While doing some research within our archives I ran across an old hotel ledger from the National Hotel, located across the street from the Warren County Court House during the mid 1800’s. In a detailed bill, dated May 12th 1858, Charles Johnson is charged $1.50 for hay for elephant and $0.80 for oats for elephant. His stay spanned February 22nd through May 10th. Can you imagine strolling through town and coming upon an elephant during your visit, in Lebanon Ohio, in the winter? Upon further research I was able to locate famous elephant trainer Charles Johnson, located within the index of the Circus Historical Society. This index lists him as an employee for George F. Bailey & Co. in 1866. It appears that this may be our infamous traveler who stayed in Lebanon with his elephant!
Animal menageries and the circus were present within the United States as early as 1793. In the early years they were ran as separate attractions until 1830, when promoters found a way to combine the two for one spectacular show. Exotic animals were a main attraction even prior to their participation in the show. Prior to films and mass produced photographs, this was the only opportunity for many people to view such spectacles. These shows capitalized on their popularity by traveling throughout the country by both wagons and railroad cars.
Warren County hosted a number of these traveling shows and was lucky enough to have their very own circus owner living in “The Ridge” community. James S. Totten owned and operated the “The Great Eastern Circus and Hippodrome.” The Warren County Ohio GenWeb Project has a great write up written in 1944, by Hazel Brooks. Brooks writes “Mr. Totten was the first man to transport his circus entirely by railroad.” Unfortunately due to the popularity of Barnum, Mr. Totten’s circus went out of business and some of the animals were given to the Cincinnati Zoo.
In addition to housing an elephant for some months, Warren County hosted numerous shows throughout the decades when circuses and menageries were popular. While looking through advertisements you can chronicle the changes these shows underwent through the years. What was once a small show with performances mainly by people with animals on display eventually transitioned into elaborate performances that included performances and tricks done by lions and elephants. Although many of the records for these smaller circuses do not surface often, it makes these small discoveries a treasure for local history and folklore.
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