The Fascinating Facts, Fiction, and Frustrations of Family History and My Obsessive Desire to Possess Them All.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

The Circus is Coming to Town!

For me, genealogy is more than just names and dates.  Exploring what life was like for my ancestors makes them more complete people.  This includes what they did for a living, where they lived (in town or on the farm), and what they did for entertainment.

Recently, my husband and I watched a PBS show on the origins of the Circus in the United States, particularly focusing on PT Barnum.  He began his “Greatest Show on Earth” in New York City, then began touring with his big top.  In the 1870’s he expanded to include tours of the Mid-West.  The show had a graphic showing his circus trains crisscrossing Illinois.  I wondered if that included our hometown.

You can watch it here:

Turns out Barnum did not stop here but did make a stop in August of 1872 in Galesburg Illinois, where my husband’s family is from.

His Great Grandmother Nellie Charlotte Squire was born 7 Oct 1864 to James Graham Squire and Mary Ann (nee Drake) in Galesburg Illinois.  James was a house painter and they lived in town.  Nellie joined 2 older sisters and 1 brother.  She would later have 2 younger sisters. Young Nellie would have been 7 when the circus came to town.  

Knox County, IL 1870 Census for James Squire family

His Great-Grandfather Ward Joseph Rhykerd was born 9 May 1860 in Warren County Illinois.  His father was Charles Augustus Rhykerd and his mother was Ann (nee Ostram).  Their farm was just across the county line from Galesburg.  Ward was 12 when the circus arrived.  Barnum often enlisted the help of young local boys to erect his tents.  Perhaps Ward helped with this.

Warren County, IL 1870 Census for Charles Rhykerd family

Monmouth Review 23 Aug 1872

The circus was a huge event to arrive in your 1870’s town.  There were several tents with hundreds of performers, workers, and animals.  There was a menagerie containing exotic animals that most people had only seen in pictures.  Also were hyped ‘curiosities’, people with unusual characteristics or talents.   

Barnum was a premier showman and had advance publicity building months before the circus even arrived.  He had special trains that would pick up patrons at neighboring towns to see his shows.  He would parade his elephants from the train depot to the fairgrounds.  Often his tents contained more people than the town itself had residents.

One can only imagine the excitement in the eyes of 7 year old Nellie and 12 year old Ward.  Nellie and Ward would marry 10 years later in Galesburg.  They would have 7 children of their own, hopefully that also attended the excitement of the “Greatest Show on Earth” sometime in their lifetime.

Ward Rhykerd family c.1905

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