This Month in History – Circus Day

September 23, 1935 was Circus Day. And on Circus Day, Wilmington became the temporary home to a canvas city filled with elephants, camels, lions, and other “jungle animals,” seals, dancing horses, clowns, circus ladies, cowboys, and circus bands. Sometimes there was even unplanned excitement when the circus came to town; most notably, in 1922 when Topsy the elephant escaped and led police and animal trainers on a wild goose chase.

In the fall of 1935, there were no runaway elephants on Wilmington’s streets, but the circus still generated excitement. Locals likely saw colorful posters pasted around town advertising the upcoming Circus Day, and they could read about the Downie Brothers Circus’s imminent arrival in the Wilmington Morning Star. In between news of the Italian-Ethiopian War, the Great Depression, and the upcoming Joe Lewis-Max Baer boxing match, the paper described the upcoming circus in glowing terms, and teamed with Downie Brothers to offer a discount coupon for children to attend.

From the moment the Downie Brothers Circus drove into Wilmington on 22 September, it attracted an audience. Folks watched avidly as the workers pitched the tents with the help of the elephants. When Circus Day dawned, it was an exciting day filled with spectacular sights and sounds. Children flocked to the circus grounds (located at the “Colored Ball Park” at 13th and Ann streets) in the morning to help water the elephants.

The first official event was a free street parade that left the grounds at 11:30 a.m. and traveled the city’s streets. Circus Manager Charles Sparks claimed the mile long parade included “lions, tigers, leopards, bears, monkeys, jaguars, and many, many other types of jungle beasts. Three bands and the Georgia minstrel band, scores of beautiful horses, cowboys and their broncos, and of course, many, many, circus ladies in their tinsel and lace. It will be a real old fashioned street parade with all the new features.”

The circus grounds opened up an hour before the main event. Folks from the city and the surrounding counties could explore the menagerie’s cages, side show performers, and the main events which happened twice in one day — at 2 p.m. and 8 pm. Regular admission rates were 50 cents for an adult and 25 cents for a child. The Downie Brothers Circus show consisted of three rings, 59 acts, and “scores of horses and elephants ‘n’ everything.” When Circus Day was over, everything was repacked, and performers, animals, and the tents hit the road again. And Wilmington streets were elephant-free until the next circus came to town.

View more Circus Day photos in the Museum’s collection here.

Previous Columns

August: Motorboat Racing
Celebrating Independence Day at the Beach
Wilmington Turns 200, June 21, 1939
Laura Grace Cox graduates from Tileston
Saint Marks Turns 100, April 1969
March: Troops Return Home, March 29, 1919
February: Black History Month turns 40
January: Fort Johnston and Fort Caswell are seized, January 8, 1861

Downie Bros Circus at 7th and Market Street
Gift of Lucile S. Goldburg
814 Market Street • Wilmington, NC 28401 • Phone 910-798-4370 • Fax 910-798-4382