“The posters were the first sign that life was about to change, at least for a few days. They showed 19th-century Vermonters scenes of almost unimaginable exoticism — groups of galloping hippos, a ‘Hindoo snake charmer,’ a ‘curious monster-eared African proboscidian marvel.’ In short, the posters were saying the circus was coming to town.” Mark Bushnell, 2011
I visit the local bookstore in Woodstock from time to time. It is not always for a purchase but simply to browse the interesting titles and be reminded of the small, independent bookstores of my youth. The beauty of the well arranged shelves, the smell of new books, and the personal care of the staff and owners to find just the right book for you. These are the blessings of a local bookshop. While I am there, discussions with the owners invariably leads to history. Of course it does. They own the oldest continuously run independent bookstores in Vermont. They like old things like me. During one visit last year, there is mention by the owner of an old and fragmented poster located in the basement of the store. (Actually, it is under the basement of another store but that is another story.) It sounds interesting and I promise to visit another time to look at it. But time passes and it is filed under, “I will see it someday.”
Flash forward to March of this year. The Woodstock Union High School sophomores participated in Sophomore Shadow Day. Supported by their English teachers, the C3 team, and members of the counseling staff, students were placed at a host site to explore their interests. The Woodstock History Center receives two students that day. One of the things that the students experienced during their visit was how to conduct “above-ground archaeology.” Research, documentation, and conservation all have a place in this endeavor. I remember the mention of the possible poster in a basement on Central Street and we set off to find it. Not quite Indiana Jones, but exciting nonetheless.
One of the owners of the Yankee Bookshop, Kristian Preylowski (who told me of the poster), leads our history group down into the basement to find the reputed poster. We find a wall with several fragments. One of sophomores takes some photographs and we retrieve a remnant of a poster with what appears to be a lion’s eye. It is possible that the boards, with remnants of posters, were salvaged from a building or one of the billboard signs that were located around Woodstock during the late 19th century. We will never know exactly where these posters came from and why they appear in a Central Street basement. What we did find out is that there is a readable name on one of the board. It reads, “Forepaugh’s.”
Adam Forepaugh owned and operated a circus from 1865 through 1890 under various names including Forepaugh's Circus, The Great Forepaugh Show, The Adam Forepaugh Circus, and Forepaugh & The Wild West. Forepaugh, who was a major rival of P.T. Barnum, supposedly spent millions of dollars developing his circus. “It was also reported that he spent more than $4,000 a day (or roughly $100,000 today) to sustain his show. Among his expenses was his license to operate a circus in Vermont, which set him back $1,000. Forepaugh and other circus operators made up for these high costs by drawing huge paying crowds. A circus ticket was relatively affordable entertainment for most Vermonters. During the 1880s, a circus might charge 50 cents for an adult to see the show, 25 cents for children (roughly $12 and $6, respectively, today). The cost meant that laborers could afford the show, where they might have shared company with some of Vermont's elite, who also attended. Vermonters turned out in droves. In 1880, an estimated 18,000 packed a massive tent in Rutland to watch the Forepaugh circus. Barnum's circus drew 15,000 spectators for a show in Burlington one day in 1885. Crowds of 8,000 to 10,000 were common.”
The Great Forepaugh Show!
Most likely held at the Windsor County Fairgrounds (now Billings Farm & Museum).
“A corpulent amplitude of amusements. Mountain piled on mountain of attractions deployed to please. Alpine and cloud touching in its ambition. Opposition to fraud and monopoly. It is monstrous and flagrant egotism for any rival to dispute its right to the first place.”
Taftsville Post Office
Adam Forepaugh’s Circus poster on the building behind it.
Forepaugh’s circus was held in Woodstock on August 23, 1879. It was the largest and most elaborately staged circus in Woodstock during the 19th century. It must have been quite the spectacular event of moving the “menagerie”, performers, tents, etc. from the railroad depot to the fairground. There are no photographs or reports mentioning any of these circuses. All we have left are fragments of circus posters that remind us of the glory days of the circus coming to town.
Thank you to Kristian Preylowski for leading us down the rabbit hole. Mark Bushnell’s article on the history of circuses in Vermont was also very helpful.