Wednesday, October 15, 2014

George Bartholomew and the Great Western Circus

Theatrical troops and circuses traveled to Montana from the earliest times. The first circus performed at Bannack, Virginia City, and Helena in 1867. The Montana Post reported on July 6 that George Bartholomew’s Great Western Circus drew a crowd of eight hundred at Virginia City. Mary Ronan remembered the much anticipated event in Helena and that the only animals in Bartholomew’s circus were horses. There were bareback riders, equestriennes, acrobats, tightrope walkers, and clowns. These earliest traveling circuses, as Mary correctly recalled, were limited to performing horses. Bartholomew’s horses, however, were highly skilled and later brought him fame.

In Virginia City, residents lined the major thoroughfares as the performers paraded along the main street to the rousing music of the circus band.  The next evening, the audience thrilled at the “perch act,” the trick ponies Napoleon and Zebra, the hurdle chase, and expert bareback riding. There was, however, one mishap. As Mademoiselle Mathilda entered the ring, the band stopped to switch music and the horse followed suit coming to an abrupt stop. Mademoiselle sailed off and crashed against the outer ring-boards. Despite her violent fall, she hopped up and gracefully skipped out of the arena. She did not return to perform, but the Post speculated that she was not seriously hurt.

Circus owner George Bartholomew was a colorful character and an uncanny horse trainer who traveled the West with his Great Western Circus between 1867 and 1869. Bartholomew was perhaps the first professional “horse whisperer.” Several times his fortunes were reversed until 1879 when his horses performed in Oakland, California, in front of an audience of ten thousand. The performance cemented his fame. The valuable horses in Bartholomew’s Equine Paradox traveled in a special train car across the country. The sides of the boxcar advertised gentleness and kindness toward helpless creatures. Bartholomew’s horses performed a play in which horses played the major characters. Bartholomew believed horses could be trained like children and treated his horses thus. They performed incredible feats. According to their trainer, the only difference between horses and children was that horses couldn’t talk, or talk back.

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