — he turned 17 on the road that summer.

With Dan Allen of Ashtabula replacing Burdick as partner, the show returned to the road the following season with 40 horses. The Mains’ association with the circus broke down midway through the season, and the following year Walter and William partnered with F.W. Sargent of Windsor and started all over again.

By 1882 William Main was sole proprietor of the William Main & Company Circus, with Walter as manager and his mother treasurer. The show had grown to 40 horses and an 80-foot round-top tent. There was a side show, a horse tent and performance that was said to be as good as any other small show of the day. The show played Ohio, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts and New York that year.

M.M. Hilliard of Orwell and William Main joined forces in 1883, resulting in a show that had 114 head of horses and mules, an elephant, two camels and several cages of wild animals. The show went as far west as Kansas, where it wintered. The partnership broke down after a losing season in 1884 — Elizabeth Main made corsets and women’s underwear, then peddled them to farmers’ wives in order to pay the family’s bills.

The spring of 1885 found Walter a free agent. With six horses, two bloodhounds and $800, Walter started a “Tom Show,” which he sold out to a friend a few weeks into the venture.

By then his father was home from Kansas — riding one horse and leading the other two left over from his interest in the Hilliard venture. They started yet another circus, William Main and Company, with seven horses and ponies. In two months, the little show raised a $200 profit playing at county fairs from Canfield to Wellington.

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