Bandwagon, Vol. 1, No. 10 (Oct), 1942. Note: Only some articles are included in this online edition. Illustrations are not included.
The alluring profession of the circus has always held a great attraction for boys of all ages. William Preston Hall of Lancaster, Mo., was no exception. Inspired with the desire to own a show of his own Bill Hall worked hard taking a job for board and a small wage. Saving his money until he had about eleven dollars, he purchased a horse, traded it successfully, and bought still another horse. Thus in a few years he became known as having quite a reputation as a judge of horse flesh.
In the year 1903 the World's Fair was held in St. Louis and with it came W. P. Hall to stake his claim as fame as a showman. A Chicago firm contracted him to supply them with horses at his own price, so well did they respect his judgment and integrity, soon St. Louis was flooded with horses as the company forgot to set a limit.
Also at the Fair was a show called The Boer War Show for which Hall had the job of handling the horses. He decided that the show business was for him and so he purchased the stranded Lemon Bros., Circus at Omaha, Nebr., in the fall of 1903. Next season the show went out of Lancaster Mo., as the William P. Hall Circus.
Rain of weeks duration encountered by the Hall Circus cut into the profits and Hall decided that he had better stick to his horses and so the next season the William P. Hall circus was leased as Howe's Great London Circus under different management and Hall had been initiated into the defunct circus business.
Later came the Pan-American Shows and the W. L. Main Circus sans title to the Hall Circus Boneyard; being sold piecemeal at a handsome profit to its owner. Still later came the other shows to the farm, Hall some times buying the show out, right down to its posters.
The Hall farm is located on the northern boundary of the Village of Lancaster in Schuyler County some 200 miles north and slightly west of St. Louis. The farm is surrounded by prairie land in the little village of around a thousand population.
On the farm, up until a few years ago could be found just about every piece of equipment that pertains to a circus. Carved and gold-leafed bandwagons and chariots were lying there, Along the western edge of the farm were dozens of weather-beaten baggage wagons with titles of circuses on their sides in peeling paint. Two big barns housed the best of the parade equipment with heavily carved tableaux representing just about every important country in the world. Such wagons as Russia, Great Britain, United States, America, Asia, and others, were all there. The wagons were covered with fleece-lined tarpaulins with the stenciled letters on their sides such as "Parade Tableau - America," etc.
There were also animals of every kind to be found there, including about thirty elephants and thirteen camels heading the list. There were lions, tigers, hyenas, a puma, Zebra, an elk and a sacred cow. Among the elephants was to be found Major the first elephant owned by the American Circus Corporation when that company had its first ten car show. With tusks over seven feet long Major was a handsome beast that any show would be proud to own. The elephants were constantly rehearsed in their tricks, ready at a moments notice to join out for fairs, conventions, or with in-door or outdoor circuses.
The private railroad spur for the farm was about a mile from the farm proper and accommodated about forty big circus railroad cars. At that time there were 70-foot steel flats with peeling paint; advertising cars with lurid descriptions and gaudily painted sides. Steel and wooden flats and stock cars with many an old time name slightly visible in the weathering paint; Gifford Bros, Shows and Yankee Robinson Circus cars were there which had been standing in the same spot for more than a quarter of a century.
William Preston Hall died in May of 1932, leaving a debt of $50,000 and the circus boneyard as security to the bankers. He had his office in an old advance car of the Yankee Robinson Circus which was supposed to have been part of Lincoln’s Funeral Train. This car had a large wooden elephant on top of it at the entrance to the Hall Farm, which was the Hall trade mark. W. P. Hall had the nickname of Diamond Billy Hall because he wore so many diamonds even when sleeping. His main business, however, was horse-trading and he had offices as far away as Cape Town in South Africa.
One of the prominent old-time one ring shows of years ago was the W. H. Harris World-Famous Nickel Plate Show originated in 1893 in Chicago by W. H. Harris. This show was a big success. As far as I can learn the show was 10-car size during its long career. The show came to Jeffersonville, Ind., in the early 1890's and the last appearance was on September 28th 1901. The writer passed bills for the show on that occasion Admission was 10 and 20 cents. Among the performers were Miles Orton, principal bare back rider; the Millette's aerial performers etc.; and the St. Leon Family Acrobats. One of these girls Elsie At. Leon was Star of the play "Polly of the Circus". The side show and menagerie were under one tent.
A parade feature was a combination Bandwagon and Lion Den, this being of elaborate design, with heavy carvings and mirrors; band rode atop under canopy over rear of wagon and drawn in parade by six or eight camels docked out in oriental robes and trappings.
Show had one elephant "Gypsy" of immense size, appeared in parade and performance. Hand bills had a half tone out of the Lion Den referred to and a cut of the elephant with this exact wording "Famous Historic, Gypsy Still Lives - THE LARGEST ELEPHANT THAT WALKS THE EARTH.”
The Territory of the Harris Nickle Plate Show was the middle West and South, Winter Quarters at the time were Valdosta, Ga. The elephant killed her keeper O'Rourke there, the Winter of 1902. W. H. Harris died about 1902 and Chas. O. Wilson became manager for Mrs. Harris. Later he was traffic Manager for years with Ringling Bros. After twenty-one years tour the show came to an end in August 1904 at Sebree, Ky.
The old dirt ring bank remained at Jeffersonville for years. On the same spot where the tents of the Harris Nickel Plate Show were in 1901, the High School stands today.
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Last modified November 2005.
without written permission of the author and the Circus Historical Society, Inc.
Last modified November 2005.