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The Old "Charity Circus" in Dayton

This article appeared in the Dayton Daily News, January 28, 1934


The Old “Charity Circus” in Dayton

By Howard Burba


     On the route books of every modern circus Dayton is listed as “a good show town.”  That is because Dayton always has been generous in the matter of patronage when a tented organization paid her a visit.

     Before the coming of the automobile to congest streets in the business district, there was always a large crowd to witness the forerunner of circus day festivities—“the grand, glorious, glittering caravan with its open dens of wild beasts from Darkest Africa.”  But only once in the history of Dayton has a circus been able to attract a crowd of more that 100,000 people, and never again, in all probability, will the scene be duplicated.

     It was back in 1894 that the fertile brain of Harry Ellsworth Feight, the most talented showman Dayton ever produced, conceived the idea of doing something for local families then badly in need of aid.  The historic “panic” of 1893 had by no means subsided.  Money was scarce and extremely hard to get.  Jobs were few and starvation wages the shares of those who could find employment. Dayton was somewhat “in the dumps” when Harry Feight hit upon the idea of a “Charity Circus, “ the like of which has never been recorded in the history of Dayton.

     “Charity, the Sweetest of All Virtues, Reigns Today” reads the glaring headline on a copy of the old Dayton News of Thursday, July 12, 1894, and the entire front page—every line of it—is given over to a description of the circus.  But that was not all the flowers the early headliner had to scatter as he attempted to do justice to the unusual event.  “The Magnificent Culmination of Weary Weeks of Earnest Endeavor Delights the Public” he declares in still another breath, and then he explains himself with the statement that “The Charity Circus in All Its Glory Is Here, and Admiring and Enthusiastic Thousands Bid It a Hearty and Vociferous Welcome.” 

     For weeks before the eventful day Harry Feight had his various committees working like clock-work.  A born showman, and with considerable professional experience, he directed every detail and knew in advance exactly what the public taste for entertainment demanded.  The one thing Harry Feight did not know, and doubtless would not have guessed, was that the affair was going to take on such magnitude, or that everybody in this section of Ohio would be clamoring for a place in the reviewing stand when he staged the gorgeous street pageant which he called “a circus parade.”  Even the newswriters of that day struggled for bigger and better adjectives as they sought to paint a word picture of it. How elaborately they handled their big moment is evidenced by this “lead” on the first page of The News of that day:

     “Precious indeed will be the memories of the efforts culminating in the grand success of today.  The whole vast machinery which was set in motion weeks ago and which has produced the wonderful results so enthusiastically applauded by thousands hinged upon the one prevailing idea, the one central thought, the one purpose—Charity.  It was with the thought of relieving the pain-stricken, the famished, the poor and needy that many business men, professional men, skilled artisans, men of many interests banded together under the leadership of Harry Feight and pushed the matter to such a successful issue as that witnessed by all southern Ohio.

     “The street parade was magnificent in al its equipments.  It eclipsed that of ‘the greatest show on earth.’  Well regulated in all of its appointments, it was a brilliant success. When this is said ‘tis but a mild expression of the truth.

     “From the time the parade left the fairgrounds at 9:45 amid the aroma of circus lemonade and fresh roasted peanuts until it disbanded, the thoroughfares were a complete mass of seething forms.  It can be stated without prevarication that fully a hundred thousand people witnessed the display.  The circus grounds presented a most animated aspect.

     “The parade extended several miles in length.  Preceding the column came Harry Feight and P. A. McGowen in a nobby rig.  Following appeared the Metropolitan and Columbus bands, consolidated and in costume.  With their 50 pieces of music they made mad revel.  Company I, Third Infantry, costumed as marines followed.  Close behind them were the Knights of St. John, that splendid military organization, while to add spice to the occasion the Germania, Xenia and Miamisburg bands, combined, followed in their wake and kept up a lively tune.”

     The reporter plunges into a detailed description of each division of the parade.  He tells of the wild animal cages fashioned by Owens & Hixson in which was confined the evil spirit commonly known as the devil, while on the side of the cage was painted the words: “What Congress Has Raised.”  Kimmel & Rice caged Mary and her little lamb, while a mechanical elephant designed by McHose & Lyons was especially attractive on account of its size.  The London Hat House had a cage of goats drawn by four horses, while directly back of it came Hyman & Co’s. cage of peacocks, labeled “Ohio Ostriches.”  The deadwood coach, with Rain-In-The-Face, Alkali Ike and a few barbarous characters was furnished by Sol Straus.

     The display of the entrée riders, performers and ponies, was headed by William Marks, the world’s champion bareback rider, imported especially for the occasion.  James A. Kirk, proprietor of Lakeside Park, had several score of ponies in line.

     “One of the extremely attractive displays in the long parade,” says The News of 1894, was the float of the Comus club.  In advance appeared Masters Charles Ely and Carl Troup, mounted on prancing ponies and attired in the picturesque costumes of standardbearer and herald announcing with bugle, the approach of His Royal Majesty, drawn by six handsomely caparisoned horses.  On the float Kind Comus was seated on an elevated throne, on either side airy-costumed dancing girls, the Misses Stella Schneider and Myrtle Morris, while immediately in front of the throne was seated Master Carl Bauman as court minstrel.”

     Practically every civic and fraternal organization in Dayton had a part in the pageant, the closely printed list of floats and costumed bodies making up more than two columns of the old newspaper.  Never before, seldom since, has there been a more general representation of them in line.

     While Harry Feight conceived and planned the gorgeous pageant, it was essential to the success of the affair that he call in as assistants a large number of local citizens.  So he selected an executive committee of the following men, many of whom are alive today and who will recall with happy memories the part they played in the great charity circus of 1894: L. G. Reynolds, Chas. H. Bosler, W. E. Crume, Mayor C. G. McMillen, Judge Chas. W. Dale, Gen. Peter Weidner, Col. Chas. G. Bickham, J. W. Weidner, Dr. J. E. Lowes, F. J. McCormick, Chas. H. Simms, Junia D. Uart, John W. Gebhart, Abram. S. Bickham, Henry C. Lowe, E. B. Weston, Charles D. Mead, William H. Young, Alfred A. Thresher, Edward F. Cooper, Isaac Pollack, J. Linxweiler, jr., Richard P Burkhardt, Rufus L. Worrell, H. W. Lewis, Charles E. Pease, S. W. Davies, Harry V. Lytle, P. A. McGowen, C. H. Mahrt, Phillip A. Kemper and A. L. Keenan.     Then there were a lot of sub-committees, to carry out the plans of the executives and prominent among those listed we find: Rufus Worrell, Arthur L. Rieger, Gil Burrows, Wood Patton, Joe Schwab, Warren Matthews, W. B. Shoemaker, Torrence Huffman, W. E. Crume, Lou. Latin, Nate Heidelberg, Maurice Costello, John Geisler, Samuel Plummer Scott McDonald, Daniel Larkin, Thomas Collins, Dudley Stone, James Hartnett, Fred Cellarius, George Deifenbach, C. C. Haines, T. N. Wilson, Harry Jacobs, Chas. J. Olt, E. S. Otto, W. S. Horrell, Thos. A. Selz, Wm. Weiffenbach, Wm. German, Louis Roehm, George B. Prinz, Moses Wolf, Adam Breene, Walter Hundobler, Herbert A. Williams. Homer W. Parrott, J. A. Wollaston, W. L. Caten, Charles F. Knecht, Edward Sachs, Chas. W. James, Robert G. Craighead, Orion Dobbs, Joseph Bimm, Judge W. D. McKemy, John C. Reber, Albert Thomas, Paul Keenan, C. L. G. Breene, George L. Grimas, Chas. P. Althoff, M. J. Schwab, Dr. P. N. Adams, L. R. Hooper, Luther Peters, John Roehm, Wm. J. Herzog, G. Russell Wells, R. Henry Croninger, Merrick F. McGowen, Chas. A. Combs. O. C. Schenck, C. V. Osgood, A. C. Reeves, Dr. Hugo Maetke, Dr. G. C. Meyers, Dr. Fred C. Weaver, Dr. D. A. Scheibenzuber.

     There had been a careful job of publicity—for publicity is and always has been the power behind the throne in entertainment enterprises of such titanic proportions.  So Harry Feight selected these newspaper men to ballyhoo the circus and get the crowd down town: Charles Harries, Chas. H. Simms, Chas. G. Reade, Daniel E. Kumler, Elliott Burns, Daniel D. Bickham, Col. Chas. G. Bickham, C. J. Geyer, Junia D. Uart, Charles W. Faber, Harry N. McGrew, Emil Reichert, Edward Neder, Harvey C. Phelps, John R. Tomlinson, and James B. Siders.

     So much for those who made the charity circus possible. Now let’s take a peep into the big top at the fairgrounds and see what the circus itself was like.  There is no finer way to get a picture of it than to sit for a moment while members of that old press committee tell you—just as they told the readers of The News after the memorable performance.  And here is the story:

     “For a half-hour before each performance the magnificent Charity Circus band revelled in a harmonious madness.  Imagine 104 pieces of music keeping the softest symphony one moment and changing the next into the roar of thunder!  Concededly this was the finest band that ever gave a concert in Dayton.  It was under the capable leadership of Capt. T. J. Adkins.

     “Previous to the exhibition came the grand entrée, followed by fancy evolutions by Dayton’s best equestrians, among them Henry E. Miller, E. M. Crawford, O. B. Lehman, Dr. S. O. Addison, William Tuttle, J. W. McDonald, Thomas B. Shafor, J. L. Geisler, Benjamin Kuhns, jr., D. B. Conklin, Oliver Sortman, George L. McHose, J. W. Ware, Oscar Sortman, Otto F. Evans and Harry Kaiser.

     “Two rings and an arenic stage were kept in constant animation with the antics of the comical and the spirited evolutions of the wonders of the age.

     “The huge class of the Dayton Turngemeinde filled both rings and executed a number of difficult maneuvers under the well-known physical instructor William J. Herzog.  The class is composed of the following Turners: Louis Roehm, Paul Hilbert, Fred Roehm, Ed Linxweiler, Phil Bossard, Gustave Decker, Otto Kraft, Ed Kohorst, Geo. Gessler, Wm. Kramer, Wm. Roehm, John Heier, Ed Koanemann, Wm. Moosbrugger, Walter Smith, Robert Berner, Frank Joyce, Charles Brill, George Bender, Louis Bucher, Ed Witman, Wm. Olt, Walter Heinz, John Teller, E. E. Haas, George Linxweiler, Wm. Schoen, Theo. Schubert, Louis Keger, jr., Otto Mauthe, Steffan Schinner, Henry Heumann, George Roehm, Fred Olt, Chas. Kastner, Chas.Engle, Feliz Haas, Odolf Black, Jno. Franz, Wm. Adelberger, Fred Euchenhofer, Perry Roehm, Fred Kramer, John Rost, Louis Kramer, Frank Wollenhaupt, Chas. Roehm. George Taylor, Christel Mueller, Carl Karstaedt. Messrs. Geyer and Staley in Grecial statuary on the stage was a striking feature.  With forms of a Hercules, their various movements were pretty in the extreme.

     “The clowns in their grotesque acts were showered with praise and applause.  There you found a jolly troupe, including: Billy Galt, Paul Keenen, C. L. baker, C. L. Houck, Charles W. Waltz, Paul O’Brian, Chas. Roth, E. B. McBride, Charles Frantz, Rolland W. Baggott, Fred J. Miller, John I. Bright and D. Smith. Aided by the German band, composed of local musicians they certainly kept the crowd in good humor.

     “Champion Marks, a Dayton boy who has traveled with Barnum for years, but who trained his noble snow-white steeds under a tent in this city for the past few weeks, won an enthusiastic ovation.  A better exhibition of riding was never before witnessed.  Ringmaster Johnnie Hooker was at hand.

     “At this juncture announcer T. N. Wilson called attention in true circus style to the forthcoming concert, extolling the cosmopolitan makeup.  Preceding this a cablegram from Chief of Police Farrell in London was read.  He extended his best wishes for the success of the worthy project.

     “Sid Black, the champion bicycle rider of the world, delight the vast audience with trick riding.  When he took an ordinary buggy wheel, stood on the hub and remained erect while it ran down over the rungs of a ladder, which hung at an elevation of 25 degrees, the assemblage went wild.

     “Lou Pauley, attired as a woman in skirts, gave a pleasing exhibition of burlesque bareback riding.  Arthur W. Knauer gave an artistic exhibition of club swinging and Clayton and Jenkins with their trick mule kept the audience roaring.  A sprint race between F. E. Dohse, C. W. Lenz, Joseph White, Adolph Honnecker and F. C. Brooks proved exciting.”

     In the language of today, it was “a whale of a circus.”  But it would not have been complete, of course, had there not been that age-old circus accessory—the sideshow, more familiarly known among those on earth 40 years later as a “Believe-It Or-Not” offering.  The Charity Circus ran the whole gamut of circus offerings, and in the sideshow we find Messrs. Gorman and Weifffenbach dilating upon the mysteries of the carnival of freaks—the greatest carnival of freaks, of course, ever to be gathered together in the memory of mankind.  At the entrance sat the ticket-grabbers, Shoemaker and Reeves.

     “There was plenty of music,” wrote The News man of 40 years ago.  “This, too, had a tinge of familiarity, and as its peculiar strains reached the ears of the sight-seekers many of them paused, and for a moment their minds wandered back to one of the scenes at the Chicago World’s Fair last year—the Streets of Cairo and the hoochy-koochy dancer.  It was no wonder for the imitation of the music from the Hindu band composed of Ned Pease, Dick Genhardt, Will Crume, Joe Mead and Charles Lowe was as realistic as one could imagine.

     “One of the most attractive wonders was Prof. Gwindle, the human pin cushion.  Protruding through his nose, ears and other parts of his body were innumerable pins.  To his right sat the only living Indian harpist, Pete Satalia. Ward Eberly, who is quite well known in this city, living but a short distance from Dayton and who for years traveled with Barnum as his “fat man,” was on exhibition.  Then there was William Owens, the Zulu king who, with rings in his nose and ears told of the terrible barbarities which formerly existed in his neighborhood.  Prof. Cross, the glass eater, had several good meals during the day.  A. L. Good, the imported wild man who appeared in the morning parade, was also one of the attractions.  Prof. Fred Milgey, the strong man, accomplished wonderful feats with his jaw.

     “Taken all in all the sideshow part of the Charity Circus was a huge success.  T. A. Selz, chairman of the committee, and his assistants, Louis R. Roehm, George P. Prinz, Will Weiffenbach and Will Gorman, saw their plans and labor crowned with success.”

     The night performance over, a tired but happy citizenry found its homeward way, tired through trying to “see everything,” happy because the money spent had been in a noble cause.

     And then about the flickering torches which served to illuminate a little dressing tent at the old fairgrounds, promoter Harry Feight and members of his executive committee began the work of checking up receipts.  An accounting showed expenditures of almost $3000 in staging the event.  But ticket boxes were crammed with receipts from the various box-offices, and there was no doubt in the minds of those whose task it was to count it that the splendid cause for which the circus had been given would benefit exceeding well.  There was much joy in the Dayton next day when the newspapers announced that the Charity Circus had cleared more than $5000.

     It was marked into local records as the greatest circus in the history of Dayton. And the greatest, as well as the most consoling fact in connection with it was that here was one instance in which a circus left its revenue where it found it.