The American Circus in Southeast

The Early American Circus: Traveling Menageries

During the 19th century, farmers in and around Southeast began to invest in a new and unique business venture. This area would later become known as the cradle of the American circus. In, 1793, Englishman John Bill Rickets introduced Americans to the circus at his arena in Philadelphia where trick riding was featured along with clown acts in the same show.

In the 1830's, farmers in Southeast began showing menageries, collections of exotic beasts from far away lands. They soon combined the menagerie show with the acrobatic entertainment of trick riding and these early circus entrepreneurs began taking their show on the road. This early practice of touring unusual animals proved profitable in the rural areas of the Hudson Valley. In fact, circus entrepreneurs took these wagon "mud" shows up and down the east coast. By the 1850's American circuses were a big business and they began to travel abroad, bringing back to American even more unique items and animals.

Hachaliah Bailey, from nearby Somers, Westchester County, brought the first elephant "Old Bet" to the United States in 1796. Bailey exhibited "Old Bet," until her death in 1816. Somers is home to the Elephant Hotel, built by Hachaliah Bailey in 1820-1825. The building served as a meeting place for menagerie owners.

The Circus in Southeast and Brewster

The circus had a large impact on the Town of Southeast as it provided employment for many local businesses,  blacksmiths, feed and grain stores, wagon makers and painters. Many showman and circus people came from Southeast. Nathan and Seth B. Howes began their show business careers at early ages, in Southeast.

In 1811, Nathan formed a small circus company made up largely of his friends and family, including 11 year-old Seth. Seth B. Howes would later become one of the foremost circus businessmen in the area.From 1850-1853, Seth B. Howes managed a circus project for P. T. Barnum. He later toured Europe and England, performing before heads of state. Seth B. Howes retired in 1870. With the wealth he accumulated, Howes remodeled the family home Stonehenge, located at the foot of Brewster Hill Road. In 1893,with concerns about the large earthern dam being constructed behind the family house, Seth B. Howes moved to Turk Hill Road. There, he built a castle-like home, Morningthorpe, that is based on the Howes' ancestral home in England. A golden elephant once stood guarding the entrance to this majestic house.

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