The Great Elephant Race
A while back I was talking with Don Mason about one of my stories. A comment was made about how he believed that I enjoyed writing about the “Old Days.” I agreed with his comment.
Don then asked, “Do you remember the Great Elephant Race that took place on Main Street downtown years ago.” I answered, “I did not.” Our conversation sparked an interest in the event. I inquired, from Don, for additional information. He explained that the person I needed to talk with would be Tom Myslinsky. By Don’s recollection, it was Tom who played an important part in bringing the unusual event to town.
Our conversation also got me to thinking about the last time I remembered a circus in town. I figured it must have been about 50 years ago. It was a small circus as circuses go, but it was a big top show for our community. The circus tent was set up on the practice side of the football field. Most all the events were inside the big top tent. Being a small circus, if my memory serves me correctly, it had only one main show going on in the center ring. Around the main ring, clowns and side performances entertained the audience. I believe that was the last time a circus came to New Martinsville.
Back to my elephant story. I spoke briefly with Tom Myslinsky; he explained he had some pictures I could use for my story. When I got them, I saw each print was stamped with a date: June 1980. With that information, I went to the library and began looking through mica-film for background information on my story. I thought to myself, surely that would have been front page news back then. After looking through the film’s files, I found no story of elephants on Main Street.
Tom’s pictures showed the street crowded full of people. One of the pictures showed the elephants with their riders. They were surrounded by crowds of eager spectators. A couple other pictures showed the circus performers entertaining the crowds in front of the theater.
Not wanting to give up looking for information, I next went to the Wetzel Chronicle office and began looking through the papers archives for the year 1980. Finally, after some searching, I saw on the editorial page a column written by Don Palmerine. The story was titled, “The Elephants are Coming.” I figured his story was the information I was looking for. Don’s story started out that when he heard the elephants were coming to town, he wanted to interview an elephant named, Bimbo. Turns out the story was not about the elephants coming to downtown, but a story about Republicans and Cemocrats. He used the elephant as a way to tell his story.
Once again, I found myself wanting more information about the downtown events. Fortunately, I finally caught up with Tom and asked my curiosity questions. He explained the circus was the Royal Hanneford Circus. When I researched the name, I found out it is thought to be the oldest circus in the world. It is believed to have it beginnings in 1690. It began touring and performing in 1807. I check the internet and it is still touring in 2017.
Tom went on to explain that in May of 1980 the circus came to Wheeling. The civic center was hosting a truck pull and there was no space for the circus until the following week. Tom was contacted and asked for help through his business, Radio Shack. They were the local sales agent for civic center tickets. The circus explained the situation and asked if there was any way they could come to New Martinsville for the week. Tom, with the help of the downtown merchants, in a short time period made arrangements to host the circus and its animals.
The circus owners were grateful for the community’s openness. They wanted to show their gratitude by providing entertainment while in town. They came with not only elephants, but tigers, horses and side show performers. They set up the temporary housing in the old Silco parking lot. Families flocked to the location to see the animals.
Come Saturday morning, the day of the show, the downtown streets were flooded by a heavy rain. But, by one o’clock the streets were dried out and a large crowd of people gathered for the race. The crowd was entertained by jugglers, clowns, balancing acts along with other various entertainment.
Then came the main event, the elephant race. In front of the theater, three elephants knelt down as riders positioned themselves on the animals’ backs. I asked Tom who were the riders. He explained one was ridden by its handler. The second was ridden by Joe Freeland. The third was ridden by a young coach from Paden City, whose name he could not remember. After riders were safely in their seats, the race began. Now, the truth is, I don’t believe it was much of a race, as it was a quick 100 foot walk. A crowd of o lookers filled the short race course that stretched from the theater to the front of the county commission. But, still it was a onetime event in the history of our community. The whole show was covered by the local radio station WKGI.
You may be wondering, why write about an elephant race that took place thirty-seven years ago? Given the world we live in today, it is unlikely there ever will be another elephant in our town. Circus and animal acts are vanishing. And for good reasons, still, it’s sad in a way. I don’t believe the elephants were happy about being part of the day’s entertainment back then. But, for some people, that may have been the only time in their life they got to see and touch an elephant. I’ll bet for a few people they may still remember touching the trunk of an elephant on Main Street.
Summer, in New Martinsville when I was growing up, was a time of carnivals. Twirling, brightly lit rides and side shows, with odd and mysterious performers, drew crowds to the midway. The evening air, next to the rail tracks in Brooklyn, smelled of fresh saw dust and hot popcorn. And when the rare circus came to town, it brought excitement with high-wire acts, dare-devil motorcycle performers and clowns. And yes, they brought elephant shows.
I am glad that Don Mason and Tom Myslinsky remembered those events, and helped me re-tell the story from 37 years ago. Our community’s history is often retold by those who were part of the events. Maybe in a couple hundred years, a historian who is going through scanned newspapers, finds this story. They’ll say to their children, “Did you know they once had elephants on Main Street? One child asks, “What was an elephant?” The other child asks, “Where was Main Street?” That’s how it may be without story tellers who preserve our town’s history as we look back Through the lens.