The following was originally published on the website of Lakeview Museum of Arts & Sciences (now the Peoria Riverfront Museum), and later archived at Archive.is. Accompanying the story are additional news clippings and images (courtesy of the Peoria Public Library Local History Collection) discovered while researching the history of circuses in Peoria.
Peoria has been a favorite destination for circuses for more than 160 years. Arriving by wagon, then steamboat and finally by railroad and truck, hundreds of circuses large and small have come and gone. Nearly every major circus performer has played in Peoria since the Miller, Yates, Sands & Co. Menagerie and Circus Combined first arrived in 1837. Over the next 164 years of circus history in Peoria, we have seen every stage of development and innovation.
Appreciative Peorians could never get enough of the Big Top Shows. In 1872 and 1884, five major circuses set up in Peoria between April and September. In 1903 seven circuses visited, including the top four shows of the time. The Ringling brothers, who started their circus in 1884, made their first stop in Peoria in 1885. From that time until they abandoned their tent for an arena (1956), they rarely missed more than two years between stops in Peoria.
The circus arrives in downtown Peoria around 1935. The Courthouse square is on the right, Block and Kuhl is in the center background.
The delightful sounds of the calliope first entertained local circus goers when the Nixon & Kemp Great Eastern Circus visited in 1857. Their advertisements described this first steam calliope as "equal in power to a brass band composed of more than a thousand musicians." On Friday, May 22, 1857 the circus gave two performances and afterwards the Peoria Daily Transcript described the calliope as a "mammoth instrument of torture." With an instrument that could be heard "for miles around," how loud that must have been when sitting just a few feet away!
Sometimes the circus floated into town. Spalding & Rogers' circus arrived on the Floating Palace, a steamboat specially constructed to present their circus onboard. In 1857, while docked near the foot of Main Street, concurrent with the Illinois State Fair (held in Peoria), the circus held performances Tuesday through Saturday. The Floating Palace was only one of 12 steamers docked in Peoria that week.
A review of the Floating Palace Circus, from the Peoria Daily Transcript
P.T. Barnum formed his circus in 1871, and brought Barnum’s great Traveling World’s Fair to Peoria August 28, 1872. Ten years later Barnum added a new show. He brought Jumbo to America in 1882; the elephant appeared in Peoria twice, 1883 and 1884. Jumbo died when he was struck by a train in 1885 but made it back to Peoria (his hide and skeleton) in 1886.
Not only did the animals of the circus draw a crowd, but many famous performers did the same. The great Dan Rice visited Peoria on numerous occasions. At the time he was one of the nation's biggest celebrities and is best remembered as the inspiration for the figure of Uncle Sam. Buffalo Bill Cody first came to Peoria in 1883 and his last visit was in 1911. Peoria even gave birth to one show. In 1910, Vernon Seaver organized a traveling Wild West show that toured into 1914. Best known now as the man who brought Al Fresco Park to Peoria, his Wild West show began the season with the Peoria performances and ended each season with winter quarters in Peoria. Annie Oakley came to Peoria with Buffalo Bill in the 1890s and came out of retirement to join the Young Buffalo show in 1910-13.
Peoria has seen every great performer over the years. The list includes Issac Van Amburgh (1855); three of the finest equestrians in James Melville (1861), James Robinson (1861), and Levi North in (1868); Annie Oakley as early as 1883 with the Sells Bros. Circus and as late as 1912 with the Young Buffalo Wild West Show; circus star of our times, Gunther Gebel-Williams. Hugo Zacchini was shot from his cannon in Peoria (1930), while the Wallendas came to Peoria with the Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus (1935). Yankee Robinson liked the city so much that in 1865 he wintered his circus in Peoria, sending his horses to be quartered in Washington and refurbishing his wagons here. Peoria has always been a circus town and visiting circuses would regularly count on capacity crowds. Ringling management in 1935 labeled Peoria as a "sure-fire" city to play from a list of 1500 show sites. PS
Below, an advertisement for the Floating Palace from the Peoria Daily Transcript: