Originally published April, 2015
It rained the morning of the day the elephants paraded in West Duluth. Torrential rain. Windshield wiper-overpowering rain.
The Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus had rolled into Duluth the day before, and crews set to work raising the main tent—the “big top”—in the open area adjacent to Wade Stadium, in the shadow of the ore docks. By the opening hour of the opening day in, oh, 1951, if memory serves, the grounds had been prepared for the influx of area people eager to see “The Greatest Show on Earth.”
When Ringling Brothers announced recently it is phasing out its elephants, my mind raced back to that hot summer day, the only time I saw that circus (there were others) in all of its big-top glory. And the number of elephants they brought to Duluth that summer? Thirty-five. That’s the figure I recall. But could it have been that many? Memory again.
My father was fascinated by circuses, having grown up in that same part of town where they also located in his youth. He recalled seeing circuses set up there in the early 20th century, harnessed elephants put to work in raising the immense canvas tents where the shows were presented. So when Ringling Brothers came in 1951, he drove out to the circus grounds that rainy morning on his way to work just to see the spectacle of it all. It rained so hard it stopped his windshield wipers, he said, with just a few hours before the big show was to open.
You can imagine the circus crews—called roustabouts—were ready for anything and had experienced just about everything in their treks around the country on their own train. Ringling Brothers made a strong point that their tent was fireproof. Over the years, circus tents had caught fire in some places, with tragic results.
Not this one. Especially, one might surmise, not after such a soaking rain, although the clouds had cleared by show time with bright sunshine streaming down.
But the rain had muddied the grounds, waiting for the thousands of circus-goers to trample. By the time the first show of the three-ring affair welcomed its audience, circus workers had spread straw, tons of straw, along the broad pathways leading to the main entrance of the big top, and throughout the immediate area, especially where people lined up before ticket booths.
Memories of events nearly 65 ago can be faulty, but the image I have in my mind’s eye of the approach to the main entrance is of a phalanx of elephants, side by side, their shackled lower legs dragging heavy chains, their trunks deftly grabbing peanuts tossed to them by fascinated circus-goers slowly proceeding toward the entrance of the massive canvas tent.
How massive? It towered perhaps three or four stories, bolstered by a forest of wooden poles the diameters of which would compare to utility poles.
I was there with my mother. The sun had come out well before we arrived, yielding one of those windless, hot and humid days, especially where we were shielded by canvas. As we stood in the throngs of fellow circus-goers moving toward the main tent entrance, the straw beneath our feet not quite protecting from the mud, my mother suddenly collapsed. It must have been the heat, and she recovered quickly, but it was an anxious moment.
You love your mother, but you don’t want to miss the greatest show on earth. (There were no ill after-effects; she lived for 35 more years, well into her 80s, never having fainted again, as far as I know.)
Finally, we were swept into the main tent and found our seats in the bleachers. The circus was on, with all of its pageantry, excitement, spectacle and performing animals—lions and tigers and bears, oh my yes, and dogs and horses—all accompanied by a band playing the brassy music you always associate with circuses.
Lions might be king of the beasts, but it was the elephants we came to see, and see them we did. The show began with a parade of everything it would be offering, spirited horses pulling red-and-gold wagons of caged wild animals, satin-caped trapeze artists in their tights and tutus, a small army of clowns of every stripe (especially their pants), and, lumbering in above it all, the procession of elephants, trunk to tail, with scantily clad showgirls astride, smiling and waving as they circled the huge tent balancing elaborate headpieces. Wow.
I have no quarrel with animal rights groups who for years have been appealing for circuses to end their use of elephants. Do the so-called bull hooks used by handlers to control the huge beasts harm them? I hope not. And I respect Ringling Brothers for heeding those appeals and ending their use of elephants—they say by 2018.
But I hope that leaves time for my young grandchildren to see elephants up close, to sense the majesty of these most noble of pachyderms—said to have long lives and memories—towering above them. I wonder if any of them remember coming to Duluth.
I suppose their memories and lives are not that long. But mine are.
Scroll down for more photos of the Ringling Brothers/ Barnum & Bailey Circus in Duluth in 1953. Since this story first posted we did some further digging and discovered that1953 was the only year the RB/B&B Circus performed in Duluth in the 1950s. Previous to 1953, the RB/B&B was in town August 16, 1949, and just as Jim describes, it was a wet day; Duluth recorded 1.22 inches of rainfall
Each month on Zenith City Online Jim Heffernan recalls growing up west of Mesabi Avenue. Catch up on all of Jim’s recollections of growing up in Duluth’s western environs here, visit his personal blog here, and review his book, Cooler near the Lake, here.