Gaily painted circus wagons carrying huge tents and others bearing the menagerie of all types of wild animals travelled through the city streets this morning between the Michigan Central railroad and the Packard St. showgrounds as the Al G. Barnes Circus arrived for performances this afternoon and tonight.
–Ann Arbor News, August 13, 1935
As a girl in the 1930s, I spent summers with my maternal grandparents in Ann Arbor. While Grandpa Mann ran the Facory Hat Store on Packard near State, Grandma Mann and I spent most of our time at their log cabin at Zukey Lake.
Late each Friday afternoon Grandpa Mann would join us, driving in his brown 1922 Dodge, driving down the grass lawns behind the cottages to park behind our cabin. Monday morning he would turn the car around, careful not to hit the rocks edging the garden he loved, and go back to town. Sometimes Grandma Mann and I went with him.
Always when the circus was coming to town.
Their house wrapped around Grandpa Mann’s store. When the circus parade came by on its way to the county fairgrounds (now Burns Park), I would stand in the parlor window and watch the elephants pulling the circus wagons. Some were fire-engine red with dazzling gold trim, a Technicolor treat, especially wondrous to a child–lions and tigers pacing back and forth behind the iron bars, back and forth, in their slinky, feline way.
The circus was one of five that John Ringling acquired when he purchased the American Circus Corporation in 1929. The New York Times headlined its story, “Man Who Started as a Clown Now Controls the Entire Big Top Industry.”
Back then, in the words of circus historians LaVahn Hoh and William Rough, “Going to the circus in your hometown would be comparable today to attending the Super Bowl or the Daytona 500 NASCAR race on the Fourth of July.” It was a time when the circus “was indelibly fixed in everyday life, as much as newspapers, the telegraph, the railroad and mail-order catalogues.”
The Barnes Circus gave Grandpa Mann free tickets in exchange for putting a poster in his store window. So after the parade Grandma Mann and I would go to the afternoon performance in the big canvas tent.
It was a true three-ring circus, with bareback riders, tumblers, and a big round animal cage. “Mabel Stark, queen of the tiger trainers is with the show again this year,” the Ann Arbor News wrote, “and is working 17 Bengal tigers. Capt. Terrell Jacobs has 19 lions (“Jungle Bred”) in another giant arena.”
I can still picture the uniformed trainers cracking their whips and the lions and tigers dutifully hopping up onto the designated stands. Sometimes it took a couple of cracks of the whip, a hold-your-breath moment–a teeth-showing, lip-curling snarl–before they performed.
There were peanuts and pink cotton candy to go with the trapeze artists flying up in the tent’s top rigging and clowns in their made-up faces under the colorful wigs, running around in floppy shoes, tumbling out of tiny cars.
We’d spend the rest of the week in town. Then, on Friday afternoon, it was back out to the lake on US-23–not today’s freeway, but a two-lane country road. There were two dips near Whitmore Lake. Through the years they became the “big dip” and the “little dip,” and part of going to and from the lake was to anticipate the dips.
Carefree summer days