The Star Beacon; Ashtabula, Ohio

January 29, 2012

Geneva’s ‘Main’ attraction

Walter L. Main was king of Ashtabula County circus royalty

Staff Writer

— 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.

Wild Man of Borneo

The Main show owed much of its success to a side act, the “Wild Man of Borneo.” Frustratingly little information has survived on this particular act of Main’s show, which was a common attraction in many of the circuses of that day.

The premise was that at great danger and expense, the showman procured from the island of Borneo a living specimen of the native Dayak population, whose pastimes included headhunting. In reality, the wild men were usually actors with a penchant for deception.

Aside from the Our Gang short subject, “The Kid from Borneo”     (“Yum, yum, eat ’em up”), the most famous incarnation of this attraction was The Wild Men of Borneo, Waino and Plutanor, exhibited by P.T. Barnum in his freak show. The men were not from Borneo; rather, they were 40-inch tall, 45-pound mentally disabled brothers whom another showman discovered in 1850 on a farm in Mount Vernon, Ohio.

Barnum’s Wild Men of Borneo had amazing strength for their size. It was said that each could lift about 300 pounds. The men were called upon to lift adult audience members and wrestle with each other and spectators. Hiram’s death in 1905 closed the legendary act.

The Wild Man of Borneo exhibited by Main was a man who went by the name of “Commodore Perry,” an Ashtabula comedian who, with the exception of a single reference in a 1922 article by Louis E. Cooke, has gone undocumented.

The “Commodore” donned appropriate makeup and dress to transform him into this wild man for the audiences, the local ones evidently well aware that it was their neighbor cast in the role. Cooke notes that Perry was so serious about playing a convincing role, he made it a practice to sleep in the circus wagons on hay so his clothes would pick up the stubble and “it would look more realistic when he did a war dance and gnashed his teeth in the height of his frenzy before the audience,” wrote Cooke.

“The Burton (Geauga County) and Conneauteville (sic) engagements were also profitable as the ‘Commodore’ was well known in those counties and his reputation  as a ‘village cut-up’ had extended to that part of the state, as well,” wrote Cooke.

Wagons to rails

His mother having acquired a farm from the estate of her father, Walter convinced her to mortgage it so he could start yet another circus in 1886. On April 30 of that year, the Walter L. Main’s Circus opened at Geneva with 21 horses. By the end of the season, Oct. 9, the circus had 40 horses, was debt free and had $5,100 in capital.

The circus grew rapidly thereafter. In 1888, it rented an elephant at a cost of $500 for the season. The following year, the circus looked like a real, big-time affair, complete with a parade, 110-foot round top and 60-foot sideshow tent. With an admission of just a quarter, the Main Circus was able to clear a profit of $25,000 in the relatively short season.

Main’s show played New England in 1889, and during the 10 weeks it lingered in Maine, it became known as the “The Main Show.” The following year, it cleared $17,000 and had grown to 120 horses and 10 cages of animals.

1890 was the last year the Walter Main Circus traveled in circus wagons pulled by horses. The Scribner and Smith Circus purchased these wagons at the close of the season, and in 1891 Main put his show on the railroad. He started with 11 cars and ended with 13. Even with the additional expenses, the show turned a $32,000 profit.

When it closed at Havre de Grace, Md., on Oct. 24, 1891, the show headed to Geneva for the winter. Main purchased a former skating rink near the railroad tracks and housed much of the show there, although the horses wintered on the Main farms in Trumbull Township.

Up until this point, Main had rented exotic animals for his shows from Adam Forepaugh. When Forepaugh died, his assets were sold to Barnum, Bailey and Cooper, who had no interest in continuing the rental arrangement with Main. Flush with cash from the successful season, Main agreed to purchase the animals from Bailey. Included in the purchase were two disfigured tigers — hyenas confined in an adjoining cage had chewed on the tigers’ tails.

When the show hit the rails in 1892, it required 16 cars to carry all the animals, performers and equipment. Two additional cars were required for the advance work. The show had two rings and a stage, on which Main’s impressive menagerie was displayed. It included an elephant named Lizzie, for which Main paid $3,000, and some animals acquired from the Cincinnati Zoo.

The 1893 season opened ominously. A snowstorm hit Geneva on April 22, opening day for the hometown’s circus. Nevertheless, Main put on a great show with a one-hour parade complete with new steam calliope. After presenting two shows, packed to capacity, the show hit the rails, its first stop in Youngstown.

Main’s show required 17 cars, including flat and stock cars that were 60 feet long (one source stated there were 42 cars, which seems unlikely). The sleepers were 70 feet. His big top had grown to 140 feet, and there were three 50-footers plus a 60-foot menagerie with five 30-footers. There were dressing, cook and horse tents, as well.

Despite the snowy opening in Geneva, the show had a good first month, playing at Beaver Falls, Pa.; Painesville, and then back to Pennsylvania for engagements in Franklin and Houtzdale.

Day of tragedy

Daybreak of May 30, 1893, “Decoration Day,” found “Walter L. Main’s All New Monster Shows” heading across the hills toward Tyrone, Pa. The train had been delayed in Houtzdale until 2 a.m., and was delayed again in Osceola for car inspections. Around 5:30 a.m., the train began the final, steep descent toward Tyrone.

Engineer Creswell eased the train down the grade with appropriate caution. But fate was the ultimate engineer that day, and despite an aggressive application of hand braking, Creswell lost control of the train.

Dashing down the mountain, sweeping madly around the curves, the train sped faster and faster. The animals, terrified by the rocking and ominous speed, screamed with terror; the performers, many of them who made their living by defying death, realized the Grim Reaper was riding the rails with them.

The tracks, still slippery from the morning dew, in short time delivered the plummeting cars and their cargo to the Reaper’s sickle.

It would become the worst U.S. circus train wreck of the century.

Next week: the wreck and aftermath.