The Ringling Brothers Circus made its first appearance in Gadsden on Nov. 8, 1899. The show had been in Birmingham and Anniston and left to Chattanooga and Huntsville. Everybody had heard of the great organization that was a rival of the Barnum & Bailey show, and equally as large and imposing.
Ringling Brothers Circus was founded in the United States in 1884 by five of the seven Ringling Brothers – Albert, August, Otto, Alfred T., Charles, John and Henry. In 1907, it acquired the Barnum & Bailey Circus, merging them in 1919 to become Ringling Bros. and Bar-num & Bailey Circus, promoted as The Greatest Show on Earth.
One year before it came to Gadsden, the circus started traveling by trains in 1888, allowing the show to consistently expand. This was the first time Ringling came to Gadsden. The show-grounds were located at the south end of Fourth Street in the flats near the old Barrel Springs, in the area that is now occupied by the Gadsden Mall.
The show is said to have 13,000 paid admissions in two performances. The giant and colorful parade drew thousands of others to the city. The big tent was crowded to capacity day and night but the parade was enough for many who could not afford to attend the two exhibitions under canvas. In fact, it was the most gorgeous spectacle of its kind ever seen in the area up to that time.
Some idea of the size of this great amusement organization may be gathered from the fact that five trains of double length cars were required to transport it to the city. The performances were given in three rings, upon two stages, in mid-air and upon an immense hippodrome racing track, all under an enormous canvas pavilion. The attraction was so vast that all circuses in America could be gathered, without crowding, under its colossal dome.
The menagerie lived up to its reputation for being the most complete zoological collection in the country. The hippodrome was said to be an actual reproduction of the exciting contests of old Rome. The chariot races were fine. The arena performance was new and so entertaining that even the press ran out of adjectives to describe it.
It was claimed, and probably was true, that the show’s acrobats, aerialists, gymnasts, riders and other specialists numbered 300 of the highest salaried European and American artists. Special attention that year was given to a trained animal display.
Lockhart’s elephant comedians composed the most dramatic company in the world. The huge pachyderms actually presented plays. The elephants had a brass band and performed many novel stunts. In addition, 61 highly-educated horses performed in a ring.
It is likely that no better troupe of such animals has ever been seen in the country. The show’s patriotic introductory spectacle, “The Last Days of the Century,” was said to be “the most gorgeously magnificent display of the kind ever attempted.”
It seems that the event lived up to the press’ billing, all right.
Since that day in Gadsden, Ringling’s big show has undergone many changes of one sort and another. It has been streamlined and a ballet was been added, but down underneath it is the same old sawdust spectacle, a circus with acrobats, horses, clowns and the like.
That year Cooper & Company’s small but fine circus showed here and it was reported while Ringling was on the spot that the big Sells-Forepaugh aggregation would follow.