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September 7, 2010 > History: When the Circus Came to Town

History: When the Circus Came to Town

Imagine it is the fall of 1877. Around a thousand people call Haywards home (there was an "s" on the end of the name until about 1911). The main shopping district in town is located along B Street between First and Watkins Streets; the most popular hotels in town were the Hayward's Hotel on A Street and the Oakes Hotel on Castro Street (now Mission Boulevard). Everyone goes about their business but there is anticipation in the air. Forepaugh's (pronounced "four paws") Circus and Menagerie is coming to town to hold its last performance of the year and then spend the winter here. What excitement!

Having a circus in town was not a new concept, but Forepaugh's circus was larger and grander than any that had visited Haywards before. The morning of October 13, 1877 dawned cloudy and gloomy, but the sun soon broke through. Residents of town, young and old alike, gathered to watch the circus parade into town. The first wagons that came carried canvas for the huge tents that housed the show. Quickly those tents were erected, probably at the Plaza (where the Hayward Public Library is today).

Soon the rest of show rolled into town. The town's only newspaper, the Hayward Journal, described the circus' entrance. "At the usual hour the magnificent chariot, drawn by the finest stock we ever saw connected with a show, and containing a first-class band drew out followed by a beautiful pageantry. The cages [filled with different animals] were of the finest make, resplendent in high colors, and biblical pictures, and as they passed through town the eyes of the community opened like unto the back door of a barn and gazed and wondered at the world of wealth on wheels." The open cages of lions with the "king of the tamers" Jack Forepaugh, the owner's son, riding along made a big impression.

Two shows were held that day, one at two o'clock and another at eight o'clock. The newspaper stated, "Mr. Forepaugh has all that he claims-the best traveling aggregation in the world. His menagerie is beyond comparison. He has ransacked the world to bring together this great combined collection, and stands today unrivaled in this line of the business." The show included bareback riders, acrobats, gymnasts, trapeze acts, and of course, clowns, along with camels, rhinoceros, hippopotamuses, leopards, bears, zebras, antelope, and many others. The elephants, lions and tigers all performed amazing feats highlighting the abilities of the circus' trainers to teach tricks to "the huge ungainly mountains of flesh." Since it was the last show of the season, the last song played was "Auld Lang Syne."

Following the stupendous performance, the performers left town, but the animals, equipment, and trainers stayed for the winter. Haywards was a perfect place for the circus to stay during winter because there were already facilities custom-made for a circus at the Oakes Hotel. Owner Tony Oakes had constructed a practice arena, stable, menagerie building with strong cages for the big cats and stalls for the less dangerous animals, and a variety of other buildings to house equipment and supplies. Montgomery Queen Circus had spent the three previous winters at the Oakes Hotel, which was why the circus facilities existed. Adam Forepaugh, who owned Forepaugh's Circus, had business dealings with the Montgomery Queen Circus so he no doubt had known that Haywards was a great winter place.

Circus trainers spent the winter months teaching the animals new tricks. Several articles appeared in the newspaper describing Jake Forepaugh's amazing skills and fearlessness as he worked with the lions and tigers, especially one big fellow named Sampson. Meanwhile, Adam Forepaugh spent time acquiring new horse stock and chariots to add more flash to the parades that announced the circus was in town. He also purchased new, bigger, fancier wagons and carriages to transport the circus and add to the pageantry.

Townspeople had the daily treat (though I'm sure some thought otherwise) of hearing the lions stretch their vocal cords, often, apparently, in the middle of the night, according to the newspaper editor's complaint. Every day a crowd gathered to watch the elephants drink; quite a novelty for most people!

A bit of additional excitement occurred when one of the rhinoceroses got angry and knocked over cages in the menagerie building. There was a great uproar from the animals and some fighting. No one knew what to do until Jack Forepaugh calmed both the animals and people. The animals were returned to their cages with no lasting injuries. The newspaper assured citizens that the animals were being more closely watched from then on so something like that would not occur again. It also reiterated that no animals had escaped during the upheaval, meaning the town was safe, despite the occasional rumors of lions roaming the streets.

At the end of March 1878, Forepaugh announced two performances for Haywards residents, a practice run as they prepared to head out on tour. This included the grand procession of the parade into town with the new, improved wagons that Forepaugh had purchased. Five elephants pulled a mammoth wagon, built specifically for Forepaugh at a cost of several thousand dollars. It was one of the main attractions of the parade. Another sight that stirred spectators was an unchained lion reclining on a wagon roof. The show itself had new improved animal tricks and performers. The admiring newspaper editor stated, "The people of the State [California] can prepare to be astonished."

Forepaugh's circus left town a few days later and traveled throughout the state before heading across the country. They never returned to Haywards, and it does not appear that a circus ever wintered in town again, though others visited in following years. While I'm sure the youngsters in town were disappointed at not being able to watch the elephants every day for a few months out of the year, no doubt the rest of the townspeople appreciated not having to listening to lions complaining in their cages all night!

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