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W. B. Reynolds Circus
No family was more prominent and active in the business affairs of Rockford in the 1870's and 1880's than that of G. W. "Wash" Reynolds, and no man was better known than William Reynolds. The elder Reynolds one of the pioneer business men of Rockford had a stable and feed business opposite the courthouse on Elm Street. W. B. Reynolds conducted a stable at Elm and Church Streets for some years and during this period he engaged actively in politics. He served as alderman for four years, 1887-1890 and in 1891 he became a candidate for mayor. Rockford was a small city then with a population of about 30,000. This election turned into one of the hardest fought elections in the community’s history up to that date. There were three candidates running for mayor, Mr. Reynolds, Horace Scovill and Henry N. Starr, in the end Starr was elected defeating Reynolds by a mere 357 votes. Soon afterwards Reynolds decided to leave politics and with the financial backing of his father he busied himself with plans to organize a circus. The entire country was scoured for first class attractions, and trusted agents were sent out to secure the finest horses and animals. Orders were given to the most celebrated costumer to make up the most elegant costumes. New elegant circus wagons, harnesses and all new trappings combined with new ideas and a new regiment was inaugurated in the circus world. He was able to purchase the two largest elephants in captivity, then known as Queenie and Baldy and advertised for people in all branches of circus business. Riders, gymnasts, acrobats, aerial artists, brother acts, singing and talking clowns, horizontal bar teams, contortionist, special novelty acts. First class lady artists, troupes of performing horses, ponies and dogs; also first class bill posters and lithographers, canvas men, grooms, chandelier men, property men, four, six and eight horse drivers. Wanted, for concert and sideshow, all kinds of living curiosities, double or triple bar teams, that do comics, tumble and leap, juggler that does fire king, lady for outside ascension and iron jaw in big show; singing and talking clown, barrel, globe and cross juggler, ceiling walker or human fly people. Also want a few more first class animals, also five or six camels, will buy or rent two more elephants. The actors and animals in the entire ensemble reported to Rockford for duty in early winter of 1891-92 and active rehearsals commenced at once. The one ring, 22 act show was designed to rival the biggest circus of the time, the Ringling Brothers.
The first performance of the W. B. Reynolds Consolidated Shows, Circus, Museum, Menagerie and Trained Animal Exposition took place on the afternoon of May 7, 1892, the people made it a public holiday, many of the factories shut down, and in the morning thousands of persons congregated on the streets to witness the parade and the parade received much applause all along the parade route. In those days when a circus came to town they would have a parade featuring the circus wagons, the animals and the performers. The parade was an exciting event, especially for the poorer people of town who could not afford a ticket to the circus. The densely crowded streets were an indication of things to come later that afternoon and evening on the opening of the circus at the county fairgrounds in Rockford. The afternoon show was crowded to the ring bank and the evening business was enormous. Although management had made accommodations for five thousand persons, by 7 o'clock there were over six thousand men, women and children and babies in arms, with still more people clamoring to get inside.
They had six men at the gate dispensing tickets and found it impossible to hand out tickets fast enough. Long before the performance commenced they filled every available inch of space, and over 2,000 people were turned away. The performance began with the tournament, in which the entire company appeared. The riding was graceful, picturesque, the figures being new and clever. Mr. Harry Potter next appeared on a high wire and performed many seemingly impossible feats. Following this, sixteen members of the company did some long distance leaping under the lead of the greatest of all somersault leapers, Mr. W. M. Batchellor. Charles T. Orville did some wonderful work balancing a barrel and table, perhaps the feature of the performance was the daring trapeze work of Harry and Ella Potter. Then came Eddie Cunningham, the boneless wonder, who seemed to have no trouble turning himself inside out. Miss Anna Carroll, in her equestrian act, easily established herself as a favorite. Orville did some great balancing on the high trapeze. The La Moyne brothers startled all by their daring horizontal bar work then came Sig Carlos, who in his Mexican hurdle act proved beyond a doubt that he lead all rivals. Miss Potter as the queen of the air went through evolutions on the flying trapeze, nearly taking away the breath of the onlookers. One of the features of the show was that of Fred Ledgett, a Rockford native known as Master Freddie, a bareback horse rider who at times would stand on the backs of two horses at once as they raced along the ring. There was a young boy who was a bicycle wizard and performed a high wire act. The performance concluded with Charles McMahon's sensational four horse act. McMahon was also a bareback rider that had no equal to his abilities. And the Reynolds circus band provided music for the shows. This is just a small sketch of the entire events and exhibition of the day. At the end of the two shows it was said that over 14,000 people from all around the area had seen the performances.
Son of a horseman, and himself a horseman, Will Reynolds stuck to the country roads instead of the railroads. The following day the circus that consisted of eighteen transportation wagons, twelve cages, two tableau cars, two band wagons, three advance wagons, four passenger wagons and several buggies, two elephants, three camels, the wonderful $5,000 performing moose, one hundred and fifty four head of horses and eight beautiful Shetland ponies. Among the horses were ninety-eight head of dappled gray and a pair of snow white horses, started rolling to the first stop of the season tour to Pecatonica on May 9, it was a cold and rainy day. Of course they also carried along with them the big top which was one hundred and twenty foot, with fifty foot middle piece. Menagerie that was seventy foot top, with three thirty foot middles. The museum was sixty foot with thirty foot middle, four horse tents and the cook tent and the wardrobe. Several waves of crews were sent out ahead of the shows to plan the route the circus would take, post bills, posters, distribute flyers and alert the press. They would also secure places where the circus would be held, arrange for feed for the animals, secure any necessary permits, etc. After the show at Pecatonica the show moved on to Freeport, with more rain, part of the baggage being left on the road. The rain continued and the performers and baggage went to Lanark by way of train. Roads were bad to Polo, more rain at Sterling. Business was good at Dixon. The grounds at Paw Paw were in such bad shape that only a variety show was given there. They continued on to Sandwich, Harvard, Marengo, Woodstock and the roads were bad everywhere but when the weather was favorable the business was excellent. The show was out 23 weeks from May until mid-October and would travel 1,124 miles through the four states of Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa as the caravan toiled across the landscape. There were periods of great prosperity and growth and others of almost unbelievable misfortunes such as 69 rainy days out of a possible 72 show days in the season. Their black tiger was killed by its cage flipping over on a muddy road, tents were blown down, their $5.000 performing moose died, wagons were stuck in mud and performances lost under the constant deluge of an almost unprecedented season. The circus returned to Rockford and the troupe held a performance on Ninth Street on October 13, 1892 and Friday and Saturday October 14-15 at the ball grounds. Water poured on the devoted troupe that season as steadily as "Wash" Reynolds poured money into William's tented enterprise. At the end of the first season they paid off the mud caked wagons when they rolled into winter quarters. After several flattering offers by the Ringling's to purchase the circus were rejected, the Reynolds started making preparations for the next season, deciding to go out on the rails, with a bigger and better three ringed circus.
The Reynolds show became a Rockford institution, the winter quarters of the show where the performers practiced their riding and other stunts was an attraction that many a person in Rockford would visit, and local pride was taken in the clean nature of the show which carried this city's name throughout the country. Winter quarters were in the various properties of the Reynolds family, mainly on Elm Street and another property on North Court Street. At first the elephants were quartered at the barn in back of the family home on North Court Street. The upper floor of the barn was removed and several feet of ground had to be excavated to make room for them. Later on they were wintered on Elm Street and on one occasion they broke lose in the middle of the day. The pair of elephants raced up South Court Street to West State, they traveled east on State to Main and ran down South Main Street several blocks before they were recaptured by "Dutchy", their trainer. The vacation was short lived and no damage was done. But in another incident the outcome was not so good when a lion in winter quarters escaped from his cage and a fierce battle between the beast and the attendants ensued. The lion first attacked and killed a valuable midget pony, then seriously lacerated a kangaroo and tore the monkey's cage to pieces, injuring several of the animals. The keepers eventually succeeded in lassoing and holding the infuriated beast until he could be chained to the floor. In spite of all of this the Reynolds show would start next spring bigger and brighter than ever.
In 1893 Reynolds sold his "complete wagon show outfit" and became one of the earliest shows to utilize the railroad on a special train that was new and equipped with all modern improvements for transportation from point to point, the new title of the show became Reynolds Great Railroad Show, Circus Menagerie and Royal Roman Hippodrome. The name would appear on special streamers, posters and in newspaper headlines during the tented 1893 season that heralded the coming of one of the best railroad shows on the road. Mr. Reynolds spared no time, labor or expense to make the current season an "age of progress". The executive staff in 1893 included W. B. Reynolds, sole owner and manager; D. J. Fitzgerald and R. L. Reynolds, superintendent; Ford Rowe, treasurer; J. P. Fagin, general agent; Charles O'Dell, equestrian director; Professor Gab Boone, musical director; Clay Lambert, contracting agent; L. C. Black, general advertising agent; B. R.Clawson, press agent. There were three brigades ahead of the show. New circus tents were purchased and included the hippodrome that topped out at 150 feet with three 50 foot middle pieces. The menagerie top was 80 feet with three 30 foot middle sections. The dressing room top was 60 feet with a single 30 foot middle piece. The museum was 60 feet with one 30 foot middle piece. Talent for the season included Charles O'Dell, Melrose Brothers, J. C. Carrier, Harry La Sage,the Potters, Bowen Brothers, O'Dell Brothers, Madam Dorr, Del Fugo, William Elkins and wife, John Scheidler and wife, Max Littlefinger, Miss Carrie Mueller, Miss Myrtle Day, Gertie Platt, May DeRosa, Jennie McCauley, Emma Richardson, Madam Adella Demby, F. M. Whitlock, Donald McGregor, Madam Verona, C.H. Anderson and the celebrated European novelties, the Serona family, four in number. Proffessor Gabe Boones's Columbian Band consisting of eighteen pieces.
In the afternoon of Monday July 10, 1893 while the circus was performing in Beloit, Wisconsin, Reynolds big elephant Queen Jumbo ran away during a performance, running from the ring, charging through the tent wall leaving a 30 foot hole in the tent. The elephant ran to the river, where after a great chase, it was eventually lured back to the circus grounds. The day before one of their most valuable horses died as the result of a kick from a vicious stable mate and in the evening Mrs. Potter was injured by a kick from her favorite horse and was unable to go on with her performance for the evening. Previous to this on the past Friday the circus train was involved in a wreck, and although no great damage was done the wagons were damaged enough as to require minor repair and repainting. On July 28, 1893 a circus tent was blown down at Staunton, Illinois. There was panic for a few minutes, but no one was injured. The show traveled on that season through the states of Illinois, Wisconsin, Iowa, Nebraska, Ohio, Kentucky, Alabama, Ohio, New York and Tennessee. It was a poor year for all of the shows because of the depression, Barnum & Bailey, Forepaugh, Ringling Brothers, Sells and many more in fact lost money. Circus employees went unpaid for weeks and were getting restless, many left for other jobs and some threatened to file suit. In November 1893 while in Chattanooga, Tennessee, The employees seized the circus equipment in protest of not being paid their back wages W. B. Reynolds concluded that his collection of people was not sufficient and decided to roll up his tent and silently leave and head straight home for Rockford. Although the show was booked through December 2, and if they continued on the road with the show until then they might have broken even, but the weather had changed for the worse adding to their woes. Reynolds would state that the show was a valuable one and that if lawsuits were brought against it would have fallen to pieces and been eaten up by the lawyers. "Wash" Reynolds was compelled therefore to take possession and was forced to go there from Rockford with enough money to recover the equipment. The animals and the rest of the show returned to Rockford to winter here, and plans were drawn up for the next season.
The Reynolds World United Shows, Circus, Menagerie and Royal Roman Hippodrome, would start the 1894 season with an opening performance at the fairgrounds in April with what it had planned to be a continuing annual event before taking the show on the road for the season. Many of the same performers as before signed onto the show, and once again they would travel across Illinois, Wisconsin, Iowa, Nebraska, and other states. The circus was well known for its animal acts and was very well trained. The animal acts were performed with no cages (barriers) between the lions and tigers and the people. One act even featured a lion riding a horse. Once again the circus was dogged by cold, snow, sleet and rain but at the end of the season upon returning to Rockford in October, the show was deemed a success.
Reynolds managed to keep his circus together even after the previous years had not fared well. Still the circus only went out with eight cars in 1895, they would advertise that the circus cost them $1,000 a day to put the show on. In 1896 they went out but with only 5 cars and admission at twenty and ten cents. They spent much of the season showing in the Chicago suburbs thus cutting down on travel expenses. After the death of G. W. Reynolds in 1896 the battle was finally abandoned and William Reynolds would place the following ad: For Sale Reynolds Circus, Menagerie and Hippodrome. The entire outfit, consisting of band wagons, ticket wagon, cages, tableau chariots, baggage wagons, cars, animals, horses, harness, trappings, wardrobe, lights, tents, poles and all properties complete. Animals include the two largest and best performing elephants in American; also the lot of ring stock, then in number, will be sold in a bunch or separate. G. W. Reynolds, sole owner, Rockford, Ill.
On August 12, 1896 the Ringling Brothers bought the failing W. B. Reynolds Circus and all of its belongings finally obtaining the circus they had been trying to acquire since 1892. The sale included the two elephants, Baldy and Queen who remained with the Ringling show many years until their deaths. Many of the Reynolds performers would sign on with the Ringling Circus. The Ringling Brothers continued to buy up other circuses including Barnum & Bailey in 1907; in 1919 they merged the two shows together forming The Greatest Show on Earth: Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus.
After the sale of his circus to the Ringling Brothers, Will Reynolds would visit with the two elephants Queenie and Baldy, year after year when the Ringling Circus came to Rockford, and he was always recognized with every evidence of joy by both. William B. Reynolds passed away at the Masonic Home in Sullivan, Illinois Wednesday December 3, 1924. In March of 1930 Queenie, veteran elephant of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus died as she was being taken into the Bronx coliseum. Her longtime companion, Baldy, who shared her circus career over the span of nearly a human lifetime and was with her in the Reynolds show, died in the same place a year earlier. Fred Ledgett, equestrian director and bareback rider who got his start with the Reynolds Circus and later the Sells - Floto and Wallace circuses for many years, died at his home, 811 Kishwaukee Street on November 13, 1938 and he was buried in Greenwood Cemetery. Perhaps if the Reynolds Circus encountered better weather, or started at some other time than during a economic depression, the circus would have survived and still be a Rockford institution today, but it was not meant to be. Although the circus was a short lived one, it was another product of Rockford.
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