Idaho History

A century ago, the circus was part of every Idahoan’s childhood

Crowds watch as a circus parade led by elephants passes the Idanha Hotel in Boise.
Crowds watch as a circus parade led by elephants passes the Idanha Hotel in Boise. Provided by Arthur Hart

When the Ringling Brothers-Barnum & Bailey Circus closed for the last time in January, the news stirred the memories of millions of older Americans for whom going to the circus had been part of their childhood.

In the summer of 1902, the circus had a glamour that residents of Boise and neighboring valleys could not resist. They flocked to the city with their horses and buggies and on the special excursion trains that the Oregon Short Line offered for every big event.

In addition to newly opened Riverside Park and Pinney’s tent theater and Pavilion, there were the other old favorites: the Natatorium and the Sonna and Columbia theaters. But what really drew the largest crowds were the circuses. Boise had the reputation of being a good “show town,” and the big ones all stopped here. Ringling Brothers came annually for many years, playing to near-capacity crowds every time. The favorite circus grounds were in open fields on the south side of Front Street. Here the special trains that all the circuses used could unload directly from the O.S.L. siding and be set up in a few hours. The first day invariably started with a big parade through downtown at 10 a.m., followed by afternoon and evening performances in their big tent.

The season of 1902 started with Gentry Brothers’ Famous Shows featuring “325 animal actors.” Their tent had a seating capacity of 3,000. Less than a week after the Gentry show left, the Great Pan-American Shows arrived. Their train, consisting of 18 cars, was unloaded in the early hours of May 7. A milelong parade was advertised, led by their star attraction “Rajah, the largest elephant that walks the earth.” The posters the circus put up around town showed an animal about the height of a two-story building, but that was show biz.

When the Pan-American shows left town, two local girls tried to run away from home with them, hoping to join the circus. Mattie and Harcia May might have made it, too, but their unhappy fathers made so much trouble that the circus people pointed out their hiding place. It is unlikely the circus could have trained Harcia May fast enough to earn her keep. She was only 13.

On Aug. 2, 1902, the advance party for Ringling Brother Circus arrived in town in “Advertising Car No. 3.” A crew of 15 men set out to paste up their colorful posters on every fence, wall and barn in the valley. In a few days their newspaper ads also began to appear, featuring that season “the only giraffe known to exist in the world.”

“This is Your Last Chance” was the theme used to advertise Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show when it came to Boise Valley on Aug. 18, 1902. How the eyes of boys and girls must have shone when they ran through the seemingly endless list of wonders that the great show offered. How they must have pressured their parents to go (if they had any sales resistance left after reading the ad themselves). The ad called this the “First, Last and Only Visit to Boise City” and that the show would “tour the American continent FROM OCEAN TO OCEAN Visiting the Principal Cities and Greater Railway Centers Only, as a Salute to the Great Nation which Gave it Birth.”

The Statesman reporter who described Buffalo Bill’s triumphant ride through Downtown Boise certainly had succumbed completely to the glamour of the famous showman: “First came a drum corps of 12 pieces followed by Col. Cody, to whom the crowds gave repeated ovations. Under his jaunty broad-brimmed hat there gleamed in kindliness eyes that have seen wonders worked on these western plains; eyes that have seen roses bloom where blood was spilled, peace smile where war frowned, plenty bless where famine robbed, knowledge rule where superstition held sway — in short, the birth and growth of civilization in the great West.”

Arthur Hart writes this column on Idaho history for the Idaho Statesman each Sunday. Email