By CARL E. FEATHER - firstname.lastname@example.org
When Mike Lubin first moved to Madison and saw the sign for Walter Main Road on the west side of Geneva, he thought it read “Water Main” and decided to check it out. He didn’t see any water mains, but a little research helped him discover a man far more fascinating than public utilities.
Main, who owned several houses in Geneva over the course of his 88 years, was a major force in the American circus world in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Even after selling off his own circus, Main continued to lend his name and expertise to other shows throughout the 1940s and helped give his hometown the reputation for being a “circus town.”
Lubin collected all the research material he could find from circus museums and libraries, talked to elderly Geneva-area residents who knew Main personally and therewith pulled together a profile of one of Geneva’s most interesting characters.
He also began collecting material related to Main’s circus: snapshots of sideshow attractions, color posters, faded newspaper advertising and program books. Lubin periodically displays some of this collection at Victoria’s Country Corner, 19 N. Broadway, Geneva. The display provides a connection to Geneva history, plus it helps promote the Carson & Barnes Circus, which will visit the city this summer.
Lubin said they are already selling tickets to the July 12- 13, event, which is a fundraiser for charity when the tickets are purchased in advance. The Pairings wine and culinary center will be a beneficiary of this year’s advance ticket sales.
In the meantime, circus lovers can get a taste of the excitement by stopping by the store, looking at the posters and talking to Lubin.
He’ll tell you that Main was a very influential resident known for his flashy, showman character and quirky personality.
“Old Mr. Miller said Main thought he was a big shot. He would sit in the back (seat) of the car and be driven by Miller,” Lubin said.
Main once owned a hospitality business in Geneva. “He would take a buffalo to the train station, pick up the people with it and take them over there,” Lubin said, relating one of the many stories he’s collected.
Another story has Main selling one of his circus lions to the MGM studio, which used its face and roar in the famous Leo logo.
Many famous film performers got their start in small circus venues like Main’s early shows. Lubin’s research shows that the famous star of film and radio, Al Jolson, got his start with Main. He also discovered that Main was innovative in developing saxophone music — the Brown Brothers, who made many saxophone recordings, were a Main Circus attraction.
Another famous sideshow attraction with Main’s circus was the three-legged man, Francesco Lentini, born in 1889 in Sicily. A true “human marvel,” Lentini did indeed have an extra leg, as well as four feet (a small, malformed one on the foot that belonged to the extra leg). Poor Lentini — all of his legs were of different lengths. But when he purchased two pairs of shoes, he had an extra to share with the — one legged man, of course. His circus peers called him “The King,” and he got his start with Main.
Main’s shows also included a Tarzan element and a number of Wild West variations, for which Lubin has collected posters. Evidently, Main’s Wild West show Indians were not always fairly compensated, and Lubin said he’s heard stories of the Native Americans raiding Main’s home in Geneva and collecting their dues.
Main also had his way of collecting past debts. When a buyer failed to pay for some animals purchased from Main, the showman rounded up the stock and drove it back to his farm.
Lubin’s collection includes the air caliope that was used by the Main show (the piece is not on display, however). He said that a steam caliope was used to announce the circus’ arrival. “Caliope music was meant to be annoying,” Lubin said. “And they were supposed to be loud to let people know the circus was in town.” Main’s steam caliope is in the Henry Ford Museum collection, Deerfield Village, Mich.
While the days of a circus traveling from town to town by horse-drawn wagon are long gone, they live on in the circus posters and other memoriabilia collected by Lubin. He is happy to share it with the public from time to time and teach a new generation about Geneva’s circus connections.
“I had to find out who this Walter Main was; most of the people don’t know,” Lubin said of his collecting passion.