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Remembering Circus Parades in Michigan of the Early 1900s

Until about 1920, the day the circus arrived at the local train station was considered a sort of holiday. A festive atmosphere would ensue for kids in town. All the circus performers, animals, tents, and large impressive gilded wagons were unloaded and formed into an impromptu parade through town en route to the town’s fairgrounds.

Ringling Circus Parade in Detroit
Ringling Circus Parade in Detroit – Courtesy Detroit Public Library

In the early 1900s, the Barnum & Bailey Circus would leave their winter quarters and tour the country. Michigan tour stops include Detroit, Saginaw, Grand Rapids, and even Ironwood in the Upper Penninsula. The entire number of staff and performers would exceed 1000.

Elephants Leaving Train Car
Elephants Leaving Train Car – Courtesy Detroit Public Library

The Barnum and Bailey Circus – The Greatest Show on Earth would present a menagerie of various acts and shows. Dancing elephants, equestrian seals, squads of clowns, sword swallowers, and of course aerial specialists, acrobats, and high wire trapeze acts. In 1904 the latest and greatest thriller was “The Balloon Horse Jupiter.”

Video of Barnum Circus Parade in 1904

As the circus train would stop at each stop, the town folk would eagerly await the parade through town. This was considered the circus’s first act. It served to transport the entire troop, tends, and animals to the big top. The parade would serve the dual purpose of a living advertisement through town.

This small shot from the early 1900s shows a large parade of at least 20 elephants pulling a wagon through Bay City.

Bay City Circus Parade c1905

By the late 1920s, circus acts started to discontinue the parades. Circus troops would use trucks instead of trains, and the circus act could be set up further away from the train depot.

The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus performed with Asian elephants for the last time on May 1, 2016, in Providence, Rhode Island. Thirty elephants once used in the circus shows will move to a new, 2,500-acre habitat at White Oak, Florida, in 2021.

Sources for Circus Parades in Michigan

Images provided courtesy the Detroit Public Library Digital Collections

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