Nelsonville Circuses

Southeastern Ohio Circuses

by Jack R. Cox

 

The Tedrow-Gettle Circus circa the turn of the 20th Century. Standing in the center (indicated by the arrow), the man in the derby hat is co-owner Charles “Peanut” Gettle.

 

Nestled in the beautiful hill country of southeastern Ohio is Nelsonville, once a booming coal-mining town. The Victorian buildings surrounding its picturesque Public Square housed thriving businesses, and there was Stuart’s Opera House, the most prominent theater between Columbus and the Ohio River. But, years ago, the mines shut down and many businesses fled the town; the Opera House was closed.

Today, forward thinking community leaders are harking back to Nelsonville’s colorful past. The 19th Century buildings still surround the parkland of the Public Square with its cascading three-tiered fountain. The Opera House has been restored and reopened to present a variety of theatrical productions. And, in the storefronts there is an ever-increasing number of art outlets. In what was once the lobby of the old Dew House Hotel there is an intriguing coffee shop. Soon there is to be a gourmet restaurant to entice the palates of theater goers and other guests of the community.

Nestled in Nelsonville’s history are revelations that at least this town served as winter quarters for traveling circuses. In the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, there was the Tedrow-Gettle Circus, a wagon show that played small towns. And then, in the early 1940’s, entrepreneur Bill Meyer brought his Barr Brothers Circus here, wintering it at a coal mining property.

Tedrow-Gettle

Original partners in this circus were John “Cotton” Tedrow and his brother-in-law Charles “Peanut” Gettle. Some years later, the ownership consisted of Peanut and his brother, Joseph “Cap” Gettle.

Winter quarters for this circus were the Tedrow family livery barns on Adams Street, where a church is now located. In the book, Nelsonville Nostalgia by Bob Vore and Bill Lawson, the late Violet Hollenbaugh reminisced that in her childhood the Tedrows had a large red barn where mine ponies were wintered.

Information about the Tedrow-Gettle Circus is scanty. There was a news release in the March 22, 1902 of the New York Clipper, an entertainment trade paper, in which the Gettle Brothers stated that their show would open in Nelsonville on May 9 that year, and that it would be “…one of the neatest and best 25-cent wagon shows that ever went on the road.” Among the attractions was to be “Commodore Straub, the Lilliputian clown” with his comedy dogs.

From Circus World Museum and Bandwagon, the official magazine of the Circus Historical Society comes an interesting tale about the bandwagon shown in the picture above. After traveling with the Tedrow-Gettle Circus for some seasons, it was obviously sold, ending up in 1907 with the Great Lugar Shows, a short-lived circus from Eaton, Ohio. Later it was with Heber Brothers Greater Show that headquartered in Columbus, Ohio. The Hebers put out a circus in summer seasons, and a vaudeville act during the winters. Their vaudeville played Stuart’s Opera House in 1916

Glimpses of what life was like with the Tedrow-Gettle Circus were provided by two Letters to the Editor that appeared in the Nelsonville Tribune newspaper. These accounts were included in the unpublished book, 200Years in Nelsonville, Ohio and Vicinity (1774-1974) by Bob Vore and Bill Lawson (to be found in the History Room of Nelsonville Public Library.

From the Nelsonville Tribune - June 15, 1961

Compton, Calif.

“Dear Editor,

“About 62 years ago (1899) I was 15 years old. We lived on an old farm along the Ohio River in the small town of Powhatan, Ohio, and one day a circus came to town. So I went to my first circus and the music and the bright lights and the girls in tights intrigued me so much, when the show left town I ran away and got a job with the show as a mule skinner.

“I drove the mules that pulled the wagon that hauled the seat planks. So I was known as the Plank Wagon Kid. Names didn’t mean much, for that was the only name anyone in the circus knew me by. Well, we gave a show every night in some small town in Ohio. No one ever got any pay for the show, just about made expenses. The owners of the show were Cotton John Tedrow and Charley (Peanut) Gettle.

“The Gettles ran a bakery there in Nelsonville and old Jimmy Tedrow was an excavating contractor. Well, we pulled into Nelsonville, the home of the Tedrow-Gettle Shows, and there the show went broke. So old Jimmy Tedrow gave me a job driving a team of mules to a slip scoop. We were engaged in making a cut for a railroad spur into a mine. He paid me $1.00 per day and paid my board which was $3.50 per week.

“Mr. Tedrow got me a place to board with a young couple by the name of Woods. They were very nice people. So I got my first week’s pay, $6.00, which was the most money I had ever had in my life, so I decided to go out and take in the town.

“The first place I ran into was a saloon. I had heard about a saloon, but never was in one, so I goes in and the place was full of men and they sure gave me the once over. I didn’t know what to do so I asked the Bartender if he had any beer and he said he didn’t have a bit of Beer. So I went out and on down the street looking for more adventure, and as I was walking along, someone spoke to me, calling me by my first name. So before I thought I turned around and came face to face with a Big Policeman. So he stopped me and showed me a letter that the Chief of Police had received from my Mother, God rest her soul. So they kept me in jail all night and the next day put me on a train and sent me back home.

Bruce Helm

The Plank Wagon Kid”

From the Nelsonville Tribune - June 29, 1961

Nelsonville, Ohio

“Dear Plank Wagon Kid:

I enjoyed your letter last week about the old, old days, and would like you to know your reference to the old Tedrow-Gettle Circus brought back many memories, because as a kid of 10, I went out one summer with that circus. I’m now 71.

“’Cotton’ Tedrow, who operated it (with ‘Peanut’ Gettle) was my uncle. Do you remember some of those performers in the Circus: Jasper, the Second Samson, who held four men up while they held onto his long hair; Pick, the old slave who had Slavery Welts all over his Back; the Iron Jaw, who balanced children on his chin; the Russells on the flying trapeze; and the Flying Meritas? Also, there was Joe Grarie and his Wrestling Bear. Also the Only Spotted Mule on Earth.

“You may also remember the old gentleman in the picture above [This picture could not be reproduced]. He was my grandfather, Jimmy Tedrow, who was a contractor and liveryman here and who was the man who paid you $6 a week to drive the team of mules for him.

“The Circus horses and wagons were housed in one of the three barns of the Tedrow livery on Adams Street – where the Nazarene Church now stands.

“Do you remember Tice Keplar, who drove the bandwagon for the Circus? He is still here and as ornery as ever.

“I guess that’s all that are left: you and Tice and me.

Frank Burnell”

(Note: The photograph of the Tedrow-Gettle Circus reproduced above

originally belonged to Frank Burnell, and was purchased

from his niece, the late Mary Howard)

Permission to reprint the two Letters to the Editor

Granted by Tribune Quality Printers

In the book, Nelsonville Nostalgia, it is stated that when the Gettle Brothers closed down their circus, they kept a tame black bear named “Old Blackie” in a back room at their bakery. They had it on a long chain and would leave a door open so that the bruin could go out into a fenced yard and exercise. People passing by could look through holes in the fence at Old Blackie, and he could look back at them. Perhaps this was the wrestling bear to which Frank Burnell referred in his letter.

It is said that the Gettle Brothers still had some contact with the outdoor show world, sometimes following carnivals, probably as concessionaires. According to one of the items in Nelsonville Nostalgia, during the 1920’s the brothers were also involved in the celebration of Memorial Day, then known as Decoration Day, and a major holiday in their home town. Following a grand parade, citizens would proceed to the Fort Street Cemetery in town to visit and decorate graves with flowers. Then a procession would go on to Greenlawn Cemetery outside the town to honor those in the graves there. Later, there were refreshment sales – ice cream and strawberry short cake. In addition, the Gettle Brothers had a concession stand where the sold the novelties of the type that are vended at circuses and carnivals.

Charles “Peanut” Gettle passed away May 10, 1935 at age 66. Joseph “Cap” Gettle died April 29, 1949 at age 77. His obituary in the Nelsonville Tribune stated that he loved to tell people about the old days with the circus.

Somewhere along the way, John “Cotton” Tedrow was divorced from the Gettle brothers’ sister, Mayme. In 1925, he moved to Huntington, West Virginia where he went into the food and poultry business. He died June 29, 1955 at age 83. His remains were brought back to Nelsonville for interment at Greenlawn Cemetery.

Barr Brothers

In November of 1942, entrepreneur William “Bill” Meyer brought Barr Brothers Circus, a truck show, to Nelsonville, wintering it on a coal mining property that he had purchased. Meyer had been a horse dealer in Akron, Ohio, and then in 1938 he invested in a circus that had been closed down, putting it back on the road. In 1939, he made the acquaintance of Buck Lucas, a circus and wild-west show performer. They joined a circus that went out under the old Walter L. Main title with Bill Meyer operating the sideshow and Lucas presenting animal acts. That show closed down early in the season, but soon Meyer opened a one-ring circus which was also shut down after a short run.

We next hear of Bill Meyer in 1941 when he and Buck Lucas became partners and opened a new operation – Barr Brothers Circus. This venture proved successful, and the show ran a complete season.

Fred D. Pfening, Jr., Bandwagon editor, relates that as a 16-year-old, he “joined out” with Barr Brothers at its Athens, Ohio stand in June of 1941. The performance in this town was presented before a grandstand, probably at the Athens County Fairgrounds. Fred held a number of jobs on the show – selling candy, roustabout work, truck driving, etc. Eventually, he was assigned to assist Bill Meyer’s wife, Mildred “Millie” on “advance” – traveling ahead of the show to place advertising and putting up posters. Within about six weeks, Pfening had had his fill of life on the road, and quit. Obviously, he didn’t lose his interest in circus, and has become one its foremost historians.

That year Barr Brothers Circus wintered in Etna, Ohio to the east of Columbus. World War II broke out, but they still went on the road, opening in May of 1942. Once again, it would be a good season in spite of some mishaps, such as severe weather damage to some of the show equipment and tents. About mid-season, Meyer and Lucas broke up their partnership, and Bill Meyer took over ownership. He closed the show in October and first chose Cincinnati for winter quarters. However, in early November he moved it to the Nelsonville coal-mining property.

Fred Pfening, Jr. wrote an article about the Meyer and Lucas shows for the May-June 1990 issue of Bandwagon. In this story he states that he could not find any information about Barr Brothers Circus for the 1943 season. Checking the Nelsonville area newspaper files, I also could find no reference. It was the same for the 1944 and 1945 seasons.

For the 1946 it was a different story. Bill Meyer formed a partnership with L.B. “Doc” Ford who had been with him for part of the 1942 season as Producing Clown (clown boss). They purchased another circus in Michigan and combined the equipment and animals with the Nelsonville show to create a larger production. A feature article appeared in the April 18, 1946 issue of the Nelsonville Tribune to announce the opening of Barr Brother Circus on April 27 at the Baird Show Grounds in Nelsonville. There was also a large advertisement. An afternoon and an evening performance were to be given, but the later presentation had to be cancelled because the show’s electric plant broke down.

From Nelsonville Barr Brothers traveled to Gallipolis and other Ohio towns, then on to stands in Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, and Michigan. A complete listing of the route that they followed is to be found on page 11 of the March-April 1958 issue of Bandwagon.

Bill Meyer did not at first accompany the show, remaining to attend to his coal-mining business. However, the circus encountered a number of problems along the way and, finally, he joined the show in Iowa, hoping to reorganize it. His partnership with Doc Ford broke up, and then he leased the circus to showmen Francis Stillman and F.C. Fisher. Because of health problems, Meyer returned to Nelsonville and to the management of his other business interests.

Trouble continued to dog the show – equipment failures and lost performance dates among the difficulties. Eventually, the lessees ended the season on September 11 in the town of Ney, Ohio. The equipment was disposed of and Barr Brothers Circus was no more.

Bill and Mille Meyer continued to live in Nelsonville. Eventually he was to own the Saratoga Bar on Hocking Street and she had the East Side Tavern on Poplar Street.

People who knew Bill say that he was a large, genial man with a booming laugh. He passed away January 30, 1972.

These circus stories are included in my recently released historical novel, Whiteface and White Wardrobe. This novel is the story of fictional circus clown, Jake McGregor, his family and friends who weave their way through the factual history of the “Golden Age of Circus.” The narrative spans four decades, times in which America fought three wars, and evolved through the Roaring Twenties, the Great Depression and on into the era when television brought a decline to live entertainment, including the circus.

There are depictions of life on the road with a traveling show – the rich experiences and the not-so-great. In his travels clown Jake was to see places about which he had only dreamed, and would learn that circus was world apart, even having its own “lingo.” He would also learn about miseries, such as trying to put on a performance in knee-deep mud and following the elephants in a parade.

The reader of this novel is given an in-depth look at what is involved in becoming a successful clown – not only the skills but what must come from within. A number of classic clown acts and bits are brought to life. Rounding out the story is a healthy dose of philosophy and observations of what it takes to live life to its fullest.

Much of the story takes place in Nelsonville and the Hocking Hills region of southeastern Ohio, for Jake and his family fall in love with this area, eventually settling here. Nelsonville events described include performances at Stuart’s Opera House and Crystal Theater, Christmas on the Public Square in 1938, a donkey baseball game, a show by nationally acclaimed puppeteers at Nelsonville High School, and much more. The contributions of the CCC and WPA to the area are also covered.

Whiteface and White Wardrobe was historically researched for over 1˝ years by author, Jack R. Cox, a former magazine and book editor. To the story, Cox also brought past experience as a semi-professional puppeteer and clown in a community circus. He, his wife, Shirley, and their four-footed friends now live in contented retirement in a beautiful wooded hollow near Nelsonville.

Whiteface and White Wardrobe is available locally at the Kroger store in Nelsonville and Little Professor Book Center in Athens. Or, it can be found on the internet as a paperback or e-book at: http://www.booklocker.com/books/1655.html . The paperback is also on sale at online bookstores, such as BarnesandNoble.com and Amazon.com.
 


All stories are the property of Sideshow World & their respective authors.  Any republication in part or in whole is strictly prohibited.  For more information please contact us here.

 

Back to the Good Old Days      Back to Main

 

 

All photos are the property of their respective owners whether titled or marked anonymous.

"Sideshow WorldTM" is the sole property of John Robinson © All rights reserved.

 sideshowworld.com   sideshowworld.org   sideshowworld.net  sideshowworld.biz   sideshowworld.info

is the sole property of John Robinson © All rights reserved.

E-Mail Sideshow World     E-Mail The Webmaster