The history of the Forepaugh-Sells Circus in Cheboygan overlaps with the history of the Opera.
In 1888, the city’s rulers couldn’t imagine Cheboygan, with a population of less than 10,000, supporting a circus of this size. A small circus has come to Cheboygan for the greatest pleasure of all. The Cheboygan Democrat wrote: “The circus itself was everything it claimed to be and satisfied everyone not stupid enough to expect a Barnum or Forepaugh in a small town.
But as Cheboygan grew, expectations increased. In 1899 a small Forepaugh-Sells circus arrived in Cheboygan.
In 1905, the new rail route opened by Detroit and Mackinaw Railroad brought two things: better entertainment for the Opera House and greater competition. Extensive rail services have moved giant tent shows to cities off the main tracks. At that time, the Forepaugh-Sells Circus was as big as the PT Barnum Circus. The Opera, without air conditioning, could not cope with this summer competition. They played old chestnuts like “la Dame de Lyon” during circus week – in front of a very small audience.
The Forepaugh-Sells Circus had grown astronomically as railway-driven tent shows made fortunes for owners and managers. And Cheboygan had also grown, with a population of over 16,000. The circus, coming July 29, has set up “on the land on the east side of the river, north of the sawdust heap”, near where the Cheboygan recreation center is today. . The D&M Railway brought in at least 28 train cars, “14 cars, 2 passenger cars and 11 circus cars,” according to the Cheboygan Democrat.
The show included 300 performers and as many support staff. “The greatest menagerie of exotic animals of all time” had its own tent with over 100 cages, including “rhinos, giant African elephants with umbrella ears, a horned horse, polar bears (12 perfect specimens ), a black vard, a white yak, a tapir, and baby black tigers and Bengal tigers.Three large groups of elephants are used to perform acts.
The circus parade was a mile long. In Alpena where the circus first stopped, the Evening News reported the parade: Hussars, 14th Century Knights, a military display depicting the American armies of the wars of 1776, 1812, 1843, 1861 and 1898. Three herds of elephants, a group of Russian dancers, male and female, in the costumes worn at the Russian wedding feast, also a number of Japanese in their native costumes, three herds of camels, Arabian thoroughbreds, picture carriages, cavalcades, etc.
In 1907, Cheboygan County reached a maximum population of about 17,000, which it would not see again until 1980. The Forepaugh-Sells Circus tripled in size.
“The main marquee at Forepaugh-Sells Circus is the largest canvas pavilion ever. It covers two hectares of land and can accommodate 14,000 people. At I are three rings, two stages and a vast racecourse course.
The cast and crew numbered 1,200 people. The parade included “500 horses with harnesses mounted in silver and numerous vans, charlots and dens hand-carved and decorated with pure gold leaf”. The parade was three miles long.
In 1911, the circus was presented as “the largest marquee ever erected in 6 large arenas”. 1,000 people, 350 artists, 750 wild animals – “the largest menagerie in the world. Three herds of acting elephants, an automobile that did a double somersault from a ramp and a big new street parade arrived in Cheboygan, ready to perform.
The parade moved to the city center. “Paw was there in his rusty Prince Albert, Maw in his cashmere and alpaca. They stood around the corner and watched the parade go by… A howling and crackling spectacle swayed through the streets, from marching bands to the sheet music, the same large squad of elephants, the same cages of jungle people, and to the far rear, to be sure, a howling and hissing calliope.
But the main event was not to be. Near the Cheboygan River where the circus was camped, the largest pile of sawdust in the world caught fire, with “a 40 mile gale and billows of thick yellow smoke … A single spark from the great spitting fire that spewed out. started on sawdust mountain would have meant irreparable disaster and management refused to take a chance. Not only that, but the smell of fire threatened the excitement in the animal quarters, which is one of the great things to look for around a circus tent. So, with the howl of the wind and the swirls of dust and smoke, the great canvas clouds were knocked down, the pink lemonade put back in the bins and the animals locked in their cages. The first circus that left more money in the central city than it took out is gone.
The expansion of Michigan’s rail system with the D. & M. Railroad brought good things to Cheboygan, great opera acts like Julia Gray and Eva Tanguay. This brought competition in the form of tent shows like Pawnee Bill’s Wild West Show and the Forepaugh-Sells Circus. But the D. & M. Railroad also brought advances that nearly destroyed northern Michigan and brought the economy to its knees.
To be continued …