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Thursday, 10 March 2016 16:30

When the circus stayed in Janesville

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The Burr Robbins circus was home to a menagerie of animals when the traveling show spent its off-season in Janesville in the late 1800s. The circus made its winter quarters along the Rock River, encompassing about 40 acres in the present-day area of Delavan Drive and Beloit Avenue. The Burr Robbins circus was home to a menagerie of animals when the traveling show spent its off-season in Janesville in the late 1800s. The circus made its winter quarters along the Rock River, encompassing about 40 acres in the present-day area of Delavan Drive and Beloit Avenue. Rock County Historical Society

JANESVILLE MESSENGER -- One late April evening in 1874, two men walking along the banks of the Rock River in Janesville near the Monterey Dam noticed a 6-foot-long mud-colored, stationary mass jutting up from the water’s surface.

One of the men got into a rowboat and drew near to the object. When he hit it with an oar, the mass lifted a scaly head out of the water, small eyes flashing. It snapped its long, toothy jaws a couple of times before it disappeared into the river.

A local newspaper reported the incident, and noted the animal was one of Janesville circus owner Burr Robbins’ “rare Egyptian crocodiles” which had gotten loose from its cage. Robbins offered a free ticket to his upcoming performance for whoever captured the crocodile. The paper added -- perhaps unnecessarily -- “It will not be healthy for boys to swim in the river till the creature is caught and the water gets warmer.”      

Crocodiles were more common in Janesville when Robbins --once a rival of P.T. Barnum -- made the city a winter home for his circus in the late 19th century. 

A New York native, Robbins was born in 1837 to parents who hoped he’d become a minister. Instead, he ran away from home to the Midwest, where he worked in everything from hardware to the theater.

In 1858, he joined a St. Louis circus, earning $15 a month as an assistant to a champion bareback rider. When Robbins became a circus owner, he ended up hiring the same performer at a salary of $250 a week.

A stint in the Union Army during the Civil War interrupted his career, but by 1873 he’d purchased an existing circus and tweaked it to create the “Burr Robbins’ Moral Museum, Circus and Menagerie.”

The “moral” part let the audience know this was a clean-cut show, said Fred Dahlinger Jr., curator of circus history at the John and Mabel Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota, Florida.

“‘Moral Museum’ meant that (the circus) had no attractions that would be judged objectionable by clergy and other devout Christians,” Dahlinger wrote in an email. “Certain aspects of statuary and paintings seen in art museums that were judged offensive were not to be seen within the Robbins museum.”

In 1878, traveling with his show from state to state, Robbins came to Janesville. He liked what he saw.

Some 30 years earlier, New York brothers Edmund and Jeremiah Mabie had made Delavan in neighboring Walworth County the winter home for their circus. Now Robbins had similar thoughts.

“Like the Mabie brothers, he was likely attracted by reasonable land prices -- rolling hills as compared to flat crop lands in Indiana, Illinois and Iowa, abundant feed for his stock and a welcoming community willing to embrace outsiders,” Dahlinger said. “It was reasonably close to the circus hub, to take advantage of experienced people that could be hired, but it was still far enough away to be independent.”

Robbins chose land about a mile south of the city along the Rock River in an area known as Spring Brook Farms.

“He had around 40 acres or so,” said circus enthusiast and Janesville resident Steve Flint. “Basically, his winter quarters were down where Dawson Field is, near Delavan Drive and Beloit Avenue.”

“The primary mission of a circus winter quarters was to refurbish the show in the off season,” said Peter Shrake, archivist for the Circus World Museum in Baraboo. “A traveling circus encountered considerable wear and tear over the many months on the road. The winter months allowed for the repair of worn out and creation of new wardrobe and equipment -- props, wagons, tents. New acts were developed in the off season as well.

“Concerning animals, generally speaking, usually the horse stock -- specifically the horses used to pull the various wagons -- were kept at local farms for the winter. The exotic animals and ring-performing horses were usually kept near the winter quarters in heated buildings.”

“The roar of the lion and the ‘bugle notes’ of the elephant are not strange sounds to the ears of the Janesvillians” reads an 1880 publication on the history of Rock County.

A newspaper account in 1878 noted Robbins’ menagerie included zebra, a black bear, three leopards, a cheetah, a hyena, a yak, wolves, a polar bear, two kangaroos, an anteater, trained elk, a white deer, a hippo, six lions, two elephants, a rhino, 60 birds, 40 monkeys, 14 camels and more than 200 horses and ponies.

Janesville officials couldn’t deny the impact of the circus on the local economy, from feed dealers and blacksmiths to mechanics and wagon makers, like the local firm of Hodge & Buchholz, which produced a number of Robbins’ circus wagons.

“In the winter months, he spent a lot of money in town, generating revenue and jobs,” Flint said. “His business wasn’t like GM or Parker Pen, but he added to the economy quite a bit.

“Plus local newspapers would print every week or two where Burr Robbins was playing during the summer season. People out on the farm milking cows or plowing fields would read about this local man traveling the country, doing exotic things. It made them feel proud.”

According to newspaper accounts, Robbins was a generous contributor to Janesville charities ranging from the state institution for the blind to a local free library.

He even donated a circus horse to a local fire department, although the horse had to be retrained from running in circles in a performing ring to pulling a fire wagon down the street. And Robbins allowed his elephants to help local farmers to pull stuck wagons from the road or handle other difficult jobs.

Robbins himself became a fixture in town, sometimes driving down to the post office to pick up his mail in a sleigh pulled by reindeer, Flint said.

Robbins suffered a near-fatal head injury in a steamboat accident in 1880, but made a miraculous recovery, continuing to run the circus.

But 1885 was the last season the show was quartered in Janesville. By 1888, the circus was divided up and sold.

Robbins moved to Chicago, working in outdoor advertising, helping to popularize billboards. By the time he died in 1908, he owned everything from Kansas oil wells to Chicago real estate, making his worth some $2 million, according to some reports.

At the time of his death, the barns from his winter quarters were still standing, but today little remains.

In 2000, a Wisconsin Historical Society marker on Robbins, located near a paved bike trail in Jeffris Park in Janesville, was erected.

But Janesville resident and Robbins enthusiast Keith McLaughlin said there still might be something Robbins left behind.

“Towards the end of Robbins’ stay in Janesville he showed a large whale in a very large cage ... He did advertise it on his billboards. Rumor has it that it was possibly stuffed or was made of paper-mache,” McLaughlin wrote in an email.

“In a memoir written by Burr Robbins’ daughter, she mentions that it was eventually buried in the backyard and that someday when the city encroaches on that area it would be found and there would be all kinds of talk about it. So far it has not surfaced, but I do not think that right area has been dug up yet, either. Know anyone with ground-penetrating radar?”

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