LIMA — When John Robinson's Circus came to town, everyone took notice.
"The event of the season, the Great World's Exposition of old John Robinson, will be in Lima on Wednesday, Aug. 4, and every man, woman and child within 100 miles is growing happy at the news," an Allen County Democrat story reported July 22, 1875. “Old John Robinson is a man of immense wealth, and he spares no money to make his Menagerie, Aquarium and Circus beyond even an attempt at rivalry.”
The story explained the circus included "40 cages of beasts," with a giraffe, elephants, a rhinoceros, ostrich, sea lions and seals and lions. It was an exhibition worth more than $1 million, the newspaper reported.
“On the day of each exhibition, a splendid holiday street parade will be given through the place, and none of our readers should miss seeing it, as it will be a moving panorama of dazzling beauty, entertaining chariots, cages of wild beasts, dens of strange animals, ears of triumph, performing animals loose in the streets, kept in obeyance by experienced male and female trainers, bands of music comprising 40 men and in fact such a show has never yet visited our city, and no one within 50 miles should fail coming to witness its grandeur," the Democrat continued.
It was also careful to note the spectacle was "fully indorsed by clergymen of every denomination.”
John H. Robinson was born in about 1800 in South Carolina. He essentially ran away from home and joined the circus — and later would build one of his own, according to the Circus Historical Society and Circus 4 Youth websites. The John Robinson Circus operated for years, with winter headquarters in Terrace Park, outside Cincinnati. It eventually sold to American Circus Corp. of Peru, Ind., which in turn sold to Ringling Brothers.
But for a time, when smaller traveling shows were common, the John Robinson Circus was extremely popular in this area.
A wealth of information comes from a club started by The Lima News in 1929. It was called the John Robinson's Circus 50 Year Club. Residents who remembered seeing that circus in the 1800s in this area were invited to share their memories to be published just prior to a reappearance of the circus in town that year. The club eventually had 215 members, each receiving free admission to the show. Here are some of their memories, published in late April and early May 1929:
Henry Maisch, of Lima: “Fifty years is a long time, but I was born and raised a few miles southeast of Van Wert and it was in 1877 when I was 17 years old that I saw John Robinson’s Circus. The roads were bad and we hitched the horses to the big wagon early in the morning and reaching Van Wert in time to see the parade. I went to the show and when I got into the animal tent I saw a dozen or more small boys teasing the monkeys. The lads were funny — in their own estimation. But the monkeys turned the tables on them. The boys took peanuts out of the hulls and fill them with fine cut tobacco and then fed them to the monkeys. And what the monkeys did to pay the boys back for their smart work — well, it was funny.”
A.N. Stukey, of Lima: “I remember seeing John Robinson’s Circus twice prior to 1880. Once at Lima in 1869 and again at Delphos in 1875. I immensely enjoyed the bareback riding, hoop jumping and the antics of the clowns. I shall never forget my first experience with one of those mirrors that distort your reflection. Inside the big tent the mirror was situated. In those days most everyone wore paper collars. Well, mine became unattached. Trying to readjust my collar I noticed the mirror. Stepping in front of it I was dumbfounded to see myself reflected as squat and fat, whereas in reality I was tall and exceedingly lean. When I started to fasten my collar the top of my head — in the mirror — seemed to burst open. I was actually scared. I am now 75 years old and have lived in Allen County practically all my life.”
S.L. Fife, of Lakeview: “I was at Bellefontaine May 1, 1872. It rained all day and snowed at night. John Robinson’s Circus gave a sideshow but did not put on their big show. We were disappointed and many folks got drunk and landed in jail.”
John Mertz, of Lima: “About 60 years ago, John Robinson’s Circus came to New Bremen and showed on the east side of the canal. Farmers came for miles around in big farm wagons to see the big show. We started from home the day before and camped all night so as not to miss the circus. The show came to town early in the morning down the turnpike. The heavy wagons were drawn by horses. I was then 18 years old and it was my first circus. I had never before seen any of the wild animals I saw that day at the circus. The show as the marvel of my life — my first glimpse of the big outside world. Since then I have seen the show five times — and I’m usually on the lot in time to see them unload.”
W.A. Truesdale, of Lima: “I saw John Robinson’s Circus before 1880. I think it was the first time the show exhibited in Lima. I remember well that my father and 80 or 100 other old settlers went up to the show grounds. There was a man there with a striking machine. Father was asked to see how hard he could hit. He said he didn’t want to spoil the machine because that the way the man made his living. My father was then told that if he hurt the machine all of his companions as well as he could see the circus free. Just one lick settled it. They all got in the show free. I remember the fine horses and a man with a long whip. Twice afterward I saw John Robinson’s Circus in Lima. I am 80 years old.”
Walt Parmenter, of Franklin Type and Printing Co.: “I attended the John Robinson's Circus more than 50 years ago. My family then lived at the corner of Market and Metcalf streets, where the filling station is now located, and the circus pitched its tent on the common located between Market and High streets west of Baxter Street. Our ‘gang’ usually made friends with the circus crew, often assisting by lugging stakes — seemingly as big as telephone poles now are — and carrying buckets of water in an almost futile attempt to slake the thirst of the ponderous elephants and camels. The water was carried from the old Hughes well, situated just east of Baxter Street — the old home still stands there — a broad frame house with wide verandas and tall columns. I think I carried enough water from that well across the lot and up over the hill where Zeke Owen now lives to drown all the elephants ever in captivity. The circus men were a ‘hard’ lot but not a bad lot, and were generally responsive to the approaches of our ‘gang.’ Days of fair enchantment were spent by we boys around the animal tents, in amongst the gilded wagons — around the cook tent — and back among the dressing tents. In those days circuses were not so big as in 1929. They were usually single-ring shows. But I haven’t seen a circus in recent years that compares with those of 50 years back — the elephants are not so big — there are not so many fierce lions and tigers and bears — the aerial feats are not so daring and the clowns are not so funny. Nor are the lady performers so beautiful as they were prior to 1880 — at least they don’t seem so to me.”
C.S. Lathrop: “I saw John Robinson's Circus in Lima in 1867. The tent was pitched on the south side of the Pennsylvania tracks, about where the White Mountain Creamery now stands. There was only one tent, which covered the ring and the menagerie. The outstanding thing in my memory is the lone elephant. I spent much time sharing my lunch of crackers with it.”
J.J. Hover: “I remembering seeing John Robinson’s Circus in 1876 on Market Street near Baxter Street. There was a big menagerie and I recall seeing John Robinson standing in front of the animal exhibition. He was very jolly and seemed to be having a lot of fun. Was rather tall and slender and had chin whiskers. I remember there was a sea turtle and a boa constrictor. I thought I had caught large turtle, but I was amazed at the size of the turtle on display.”
Magician Col. W.W. Durbin shared he was inspired after seeing the show in Kenton: “It marked my starting point in magic.”
R.W. Parmenter: “The first circus I can remember in Lima was in 1862 on what is now the S.S. Coon Lumber Co. yards. I remember at one of the early circuses a young tornado blew the tent down and my father and myself took refuge under an animal cage. I saw John Robinson's Circus in Lima before 1880 when the show as given on the south side of Spring Street between McDonel and Metcalf streets. It was bigger than any show I had ever seen. … Later on in years, the show as staged near the present site of the Central High School and still later on West Market Street near Baxter Street.”
Charles A. Hume: “I saw John Robinson's Circus prior to 1879 in Lima. I took my best girl to see the show and we thought the clowns were very funny and the bareback riders very fine. I have been married to my best girl now for more than 50 years.”