History | Norfolk's Circus Boy | Back
The ponderous elephant pushed hopelessly mired cage-wagons onto the road again.

Farm Boy helped Barnum bring 
First Circus to make
Ontario's eyes pop

That Boy is Living Yet on a Farm in Norfolk County 
He Drove a Lion Cage and had Great Adventures 
Big Show not owned by P. T. Brnum 
but by Henry Barnum, no relation, 
who paid for use of P. T.'s name
by B. M. Pearce
(in Toronto Star Weekly)

This is a true story of the Barnum Circus, and of the only known Canadian boy who travelled with that famous show, when it came overland through Canada in the early 1860s.
Nelson Forse was only 18 years old when he ran away from home to join the circus. Exciting stories he had read of life beneath the big top had fired his imagination and robbed farm chores of their fascination for him. Plough and harrow had been his daily fare, but all the time he was building castles in the air -- castles where fantastic clowns and shaggy-maned lions were the principal actors and he was their loyal playmate.
So one dark night in the year 1857, which is long ago, Nelson Forse decided his dreams should become reality. With a few silver pieces jingling in his pocket and a bundle of clothes over his shoulder, he crept stealthily down the rickety stairs of the old farm house which he called home, and was swallowed up in the shadows of the night.
How he reached Albany, N.Y. where the Barnum Circus was showing, is a long story, too long to be repeated here. He was a strapping, robust lad and had no trouble securing a job as driver of a provision wagon.

Thus commenced the circus career of Nelson Forse and for the next 18 years he served the Baruum show, in return for enough food to keep a growing boy alive, a make-shift bed and an adventuresome existence among the wild animals, the rough circus men, and all the freaks that went to make up that famous show.

Today Nelson Forse is farming in Norfolk County, Ontario not far from his birthplace, and though he has seen 84 summers, time has dealt generously with him. He still enjoys hoeing in the garden, wielding the buzz saw, driving his horse to town over the road where he once rode on top of a lion cage.

But his chief delight lies in rehashing Barnum Circus days. His memories of those eventful times are very vivid and he revels in reciting the colorful incidents of his circus experiences. Especially is he fond of retelling the annual pilgrimages of the Barnum Circus over the Canadian circuit.

"The summer trip through Ontario and Quebec was always a favorite one," says Nelson Forse. "This may seem odd in view of the fact that at the  time the country was densely wooded, the roads were only partially broken trails, and as we traveled at night our only beacons were the flickering lanterns that hung beneath  each wagon. 

"Though the journey was long and tiresome, nearly every circus man enjoyed showing in Canadian towns and mingling with Canadian people. As far as I was concerned it was only natural that I should be glad to be in my native province again.

"As a rule, we came in from the west at Sarnia, which incidentally  was one of the best show towns in Ontario. Striking north, we followed the lakeshore road, making one-day stands in Kincardine, Owen Sound, Collingwood, and other young towns in the Georgian Bay district.

"On the return trip we followed the Longwoods road through to Chatham, where we usually stopped for a couple of days. Although thickly populated with Negroes Chatham was one of the best paying circus towns in western Ontario.

"The river boat was plying between Chatham and Detroit, at that time and I recall crossing to the American side by boat one summer, I think in the year 1860. Leaving Chatham,  the circus passed on to The Kiln, Strathroy and Lucan. 

"I remember well a stirring incident that happened in Lucan. Henry Barnum would never allow any sort of rowdyism in the camp, but the men were always prepared to defend themselves. One night, when the rough element in Lucan got busy, we had an opportunity to display our wares. One of our drivers chanced to overhear a plot to run some of our cages and wagons down a steep hill. We laid in ambush and when the Lucanities showed up we pounced and beat them to a pulp.
"In all the smaller towns and villages we made only one-night stands, but in such places as London and St. Thomas we stopped for two or three days. 

"Proceeding eastward we visited Ingersoll, Woodstock, Tillsonburg and Simcoe. The latter town was perhaps the greatest driving centre for its size in Ontario. Henry Barnum, the circus owner, knew I used to live near Simcoe and whenever we approached the town he would say affectionately. "Well, Big Nels, we're coming to the little town among the Willows," 

"Every time we were leaving Simcoe I felt I would like to desert for a while, and go back to the old folks on the farm, but the sense of duty in the Barnum Circus was great enough to overcome any yearning of this sort.

"Brantford and Hamilton were the next show places and then on to Central Ontario, Galt, Guelph, Preston, Berlin and Stratford were all good circus towns. 

"The last named was a real dyed-in-the-wool show town in those days. It was branded by travelers as a bad place to start anything, for the pugilistic fires were always smoldering in Stratford and only a slight breeze was required to set the whole town ablaze.

"During one stay we made there, a man named Bates who drove our band wagon, got into an argument with one of the downtown rowdies, that ended in a thorough trouncing for the latter.

"In a trice the streets were buzzing with excitement. I was almost the exact image of Bates, and two Stratford policemen started to arrest me in mistake. I was rather a powerful fighter myself in those days and I had just managed to knock out both of them when someone gave the "hey, Rube" call. Our fellows came streaming from nowhere, and in half an hour we had cleaned up the whole town. The next day a traveler told us he counted 42 bandaged heads in Stratford that morning.

"Traveling northerly we stopped at Georgetown, Milton, Orangeville, Newmarket and Aurora. Orangeville was always a red hot circus town. Sectional feeling ran high in those days, and I remember seeing the Orangemen and the Catholics wage a regular pitched battle on Orangeville's main street.

"Of course Toronto, although only a good-sized town in the 1860s, was the big circus centre of the Ontario  circuit. We showed at the north end of University avenue, and circus goers came from miles around to see the wonders of the great Barnum show.

"Whenever we landed in Toronto, the celebrated P. T. Barnum came over from New York to officially open the circus. He was an accomplished orator, and hundreds came just to hear him speak.

"We had another lively scrap in Toronto one night. About 50 of the smart crowd planned to wreck our show. Their advance agent was a swell dude, who came swaggering into the big tent with his sweetheart on his arm just as the evening performance was about to start.

"Our usher offered them several seats but they preferred to stroll about the ring, obstructing the view of patrons. The usher, who was also Barnum's chief detective, warned them to be seated, on penalty of being ejected. They refused to comply and Mr. Dude was tossed bodily from the tent. That was the signal for the storm. It was a lively scene for a few minutes, but our fellows were burly, two-fisted fighters, and soon pummeled the gangsters into submission.

"Our eastern route included Oshawa, Whitby, Port Hope, Cobourg, Belleville, Picton, Kingston, Gananoque, Prescott, Pembroke, and Ottawa. We were at the Capital when they were working on the parliament buildings, and I remember we showed directly across the commons from them.

"Crossing into Quebec, we showed at Hull, Three Rivers, Point Lewis and Quebec City.

"I have not forgotten the time we were in the ancient capital when Prince Napoleon of Frances was visiting there. I was sound asleep under my cage-wagon when his boat steamed into the harbor. Directly above me were the fort's guns, and when they boomed their salute, I was certain an earthquake had struck us. 

"The Indians at Point Lewis were also holding a big pow-wow in honor of Prince Napoleon. The Prince drove into camp in a fine phaeton drawn by a span of snow-white horses. During the noisy ceremony, these horses broke loose, smashed the phaeton to pieces and trampled dozens of the stakes that supported our tents.

"Returning on the south side of the St. Lawrence we stopped at Richmond, Sorel and St. John's, then crossed the boundary at Rouse's Point, at the mouth of Lake Champlain, and proceeded south for the winter.

"In the days when it was an overland show," continues Nelson Forse, "the Barnum circus was by far the largest on the continent. It comprised 42 cages, 60 wagons, 323 horses and 325 men. 

"I was one of the drivers and my daily work consisted of piloting from eight to 10 horses attached to a huge lion cage over the highways and byways of the United States and Canada. It was quite an art to drive horses in squads of six and 10, with the whip as the principal persuader. The experienced driver always held the lines with one hand to check the horses, with the other in control of the whip.

"Our work commenced an hour or two after midnight. Immediately following the evening performance, down came the tents, the beasts were rushed to their cages and the waiting wagons commenced the tedious all-night journey to the next show place.

"Each man understood his duties perfectly and the last stake was generally pulled within an hour after the circus crowd had dispersed. We never averaged more than seven or eight miles an hour, but the pace never slackened, for we had to be on time for the regular forenoon procession at the next town.

"The trying difficulties we encountered in traveling by night those wrenched roads can be easily imagined. Some of them were verifiable quagmires. We often had to bring up the ponderous elephant, Tippo Sahib, who by sheer brute strength could extricate the heaviest wagon from the deepest mud hole. Many times I have seen him push hopelessly mired cage wagons on to the highway again.

"The problem of travel was partially solved by pathfinders, who went in advance of the show, to pick out the best roads. The first advance agent went six or eight weeks ahead of the show, to arrange for feeding the animals. Then there was another pathfinder who would go two weeks in advance, reporting specifically on every turn in the road. 

"Finally followed the 24-hour man, who would leave the circus grounds at 10 o'clock at night, and go ahead on the route we were to follow. He would either use a rail or pile up grass, to indicate the way we were to go, and would mark the dangerous places with red lanterns, which the driver of the last wagon would gather up. 

"I knew one of Barnum's advance men of whom it was said he had covered more than 100,000 miles in one buggy.

"When on the march, the baggage wagons were always in the vanguard, followed by the animal wagons. With 60 wagons in the procession, extending about a mile in length, it was a truly imposing spectacle.

"As we approached the town, the caravan began to take on signs of life, for everyone had to be groomed for the parade before we entered the city. after the parade our work was done for the day. Usually we slept till nearly midnight, then breakfasted and were ready for the next lap of the endless overland journey.

"In the days of the wagon circus we slept in the open under canvas. Nobody went to hotels except featured performers, but we had the best food in the land that money could buy, and all we could eat at that. Beef, chickens and vegetables were part of our daily menu.

"In the western country where game was plentiful, our sharp-shooters would always supply us with prairie chickens and venison. And there was no stinting in the grubhouse. We could always pass the plate around for the second time.

"Moreover, the eating tent was always clean and orderly, for Henry Barnum would never tolerate anything but cleanliness in his show. No man could enter the tent in his shirt sleeves. Mr. Barnum always sat at the same  table with his employees and anyone who did not know him would never distinguish the wealthy circus magnate.

"But Barnum circus employees were not only well fed. They were generously paid. We drivers received $72 a month and board. The lowest salary was $25 a month and board, while the highest paid ranged close to $100 a week. 

"No employee could draw his entire pay until the end of the season unless he quit. Consequently, the Barnum staff of 328 men and women were steadfast in their loyalty to Henry Barnum and seldom was he troubled with dissension among them.

"When my friends ask me about the Barnum circus," says the veteran cage-driver, "they invariably assume that P. T. Barnum was the captain in command. That is an absolutely erroneous idea.

"From the day I joined the circus in 1857 until I drew my last pay slip in 1875, Henry Barnum, who claimed no kinship whatever to the celebrated P. T., was the exclusive owner and director of the big show. He was a Connecticut Yankee, a born circus promoter, and although he died a poor man as the result of disastrous investments, at one time he had accumulated a fortune estimated at $17 million.

"With a small beginning in the year 1834, he gradually built his show until it was recognized for many years as the premier circus in America. 

"With it for a long time was associated the 'one and only' Van Amburgh Golden Menagerie. Van Amburgh has gained world fame because of his daring work among the wild animals of his menagerie, and had come to be known as the king of lion-tamers.. He was still with our circus when he died in 1863. 

"I knew him very well and remember his death distinctly. We were showing in Philadelphia at the time. One Sunday, which by the way, was always a day of leisure for all of us, the intrepid lion-tamer went alone on a fishing trip. He returned towards dusk with a good-sized catch. One of our crowd queried 'Are you going to eat them, Van?' The rejoinder came without hesitation: 'I'll eat them by -- or die.' He passed to his reward later the same evening.

"In 1868, Henry Barnum entered a partnership with another circus promoter. It was, however, short-lived, for the following year when fire destroyed the famous Barnum museum in New York, the circus split up and Henry Barnum started out with a new show called Central Park. I was still driving a cage for him in the new circus. We toured the West that year and enjoyed a fairly successful season.

"But upon our return to New York, Barnum announced that he had decided to buy a whole new circus in England. At once he selected 17 of his employees, including myself, to cross the Atlantic and being back the new show.

"We were in the old country nine weeks and landed back in New York on St. Valentine's Day, 1871. with a brand new show, known in England as Howe's Circus and Sanger's English Menagerie.

"The new tableau wagons, made of carved wood and inlaid with gold gilt, were magnificent. In the sunlight they shone like a mountain of silver and gold. They were 15 feet high and were drawn by 12 horses. In fact, they were so high that we were compelled to lower them when passing under railroad crossings. 

"Inside one of the parade wagons was a huge wooden elephant which, when wound up would slowly  rise on to the top of the wagon as the procession passed along the street.

"But the 142 head of English horses we brought back proved utterly useless, due no doubt to the effects of the stormy ocean voyage. So we exchanged them for French steeds at Montreal. I drove a span of these beauties for eight years. They were my lead horses and were extraordinarily intelligent, knowing the various routes was well as I did.

"We had only one side-show. Jake Reid, whom I knew very intimately, was the enterprising owner. His stunt comprised a weird dance by two idiotic, flat-headed children, a boy and a girl, whom he picked up in Ohio. 

"Reid had an uncanny flow of oratory and held out his protégés as a pair of Australian wild children. They would protest vehemently to the audience in an endeavor to disprove their master's assertion. But this only served to add to the general merriment of the crowds. 

"The children, though nearly white, were in reality Negroes. The whole side-show was a humbug, but Jake Reid and his kids never failed to make a hit, and I know he cleaned up a fortune before retiring.

"Among the many outstanding attractions was the "fat lady." She weighted over 400 pounds. I had an amusing experience with her one day at Amherstburg. That village was then known as Moulden, and a provincial insane asylum was located there. The 'fat lady' insisted on visiting it. I consented to accompany her.

"We had just got inside the date when one of the inmates stalked forth and commanded us to halt. The 'fat lady' was petrified and her many superfluous pounds trembled in waves of fear. Fortunately the keeper appeared just then, the imbecile disappeared, and we were shown through ths institution.

"There were many thrills in the Barnum circus. The 'old man' by virtue of his generosity, had secured for his show the most notable aerobatic performers in either hemisphere. Their daring stunts alone were worth the price of admission.

"They flirted with death every day, but during my 18 years with the show only two of them were fatally injured. An acrobat named Kelly, whose feat was a leaping triple somersault from a springboard over the backs of 21 horses, lined up side by side, miscalculated the distance one afternoon and falling, broke his neck. The other, a young French-Canadian performer, who earned his salary by lifting a huge cask of water with his teeth, overtaxed his strength and died as the result of a broken blood vessel in his neck.

I remained with the Barnum circus until 1875," concludes Mr. Forse, "when one of the promoters conceived the idea of travelling from town to town by rail. It is argued that with receipts ranging from five to seven thousand dollars in the larger cities, and falling below two thousand in the smaller places, it would pay in the long run to transport the show by rail. 

"Thus Barnum's became a railroad circus, over, however the protests of the great showmen and a big percentage of their employees, to whom the long journeys overland presented an unconquerable fascination, and who were reluctant to forsake the old wagons for the railway coach. .I was one of them, and I drew my last pay slip from the Barnum show in the autumn of 1875."

In contradiction to the popular belief that circus like in the pioneer days was an unenviable one, Mr. Forse asserts that those 18 years were the most delightful of his entire career. In his own words, "The days of the overland circus have come and gone, but I would not have missed them for the world. The life possessed a certain glamor that time itself could not dispel. For months after I left the circus I could not sleep. At midnight I could still hear the harsh cries of the boss hustler, the loading of wagons, and the crackle of whips. Sense of habit compelled me to arise from my bed, pull on my clothes and cry "Let's go." Then and only then could I retire for a good night's sleep." 

The foregoing article is a lightly-edited transcript of an article by Bruce M. Pearce in the 5 Feb 1925 issue of the Waterford Star
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