When the circus came to town

When the circus came into Ashland and Medford beginning in the late 1800s, with lots of elephants, giraffes and rhinos, it had to come by railroad — a time that was electric for the whole community and which drew in children to pound tent pegs and wash giant mammals — and men (no women) to witness the sideshow of freaks, tattooed lady, snake charmers, the dog-faced boy and an actual three-legged man.

This little-documented extravaganza went on for six decades in the Rogue Valley and will be detailed in a presentation, "Elephants on Main Street: When the Circus Came to Southern Oregon by Rail," at noon Wednesday at the Ashland Public Library.

An exhibition on the theme will be shown at Ashland Railroad Museum on A Street (across from Ashland Hardware), starting Thursday and running through March 15. It will feature posters preserved by an Ashland couple, Roger and Meryle Rinker, who in 1974, found the posters plastered on boards used to construct their home's attic on Iowa Street — and sold all but one of them, for handsome sums, to support themselves during a crisis with cancer.

"People absolutely adored the circus, no matter what it did," said museum director Victoria Law, noting its pick-pocketing, short-changing, rigged gambling and other vices. "They only stayed one day and they were gone — and your money with them."

The many circuses, some 40 of them documented so far, made their way to the Rogue Valley after the completion of the railroad to Ashland in 1884 and increased with the "golden spike" of 1887, connecting Oregon with California.

A few days in advance of each circus in Ashland and Medford, train cars would arrive with crews who would post thousands of posters on barns, walls and any other space, until the community was in a frenzy, says Law.

She told of one family that sold off its woodstove to gain money for the $3.75 admission.

"They boasted of 1,260 performers, 40 elephants," says Laws. "It was a crazy, extravagant, over-the-top kind of thing, which we know of from diaries of the time. It was an education for the community and transformed communities. No one had ever seen an elephant or giraffe, let alone Japanese acrobats, Siberian skaters or Russian aerialists."

In her research, Law has interviewed several people who were children here during circus days. Some said that when the circus train pulled up in the spacious grounds just west of Ashland's Mountain Avenue, they garnered free passes by washing elephants and pounding tent pegs.

"The Daily Tidings would print stories warning of the thieves in circuses, but no one cared," said Law, pointing to a museum display carrying a quote from the diary of Wellbourn Beeson of Talent, noting, "George Robison went to the Circus and gambled $75.00 away on the old fashioned thimble Rig game, but tells His folks He had it stole from him. It will learn him a lesson, Maybe, not to bet on any ones game, but His own."

The Rinker family, when remodeling their home at 724 Iowa Street in 1974, found 15 circus posters pasted on the back of boards facing the attic space and managed, they said, to survive expensive chemotherapy by selling all but one of them — which they gave to Law last week for restoration. These boards were presumably recycled from barn siding, Law said.

"We discovered that there was something colorful behind the wall when my husband cut a hole to put in electricity in the room — the piece he removed had bright colors on it," wrote Meryle Rinker, in a note to Law. "We then started pulling down boards enough that we could get behind the wall and see what was there with a flashlight. Of course we were ecstatic — we loved antiques and especially old paper ... . We took all the loose boards into the backyard and began to try to match them up. It was a difficult task, but we enjoyed every minute of it."

The circus was not all fun and games. The rough handling and confined spaces provided large circus animals would never be allowed in today's world, says Law, and even drew critical comments in the Tidings at the time.

The days of the railroad-transported circus lasted until 1958, when the main railroad line was diverted to run from Weed, Calif. to Eugene, bypassing the steep Siskiyou Pass — and the Rogue Valley. But for 60 years, she says, "It was a huge thing. Everything closed, schools and businesses. Everyone wanted to go. No one wanted to be left out."

The museum's display features reproductions of many old posters and dramatic circus ads from The Ashland Daily Tidings, as well as a 1937 movie of the circus in Ashland playing on an endless loop and showing elephants marching past familiar plaza buildings. Law's talk at the Ashland library is free and open to the public.

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

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