The circus is coming

Tim Willoughby
Aspen Times Weekly
Willoughby Collection/Denver Public LibrarySells Brothers Circus, an annual performance in Aspen, parades in Denver.

Summertime meant circuses in Victorian Aspen. Once the railroads reached town at least one of the 17 circuses that toured the country by rail during the height of circuses (1870-1905) paid Aspen a visit. It was the highlight of the summer.

P.T. Barnum has been given credit for the circus that bears his name, but a partner initiated the expansion of traveling circuses. When Barnum’s famous museum that housed his menagerie of popular oddities burned down in 1868, he turned his attention to lecturing. In the early 1870s, he lent his name as he developed a partnership with W.C. Coup, a traveling circus owner. It was Coup who recognized the value of railroads. Coup developed methods of loading and unloading a circus from a train, and a marketing strategy of stopping at fewer towns for consolidated audiences. By 1890 three-ring circuses crisscrossed the country.

Aspen attracted many of the circuses that later merged into the Barnum and Bailey super show. Two regular companies, Sells Brothers and the Adam Forepaugh Circus, performed annually for Aspen’s audiences. In 1896, two different circuses performed just one day apart from each other. Although Aspen was large enough to attract a circus, they usually performed for only one day. By the 1890s, circuses had two or three rings, with tents large enough to house everyone in the area in one or two performances.

Circuses of the time modeled Barnum’s entertainment formula: oddities like dwarfs, giants and Siamese twins; daredevil acts like trapeze and horsemanship; thematic displays from other cultures; animals and animal acts; and gaming (gambling).

Sells Brothers displayed a tropical aquarium in 1891; aquaria were a novelty at that time. It also featured a male and a female hippopotamus. In that same year, the Forepaugh Circus highlighted a lion tamer with five lions and a trapeze act.

Circuses added Wild West “shoot-’em-up acts” in the 1890s due to the popularity of the Buffalo Bill Cody Wild West Show. A Sells Brothers Wild West act particularly attracted the attention of Aspenites because in a previous stop in Iowa, live bullets had been mistakenly loaded into the guns and four performers were shot. In 1901, Sells entertained Aspen with gladiatorial contests.

Adam Forepaugh was known to be a bit disreputable with false advertising and crooked games. Unfortunately his deeds gave all circuses a bad reputation. Aspen’s newspapers were filled with stories of residents who had been swindled, and scary stories from other cities. An 1896 Aspen Times editorial noted, “The circuses came so early this season that the people may have time to recuperate sufficiently financially to buy their winter’s coal.”

Sells and Forepaugh consolidated into the Barnum and Bailey and Ringling Brothers Circus. That larger circus made fewer stops and began their first coast-to-coast trip in 1905. It did not stop in Aspen, but locals traveled to Leadville and Grand Junction to see this super-sized circus. The tent could hold 15,000 patrons and the Leadville show drew 11,000. The 87 circus rail cars and thousand employees were a whole different scale than the smaller circuses of the past. That ended Aspen’s circus summers.