By Jim Ignasher
Question: How much does an elephant weigh?
In the summer of 1963, knowing the answer would earn you a free ride on Dolly, a circus elephant with the Hunt Brothers Royal International (traveling) Circus.
Guessing Dolly’s weight was part of a publicity campaign aimed at promoting the circus which would be erecting the “big top” at Burgess Field located off Pleasant View Avenue in Greenville on July 31st, but more about that later.
For those unaware, which until recently included me, there was a time when traveling circuses used to visit Smithfield on an annual basis. This fact was brought to my attention by Mrs. Anne Allen of Greenville, whose property once abutted Burgess Field, and who supplied the photos for this article.
“The most fun of all,” Anne explained in a recent interview, “was watching the circus set up.” She went on to explain how the circus would come in at first light, and people of all ages would set their alarm clocks so they could wake up at 4:00 a.m. and go to watch. All the kids in the neighborhood, including her own, would be there.
Among the circus employees were the performers, who would sit outside their trailers drinking coffee and conversing with the local children while the massive “big top” tent went up. Some of the older youths would participate in the set-up process and be rewarded with free tickets to the show.
The Hunt Brothers Circus began operation in Kingston, New York, in 1892, and by 1963 was reported to be the “largest rolling tent show” in America. The circus toured the northeastern portion of the United States sometimes appearing in seven towns in as many days. Life on the road wasn’t easy, but those who lived and traveled with the circus wouldn’t have had it any other way.
Circus life had its own lingo. Perhaps most people know that the clowns waited in “clown alley” outside the “big top” awaiting their cue from the “ring master”. But how many know that an elephant was a “bull”, and a “bull man” was its handler. Or that an “ace note” was a dollar, a “fin” a five dollar bill, and a “saw buck” a ten, any of which could be used to “duke” or pay someone. “Floss” was cotton candy, which one could buy at the “floss joint”. However, if one was in the mood, they might wander over to the “grease joint” for a hamburger, conveniently located next to the “garbage joint” where novelties and souvenirs were sold. And getting “itchy feet” meant it was time to take everything down and move on to the next town.
Hunt Brothers Circus advertised 50 acts which appeared in three rings under the big top – hence the term, “three ring circus”. There were acrobats and jugglers, trapeze artists and tight rope walkers, lion tamers, and of course, clowns. Dolly wasn’t the only elephant owned by the circus; there were at least two others, as well as a menagerie of trained seals, monkeys, and a pure-bred Arabian horse named Hajiian that had an appetite for pickled herring.
The performances would generally last two hours, with one in the morning, and the other that same evening. By the following day the entire circus would be gone as if by magic.
The circus was conducted under the auspices of the Smithfield Babe Ruth League, which would hold regularly scheduled ball games at Burgess Field. Thus it was that Burgess Field was chosen over other open areas of town such as Waterman’s Field at Waterman’s lake, today occupied by condominiums, but was once the site of the annual Firemen’s Carnival.
In1965 the famous King Brothers Circus came to town, and like Hunt Brothers, also occupied Burgess Field. King Brothers would reportedly travel to twenty states within the course of a year, visiting 200 cities from coast to coast. Like Hunt Brothers, it too had elephants.
Getting back to Dolly and the Hunt Brothers; the contest to guess her weight was announced in the July 4th edition of The Observer , which printed an entry blank for the “Ride-The-Elephant Contest”. Besides a free elephant ride the winner who guessed the closest would receive four photos of themselves sitting atop of Dolly as proof that they’d actually rode an elephant. Initially, any child between the ages of 7 and 17 was welcome to enter, but then some adults complained that they too should be allowed to compete for an elephant ride. The following week the rules had been broadened to include those up to the age of 70. (It was thought that nobody over the age of 70 would be interested.) In the end the complaining was for naught, for there were actually two winners, and both were under 17. Two girls, Jo-Ann Simpson, 13, of Esmond, and Jeanine Falino, 8, of Centerdale, had both submitted the guess of 6,500 pounds. Dolly’s actual weight was 6,508 pounds.
Since the girls had tied, both got to ride Dolly. One at the morning performance, and the other at the evening show, no doubt giving both a memory that would last a lifetime.