While doing some research for the Horseshoe Café, I recently found myself sidetracked into the world of the Barnum and Bailey circus on their visit to Bellingham in 1908. As a fan-girl of old-timey performers of the vaudeville and circus scenes, it was fairly easy to do. Since today is the anniversary of the arrival of the Barnum and Bailey Circus in Bellingham #onthisday in 1908, I thought I’d share…
Beloved local establishment the Horseshoe Cafe traces its roots back to 1886. The Horseshoe has survived through various locations (mostly on the same block of Holly Street) and over a dozen decades, from saloon days through prohibition and repeal. The Horseshoe opened one of the first cocktail lounges, the “Ranch Room,” which kitschy-cool 1958 cowboy art by the late native Washington artist Fred Oldfield. The long-lived Bellingham institution has undeniable retro-appeal.
The Horseshoe’s exact origins remain shrouded in a bit of mystery, but by the early 1900s the saloon occupied a prime spot in the fabulous Lighthouse Block on the corner of Dock Street (Cornwall Ave) and Holly (the site of Bank of America today).
In 1908 the “Horseshoe Bar” moved next door on Holly Street to a smaller neighboring building, and they took advantage of the timely arrival of the Barnum and Bailey circus on August 18th to announce their re-opening…
Of course circus was not commissioned by the Horseshoe proprietors, rather their ad was a clever capitalization on the fact that the circus was coming to town - a convenient day to have their “grand re-opening.”
The circus coming to town was a big deal, arriving on five long trains with 85 train cars total. What was especially a big deal was the “re-introduction” of a circus parade through town, which had apparently been omitted on more recent visits. The return of the parade was big news as the papers announced:
CIRCUS PARADE RETURNS
Barnum and Bailey Management Once More to Give Street Spectacle
When the Barnum and Bailey Greatest Show on Earth visits Bellingham on August 18, it will be with the long-omitted street spectacle back in its old place as a part of the morning’s program….
Parade Will Be One of the Features of the Barnum & Bailey’s Show
…If the weather is right tomorrow the circus management will send out the biggest and best parade it has ever given, leaving the grounds at 10 o’clock and covering the principal streets….After a lapse of four years, the management has restored the parade feature in response to public sentiment….
The first band chariot will have an enormous hitch of twenty-four Norman horses, while eight and ten-horse hitches will be common. An unusually generous display of open cages is promised, while the entire herd of elephants, barring of course, Baby Bunting, the priceless infant, will be seen. A large drove of Siberian camels with Oriental riders will afford a contrasting element. Several score men and women riders, splendid mounted and gayly attired help to make up the procession. More than 500 horses will be in line, ranging from the sturdy Norman and Percheron breeds to the cleanly-cut animals of the thoroughbred type. The parade is more than a mile in length.
I recalled an image I’d seen in the Galen Biery collections at the Center for Pacific Northewest Studies and Whatcom Museum Photo Archives of a parade of Elephants on Holly Street between Cornwall and Railroad, passing right in front of the Horseshoe’s location at the time. The photo also happens to show the buildings where the Horseshoe Café is currently located, when they were home to the Oxford Saloon and the Bell Theater.
The papers also commented on the many acts and equipment newly brought from Europe and the Orient for this visit. There would be two stages in three rings, a great “hippodrome” (an arena for horse races) and an “unusually attractive and skillful company of women”
“Women are by no means a small part of a circus performance. The success of an entertainment of this nature depends largely on the cleverness of its women. A difficult equestrian act, a dangerous performance high on a trapeze or the human intelligence pitted against brute instinct of a trained tiger are far more appealing when the performer is a woman.
There is an unusually attractive and skillful company of women this year with the Barnum and Bailey greatest show on earth. First in importance are the La Raque sisters, doubtless the two most daring people before the public anywhere in the world. Their double automobile somersault act is pronounced as the utter extreme of daring and danger.
The Yllerom sisters, Nettie Caroll, the Urma Sisters, Alberta, Miss Stickney, the Meers sisters, Julia Shipp, Miss Heurtermann, Victoria Davenport, Mrs. Lowando and the hundred or so other young women concerned in the acts of the Imperial Viennese, the Florenz family, the Flying Fishers, the Dollar troupe, the Navarros, the Pachecos and Les Jardys are women of the most pronounced abilities and beauty.
Altogether it is a wonderful circus that the Barnum and Bailey management will soon bring to Bellingham. It is European in personality, artistic in every detail, infinite in its variety and possessing the charm of great novelty. It surpasses any previous season in size and strength.
The grand finale, an aerial car act performed by the Sisters LaRoque, garnered a great deal of attention. Yvonne LaRaque, had begun performing solo auto acts the previous year. When she joined Barnum and Bailey her “sister” was added to the act, creating a double loop spectacle that drove crowds wild.
AUTOS PASS IN THE AIR
“Thriller” with Barnum and Bailey Reaches Point That Terrifies
The morbid-minded originator of circus thrillers has just come to the front with the masterpiece of his devilish imagination in the shape of an act styled “Autos that Pass in the Air.” It is the feature of this season with the Barnum & Bailey Greatest Show on Earth. It is the Dante’s Inferno of circus sensations.
The new “Terrorizer” – and it merits the name – is performed by two slender French girls, the La Raque sisters, each in a separate automobile, they plunge simultaneously from the dome of the canvas down a narrow single track set at an angle of 45 degrees, leap a yawning gap, during which one car turns a complete revolution around the other automobile, and land with a crash on a narrow platform, one car immediately behind the other, their previous order reversed.
One automobile is red, the other blue, that spectators may be able to follow their separate mid-air maneuvers. At that it is a most perplexing performance and almost terrorizing in its effect upon spectators…
It is said to be ten-fold more dangerous than any circus act of the past, and the statement is not for a moment doubted by those who have seen it.
The arrival of the circus attracted people from all around:
“From every part of the county the roads leading to Bellingham were thronged with all kinds of vehicles... All the trains and boats brought in big crowds… They were met on the main streets by… vendors of balloons, ‘ice cold lemon,’ and all the other accessories to a circus…. Several thousand circus attendants flooded into town and spent the morning shopping in downtown stores while waiting for the parade.”
The circus was great for downtown Bellingham business, especially the parade. The circus grounds were near the site of Bellingham High School today, but the parade would march right through the heart of town, encouraging folks to hang around and spend money while waiting for and watching the parade. The Herald reported retail sales were heavier than any day since the visit of the Great White Fleet in May. Undoubtedly more than a few menfolk popped into the Horseshoe for a quick drink or a cigar, making it a great day for a grand re-opening.