Columbus Neighborhoods: Sells Brothers Circus

\m\m > > > the sells story, in a way, is the story of four brothers who literally ran away and joined the circus from a small farm near what is now dublin, ohio.

≫ > and you sort of ask yourself, why a circus? It's not like there are elephants in dublin. But they were really entrepreneurs and they were selling used furniture.

They were selling things on the roads. And if you followed a circus, you didn't have to publicize. You had a built-in cliental who are coming to look for the goods you had to cell.

≫ > by 1871, they had put together a small traveling circus which had its opening day at the corner of state and high street in downtown columbus. ≫ > then in 1878, that was a big year for them, they were able to buy a lot of the equipment from a railroad circus that had gone broke.

And they went on the railroad track for the first time. They were on about 32 railroad cars. What was really distinctive about them that year is they called it " the sells brothers seven elephant circus." and they had the most elephants on any circus in america.

They had an auction in columbus in february of 1888 of the surplus equipment. And the ringling brothers came to that and the ringling brothers bought their first two elephants that they ever owned. They bought them at the auction here in columbus.

Probably one of the most glorious years the show had was in 1884. They had 50 cages. Basically, circuses were traveling zoos at that time and would always have elephants, giraffes, hippos and many, many americans saw their first elephant or their first exotic animals at a circus at a circus rather than a zoo.

\M\m \m\m > > sellsville, directly across the olentangy river from the campus of the ohio state university, was the winter quarters of the sells brothers circus.

≫ > that was basically from the olentangy river on the east side to above virginia avenue, which is close to kenny road on the west side. And then it was bordered by king avenue and fifth avenue on the south and north sides of it.

≫ > the lennox town center now, that was where the agricultural areas were. They raised hay and grain for the circus animals. ≫ > it is kind of an agricultural community in some ways because you've got people who need to be fed all the time.

You've got animals. ≫ > everything you can imagine, in sellsville, we had. We had delivery stables. We had hundreds of horses. Sundays we would open the circus up during the winters and you could come down and see various acts.

You see trapeze acts. You could see jugglers. You could see all kinds of acts. The place to be was in sellsville. ≫ > I think what marks this community from all others are the tails of escaped animals.

They are wonderful and legendary and one of the people who lived in that neighborhood would tell the story of crossing the fifth avenue bridge on his motorcycle at night and meeting an elephant coming towards him.

And getting off the motorcycle and he is climbing up into the bridge trusses. Other people would wake up in the morning and find that there were monkeys on their porch roof.

One family found part of the porch had been ripped off by elephants in the snow. ≫ > the region was inhabited with a lot of transplanted former slaves.

There were indians that were remaining. And it gave them an opportunity to take advantage of significant work force. They didn't have to really pay a lot.

≫ > sellsville was extremely integrated. We had the polka dot school which was 50% white, 50% african american. We had a team called the sellsville sluggers, baseball team. An all african american team. The sells brothers saw the value of those workers to their circus.

And so they actually treated them pretty well in comparison to the other circuses. The community was interracial, very peace loving and very much self contained.

≫ > part of the sells circus was to develop a wild west show and the sells brothers really wanted authentic indians as part of that wild west show. ≫ > annie oakley was with the sells brothers circus.

And she was really just starting out in the show business at the time. She had been married for, oh, about eight years to a man named frank butler.

Butler had worked for the sells brothers in 1881. He had an act called " baughman and butler." supposedly, he was shooting something like an apple off of the head of this poor baughman guy and he clipped him in the head.

And so he needed a new partner after that. He didn't kill him but the guy didn't want to be in the act anymore.

It's interesting if you look at the advertising for the circus that year, they're way down the bill. This was right before she became famous. The next year, 1885, she went to work for buffalo bill where she stayed until 1901 and that's where she achieved fame and fortune.

Sells brothers had a very difficult time and 1893, 1894 and 1895 and had gotten into some opposition with the barnum and bailey circus. They played the same towns in texas within days of each other.

And the barnum show tended to out bill them and there's accounts of tearing the posters off the wall or whatever.

So the sells brothers were in kind of bad shape. It makes it even more poignant to find out that in late 1895, bailey bought into the sells brothers circus.

Sells brothers combined with equipment that bailey had froma circus called the adam forepaugh circus that bailey had purchased in 1890. Bailey revitalized the title and they created this new circus called the adam forepaugh and sells brothers circus.

\M\m this was the real glory years for the circus. He built up the forepaugh-sells circus. It and ringing brothers were the biggest circuses in america at the time.

The real high point of the forepaugh-sells circus was the 1902 season. And that year, james a. Bailey owned a quarter of the circus, peter sells owned a quarter, lewis sells owned a quarter and another old showman named william w.

Cole owned the last quarter of it. In 1902, the forepaugh-sells circus opened at madison square garden. And they just coined money all season. This is what's called a courier and this was used on the forepaugh-sells circus in 1903.

They had a fellow doing the loops-the-loop on a bicycle. His name was conn baker. He was a bicycle racer who lived in the university area and he went under the name " diavolo." he put this devil costume on that had these little horns on him.

\M\m > > peter sells dies in the fall of 1904 and to settle his estates, they've got to sell the circus. And they have a big auction here in columbus on january 10, 1905.

They start the auction and bailey bids $150 thousand for the whole thing. That was the end of it. Nobody would make a higher bid and so the bidding just, you know, opened and closed in 10 seconds.

So, what happens though is bailey turns around and sells half of it to the ringling brothers. Otto and charles ringling are here in columbus.

When the forepaugh-sells circus left columbus in the spring of 1907, that was the end of that circus in columbus. It never came back. The summer of 1907 -- and it's a nice story about lewis sells. The day before he died, the buffalo bill wild west show was in columbus.

And he went to the show and he visited with friends and met cody and everything. Went home and died the next day. I'm sure that was a big moment for him to get to have one last hurrah with the show business at the time.

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