By: Hillary Delaney
The circus came to town! It was called the “Great European Zoological Association, Royal Coliseum, Equestrian Congress, Gigantic Circus and Thrilling Balloon Race”. Quite a mouthful, but it was as grand as its name. The newspaper shortened the name to a more manageable “The Great European Show”.
This touring company may have had some European performers, but it was an Ohio-based business run by the Sells brothers. The Columbus area winter home of this circus was located on a 1,000 acre tract of land owned by this family, known as “Sellsville”. They were a successful operation for many years, and eventually merged with and sold the operation to the Barnum and Bailey Circus. In the spring of 1876, however, the Sells brothers took their most ambitious show on the road throughout the Midwest, thrilling onlookers at every stop. One local stop for the circus was our own Burlington.
The “Great European” offered more than any other circus at the time, and had expanded in honor of the country’s centennial year. The show was surely grand, and kicked off with an unimaginable parade through town. The advertised offerings included such exotic animals as: elephants, camels, lions, tigers, snakes and hyenas, to name but a few. There was also an elaborate equestrian show, which was surely popular in our horse-loving area.
The parade was announced by the music of a grand, steam-powered calliope, (referred to as the “Operonicon”) that could reportedly be heard for miles around. Another attraction offered was the parade of the “miniature menagerie”. This exhibition consisted of Shetland ponies pulling tiny wagons (which held smaller animals), all driven by little people. Another musical offering of the parade was the “Bavarian Band”, who rode in a gilded wagon and wore magnificent costumes, which cost thousands, according to the April 27th edition of the Boone County Recorder.
The company would offer two shows per day and rarely stayed in one place longer than a couple of days. The side show offerings were animal, human, and mechanical in nature, and even included a sea lion act. The parade’s grand finale was a great race between two hot air balloons!
The grand parade was an amazing marketing tool, and attendance was always high. Ticket prices were fifty cents for adults and twenty-five cents for children. For perspective, the cost of a pound of coffee in 1876 was comparable to the children’s admission price. When an event of this magnitude came to town, one can’t imagine anyone in the county passing the opportunity to get a glimpse of this colorful, exotic spectacle.