The Star Beacon; Ashtabula, Ohio

February 12, 2012

The Main legacy

Tragedy struck Walter L. Main’s Circus at its home base of Geneva in 1906

Staff Writer

Last of a three-part series on the Walter L. Main Circus.

 Despite the devastating loss in the Tyrone, Pa., train wreck of May 30, 1893, Walter L. Main quickly rebuilt his circus and kept virtually all of its engagements beyond Tyrone.

Main’s 1893 season was to close at Conneaut on Oct. 14, but the show was canceled due to “high water” on the performance site. The circus was shipped to its headquarters in Geneva, and the great showman commenced making purchases for the next season.

The winter of 1893-94 was the first that Main stored his circus at his new buildings on what became known as Walter Main Road. On the west side of Geneva, the rural location was ideally situated between two east-west rail lines, which provided handy access for getting his show on and off the road.

The 1894 circus was stocked with an amazing variety of both featured and sideshow acts. Audiences could thrill to Nellie Ryland, the red-headed girl who rode a white horse, Joe Beris’ six performing Arabian stallions, a performing goat named Dick and a celebrated riding dog, Trask. In the sideshows, there was Amie the human fly, a rooster orchestra and a (living) two-head cow. The parade featured open animal dens, Arabs and an Indian band that did a war dance.

The Official Programme of the 1894 circus provides insight into not only what the audiences could expect, but the degree of advertising hype that built that expectation:

“Grand Tournament of Wild and Civilized Peoples. A Babel of humanity; all nations marching under the flags. A many-hued and glittering grand spectacle, unfolding in arenic and scenic  splendor on all the rings and stages, and around the entire area of the enormous amphitheatrical hippodrome course. At beat of drums and blare of band and bugle, a tremendous outpouring and outspreading of a vast bannered army and motley throng of mailed marching warriors, gladiators, charioteers, steel-clad knights, royal grandees, mounted cavaliers and ladies, helmeted spearmen, pontifical high priests and wandering Jews, turbaned Arabs on camels, Moors and Mamelukes, Grand Turks, Bedouins of the desert, outlaws, booted and spurred, wild west and wilder east, chariots of conquest, huge herds of swaying elephants, wild beasts, runners, couriers, guards of honor, postillions, out-riders, etc. Magnificent ostentation. The flash of sword and helmet, spear and shield, the glory of the pilgrimage to Mecca ...” And that’s just part of the first paragraph.

Pacific Coast

The following season, Main took his circus on a very successful tour of the southern states. It closed in Alabama in early December, and Main shipped it as far as Louisville, Ky., where it spent the winter. When it opened April 15, 1895, it was an entirely different show. Main invested heavily in new wagons, cages, tableaus, harness, flags, banners and plumes. Everything, right down to the stakes and poles, were brand new and/or improved.

Despite the heavy financial investment in equipping an all-new circus, by the time Main closed his show in Ravenna, Ohio, on June 15, 1895, he had paid off the loan.

The season opened with a breathtaking parade through Louisville. “The Courier Journal,” declared Main’s show “the gem of the tented world.”

It played Des Moines, Iowa, on July 1, and Main rerouted its parade past the home of an ill boy, confined to his bed for eight years. A mirror rigged between his bed and the window gave the child a reversed image of the spectacle.

Once again, the season closed in the black. It seemed as though Main had the golden touch, and in 1897 he decided to mine some circus gold on America’s Pacific Coast. After opening in a snow storm at Ashtabula on April 17, the Main Circus headed to Oregon, Washington and Vancouver, B.C., then on to California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas and Kansas.

The venture was a disaster — the advance man had failed to take into account the fact that railroads in the West had a different gauge than those in the East. There were delays and additional expenses; worse, the side trips that were arranged to Colorado towns were a bust because the settlements, which were thriving when the advance man visited them years before, had gone bust.

Main was losing $1,000 a day during that trying time, but after firing his agent and taking control of the planning himself, Main ended the season on a positive note with a very profitable engagement in San Francisco.

Undaunted by the challenges of moving his circus across the continent, Main returned to the West Coast two years later. There were 22 cars in the show and two in advance. The show featured a 63-horse act in a concentric ring and a baby elephant, acquired with a foster mother the prior season. The elephant, named Admiral Dewey, was a popular attraction wherever the circus went. But while being taught some tricks at the winter quarters, the elephant was injured and died. When Main closed out his books on the year, his profit was close to $75,000.

Selling out

Despite the handsome profits his circus generated, Main was tired of the business. There was trouble at home, as well — a very messy divorce that brought his wife home from California with a mission. A Geneva newspaper declared “Mrs. Main Comes Back: And Hooks Onto Everything of Value Belonging to Her Husband.”

Main decided to sell off his amazing circus and go to Europe that summer. The January 1900 auction was one of the greatest events ever held in Geneva, drawing more than 70 princes of the big top and mud circus galaxies.

“The little village never saw such a crowd in its history. There certainly never was such a gathering of circus men as met on this occasion to see the finish of the Main show. Nearly every show, large or small, was represented, and those that did not come, telegraphed their regrets,” noted the Geneva Free Press.

Everything, from the choice draught horses and performing Shetland ponies to the cars and bear den were sold. The sale lasted for four consecutive days, from 9 a.m. until after dark, with two auctioneers and three clerks working with only a 30-minute break for lunch. Even after that, a few “small articles” remained to be sold.

His circus and responsibilities thus disposed of, Walter Main spent the summer in Europe, where he visited the Barnum and Bailey Greatest Show on Earth and other major shows. And the following spring, Main assembled yet another circus from scratch, reflecting the best of the shows he’d seen in Europe.

The trip to Europe seems to have done his marriage some good, as well. “It is with some degree of pleasure that we are today permitted to announce that the alleged troubles between Mr. and Mrs. Walter L. Main have been settled and that they are now living together in their home on South Broadway. The differences that existed some weeks ago have been adjusted. Cupid reigns supreme,” noted a newspaper article dated April 27, 1901.

By 1902 the Main Circus required 25 cars to carry all the entertainers, equipment and animals, plus two advance cars. The show even impressed audiences in Boston, the mainstay of the Barnum and Bailey and Adam Forepaugh shows. The 1903 show grew to 32 railroad cars, three of them for advertising. It had a 150-foot big top and four 30-foot middle pieces. There were 25 cages, five elephants, eight camels and 200 horses and ponies. The featured production was “Savage South Africa,” and featured real warriors from the Congo.

Another successful season followed, and Main once again decided to sell out, except for 80 horses leased to Carl Hagenback’s show. Main spent the summer of 1905 at home, enjoying himself and the profits of his labors. Little did he know, trouble and tragedy were crouching behind his rocking chair.

Waterloo, inferno

His troubles began with a deal in 1906 to form the Cummins’ Wild West Exhibition Company with Fred Cummins and Sig. Sautelle. Main’s name was not associated with this show, but his money was, and in a big way. Not long after the partnership was forged, Main discovered that his partners had larger ideas than bank accounts, and the silent partner ended up assuming the show’s financial obligations, said to be running in excess of $1,000 a day.

Many years later, Main would recall this 27-car show as the “Waterloo” of his career. He said Cummins invested only $2,500 in Indian ponies and tepees. Sig. Sautelle put in $18,000 worth of animals and cages, but he became frightened about the prospects of a Wild West show, and Main agreed to buy out his share.

Sautelle’s apprehension was well founded. Audiences did not embrace the Wild West shows as they did the circus.

“There was too much sameness. Our show didn’t seem to satisfy, although it carried a menagerie and my four performing elephants,” Main stated in a 1937 interview.

As the losses mounted and Cummins fumbled, Main was forced to take over management of the enterprise in order to protect his investment. He had lost more than $63,000 by the time the outfit rolled into Geneva in late September 1906. Main paid off his performers 100 percent of the money due them, then prepared to put the show into storage.

The horses were sent to Main’s farm in Trumbull, but the rest of the show was to winter at Main’s Geneva site. The show was under the supervision of D.C. Hawn, who was instructed by Main to keep the show properties on the railroad cars until Main secured insurance on the buildings.  Hawn disregarded the directive.

A few hours after the last of the animals were bedded down, fire raced through the stalls of the wood-and-brick building, trapping the elephants’ trainer inside with his beasts — it was customary to latch the door from the outside.

Ironically, an act in their show was a fireman’s skit, in which the largest elephant battered his way through a mock burning structure. Faced with the real-life horror of being trapped inside a burning building, the trainer issued the command and the beast performed, thus saving all the elephants and the trainer.

The rest of the animals were not as fortunate. The Geneva Free Press told the story in the graphic journalistic style of the day.

“The charred remains of an unknown man was found. He was burned beyond recognition ... His arms and legs were burned from his body ... The charred flesh still clung to the bones.”

“Col. Cummins’ sorrel stallion had been pulled to the door but died there with his nose at the threshold. The bear which was brought out alive will probably die from the burns, as he was in very bad condition.

“The animals cried and groaned. The lions roared and confusion was on every side. Soon it began to quiet as the smothering smoke did its death dealing work and long ere the flames had reached the bodies of the stricken animals, they had choked to death. The hay and other light material gave the fire a start that no hand could stay.”

Conspiracy theory

The inferno started around 1 a.m. Oct. 2, 1906. The village fire department was notified, but Main, who was asleep in one of the railroad cars when the fire started, ended up having to fight it himself with about 20 of the show employees. They were overwhelmed.

The cause of the fire was generally ascribed to careless smoking, presumably by the gentleman who lost his life in the conflagration. But there were more nefarious scenarios proposed, as well.

One story stated that a disgruntled employee by the name of Jack Codding set the fire. Codding had broken his leg while working for Main in the circus, and without a safety net of Worker’s Compensation, health insurance or disability pay, was forced to recuperate in the poorhouse. When Codding heard the Wild West Show had returned to town, he hopped a train to Geneva and performed his act of retribution.

Another theory was that one or more of the 50  “real Indians” who were part of the show sought revenge against the investors for their poor handling of the show. Camped in wigwams and tepees across from Main’s buildings, they possessed the motivation and means for starting the fire.

As a result of Hawn disregarding Main’s instructions, the loss was not insured. It was estimated at $50,000. In an amazing show of chutzpah, Cummins demanded Main pay him $500 for his losses. Main refused, and Cummins took him to court. After a four-day battle, Main won.

“Then and there, I decided that I had enough of partnerships and Wild West shows to last me the rest of my days,” Main said in a 1937 interview.

A good name

For the next four decades, the Walter Main show lived on in one form or another, although never in the glory of those pre-fire years. Main leased cars and other property to different shows and sold them the right to use his name. In 1913 he put together a two-car circus leased to his brother-in-law, W.D. Schneider. The little show, known as the Rentz Great German Circus, made $100 a day that year.

The following year, it lost money; not because it changed its format, but because America’s European allies were at war with Germany. The public had no interest in paying for any manner of entertainment with the word “German” connected to it, no matter how American its origin.

Main kept a menagerie of performing animals that he leased to other circus owners throughout that decade. He found work as a traffic manager, adviser and even accounts collector for other shows and tent companies. His name was leased to Andrew Downie from 1918 to 1922. Several other circus owners used it throughout the 1920s and ’30s. As late as 1946, Main was loaning his name to a circus that played county fairs.

End of era

Walter Main died at the age of 88 on Nov. 29, 1950. The cause of death was given as a “weak heart,” a paradox given Main’s amazing risk taking, tenacity and resiliency.

Although Main had erected a monument to his mother and brother in Trumbull Township Cemetery, and had his own name and birthday inscribed in the granite, he was buried in Pittsburgh’s Uniondale Cemetery. His second wife, Louise Katherine, is buried next to him.

Main was the greatest of Ashtabula County’s circus owners, by all indications living up to his promise to deliver the “grandest and best shows” in a universe of big tops, spectacle, ammonia-rich animal dung, sideshow freaks and “semi-barbaric grand doings.” It is a world that has disappeared from Ashtabula County and rural America. The parade has gone by, the  groans and roars of the beasts silenced, the big top folded and the charred and broken bones of the animals that once amazed the audiences rest in unmarked graves. Gone are the human fly, the little people, the three-legged man and two-headed cow. But in Windsor Township there rears up on the front lawn of a private residence a stone artifact of those grand circus days.

But the story of Sir Henry and the Hamilton Circus is an Odd Tale for another day.