When I decided that the characters in my novel Mending Horses were going to join the circus, I very quickly came up with a long list of things I didn’t know. What was a circus like in 1839? What sort of acts might they have? What music did they play? Where did they tour in New England? What did tents and wagons look like?
I sighed in dismay at my research options: the Circus World Museum in Wisconsin and the Ringling Circus Museum in Florida—not exactly day trips for someone living in Massachusetts. Then I found out about the Museum of the Early American Circus in Somers, New York, just a little over two hours away.
This tiny museum is located at the heart of early 19th-century Circus Central. Somers is often referred to as the “Cradle of the American Circus,” and was home to Hacaliah Bailey (1774-1845), who imported the second elephant to the United States in 1805 (the first was imported in 1796). “Old Bet” became the nucleus of a traveling menagerie of exotic animals, and the beginning of a mania for menageries that raged through southwestern New York state in the first half of the 19th century. Pretty soon businessmen in Somers and surrounding towns either joined Bailey as partners or became his competitors.
At first, menageries were more like traveling zoos, quite distinct entities from circuses, with their trick riders and acrobats. But by the late 1830s, the two types of entertainment began to merge into something starting to resemble the circus as we know it today.
Hacaliah Bailey prospered, using some of his profits to build the Elephant Hotel at a major crossroads in Somers some time between 1820 and 1825. This grand Federal style hotel, with a statue of Old Bet on its front lawn, is now home to the Somers Historical Society and the Museum of the Early American Circus. Although small, this museum has a phenomenal collection of circus posters and memorabilia, manuscript materials, artifacts, and publications about the early circus. The museum’s curator was kind enough to let me spend several afternoons poring over the collection. You can read the results of my research in Mending Horses.
You can find out more about early menageries and circuses and see some posters and images from the Museum’s collection on their website.
The Museum is open to the public on Memorial and Veteran’s Day and every Thursday, from 2:00 to 4:00 p.m. or by appointment by calling 914-277-4977.