Every April, “our” circus returned to Santa Rosa for one glorious day. Then came the year we wish it hadn’t.

In the first decade of the Twentieth Century, there were other circuses that also played here; the bigger and more famous Barnum & Bailey’s Greatest Show on Earth blew into town every couple of years or so, and once Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show raised its tents. Six months after the great 1906 earthquake, the Forepaugh-Sells Brothers’ Circus provided much-welcomed distraction from the long slog of rebuilding the downtown. But it was the Greater Norris & Rowe Circus that kids in Santa Rosa and Petaluma counted on to roll into town every spring. “When the long circus train unloaded at the depot, Norris & Rowe received their annual demonstration of welcome,” the Santa Rosa Republican reported in 1909. “The small boy was much in evidence, as were also big boys, and they worked with unflagging interest.”

The Republican article was undoubtedly written by Tom Gregory in his finest bathetic dry humor (“It is hard to follow all the daring things they do and say in a circus, but the excitement of trying makes life worth living”) and named some acts, which gives a feel of what the show was like (hint: lots of horse riding and trapeze swinging). Thanks to the wonderful archives of the Circus Historical Society we also know the sideshow included four hootchy-kootchy dancers, “the Musical Smiths, South Sea Island Joe and wife Beno, Montana Jack and Maritana, Liza Davis and her pickininnies,” plus a mind reader, a magician, and “La Belle Carmen.”

The Norris & Rowe circus always played the town for one day only, visiting Petaluma the day before or after (the circus additionally went to Healdsburg in 1908).  Like every tent show that came to Santa Rosa, they set up on the large empty lot on College Avenue that’s now Santa Rosa Middle School. It was an ideal location, close to the Southern Pacific railroad tracks, with Fourth street just a few blocks further away for the traditional morning parade.

But this visit by Norris & Rowe was like none before. Girlie shows “for men only” were touted on the midway and children were invited to try their luck at gambling. When they left, the lot was strewn with garbage. It was as if they didn’t care if they would be in Santa Rosa ever again. And indeed, they never were.

What no one in town knew was that the circus had declared bankruptcy a few months earlier, with liabilities of about $1.5 million in today’s money. They owed workers back pay, the printing company for their posters, even the candy company that provided popcorn and peanuts and Cracker Jack. Everything was auctioned off in January, 1909; the winning bid and new sole owner was Hutton S. Rowe, one of the original co-owners.

The comments in the Santa Rosa Republican show the revived circus was a lot rougher along the seams, probably because the creditless touring company needed the cash boost from lowlife acts and barely-legal game booths. As the summer of 1909 passed, the Norris & Rowe circus found itself performing in small crossroad towns and villages on the high plains and across the Canada border, places that were tiny then, and sometimes nonexistent today. It was like the route of someone seeking to hide.

Catastrophe struck on October 22, when a storm suddenly blew up near the end of a show in Princeton, Indiana. Without warning, the big top collapsed on a thousand people. “For a few minutes the wildest excitement reigned and the cries of the people could be heard for blocks away,” the Indianapolis Star reported. Then apparently all the men and boys in the audience remembered that they were wont to always carry folding pocket knives, and the canvas was slashed in hundreds of places. No one was seriously injured, but the circus couldn’t proceed with a shredded tent. It was decided that they would winter in Indiana, far from their Santa Cruz home.

According to a memoir by one of the musicians with the circus, bad luck crushed the circus in 1910. Pockets were empty; they couldn’t even afford a splash of new paint on the wagons or signs, and train cars were “very much run-down condition.” On opening day, the wardrobe lady was jailed after she shot and killed a man peeking into the dressing tent. Over the next three weeks, the situation deteriorated rapidly. The weather was terrible, with cold, hard April rain keeping audiences away, and some days there were no performances at all. The railroad insisted on being paid in advance in cash. Performers began fielding offers from other shows. When they crossed the Kentucky state line, the circus was hit with a lawsuit from another unpaid printer. And that was that. A benefit performance was given for the stranded performers.

None of that was was mentioned when the next circus arrived in Santa Rosa. In May of 1910 came the Campbell Brothers Circus, with twenty “happy jolly funny clowns”, a lady in a cage with a bunch of snakes, and The Marvelous Renello, who could flip a complete somersault on a bicycle. It was a good, clean show, which had even more railroad cars that urgently needed unloading under the close supervision of our local kids.

Good Story About Norris & Rowe Exhibition

“Shrieking his rollicking roundelay, a monster marched through the town; he woke the echoes, disturbed the peace, and shouted defiance at the police; he frightened the horses, annoyed the dogs, and even the autos trembled; but the youngsters rejoiced at the din he made and followed his way with glee, as youngsters have done since in Hamlin town, another piper of high renown created havoc across the sea. So latter day children are wont to be entranced by the singing cal-i-o-pe.”

Again the painted wagons rolled through the streets and everybody, young and old, who could gain a vantage point, feasted their eyes on the classic spectacle of the circus parade that Norris & Rowe brought to us Monday morning. When a man or woman becomes so old as to lose all interest in circus day it is time for them to call in Dr. Osler. When the long circus train unloaded at the depot, Norris & Rowe received their annual demonstration of welcome. The small boy was much in evidence, as were also big boys, and they worked with unflagging interest in assisting men and horses to the circus lot. The big tent is filled this afternoon and for the convenience of those unable to attend the matinee, the whole thing will be repeated again tonight, when a number of attractive special features will be added. There is a set formula for modern circuses and one which departed from it would fail for want of patronage. They may vary somewhat in form and quantity, but in spirit they must follow the traditions. The Norris & Rowe enterprise is properly conducted and it offers all the ecstatic thrills and aesthetic delights demanded of a circus. It begins in the good old way. Three bands are united and march around the ring to a most inspiring air. Elephants come lumbering after, holding each other’s trail. After that it is the camels, dromedaries, and then delight of delights, shades of chivalry, the Knights and Princesses ride in graceful ranks, garbed in such glory as to outshine the pomp of power. Then come the clowns, humble Yoricks of the saw-dust and the pageant melts away, and in the two rings upon the elevated stage and high aloft toward the billowing tent-top this is a riot of daring deeds. It is hard to follow all the daring things they do and say in a circus, but the excitement of trying makes life worth living. From the shrieking of the calliope to the spieling of the concert and sideshow, Norris & Rowe’s is a real big circus, just as good as any other, and maybe better. Young or old, you cannot miss it, and if you did not go this afternoon, go tonight, and if you went this afternoon, go again. It will make your big troubles little ones and your little ones disappear altogether.

The afternoon performance was a good one and many attended and were entertained by the various acts. The principal riding acts included George Holland, the somersault bareback rider; Edw. Hocum, also a somersault and principal rider; Frank Miller, principal jockey and hurdle rider; Herbert Rumley, trick, fancy and rough riding; Frank O’Brien in a mule hurdle act; Rose Dockrill, the dainty equestrianne; Dolly Miller in a four horse carrying act; Maude Hocum and her well educated high school horse; Edna Maretta, principal lady somersault bareback rider; Mlle. Julienne and her trick horse Banaldo. The Melnotte troupe on the high silver wire; the flying Banvard troupe of aerial performers; the Leffe troupe of mid-air bar performers; the Sisters Sillbon on the flying trapeze; the famous Avalon troupe of seven daring trick and fancy bicyclists; the Montrose and Keno troupe of acrobats and other things.

– Santa Rosa Republican, April 12, 1909

There is heard considerable complaint and criticism regarding several of the features of Norris & Rowe’s circus, which showed in this city yesterday, and those who witnessed the vulgar actions of certain of the noisy spielers connected with the affair are wondering why the police did not take notice. In front of one of the side tents near the entrance to the park several men and women, employees of the circus, were “barking” for an exhibition within “for men only,” and their work in that public place was suggestive of positive indecency. Ladies passing would hurry away, but boys and little girls were standing around witnessing the talk and actions. So vulgar was the language that it could not be printed and it is a shame that such was permitted.

There were also several gambling schemes running and it is stated that several young men lost money in the skin games. The park which the show occupied was left littered with straw, scraps from the kitchen tents, waste paper and other rubbish, causing the whole to be an eyesore to the public and a general nuisance.


– Santa Rosa Republican, April 13, 1909


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