Reflections on Circus Life

In the not too distant past we published a post about Hardy Hardella and his dog Moxie.  Hardy and Moxie are among our favorite Joplin residents, so when we found an article about Hardy and his days with the circus, we knew it would end up as a post.  A more specific post on Hardy himself is in the works for later.

Hardy Hardella

A distinguished Hardy Hardella, courtesy of the private collection of Judy Hurdle.

Hardy Hardella moved to Joplin in 1905.  A few years later, one of Hardella’s old circus cronies arrived in town. The two had not seen each other in twenty-five years, but Hardy and William Underwood (his stage name was William Lucifer) took up where they left off the last time they had seen one another. Underwood, still working the vaudeville circuit, arrived in Joplin for a performance and decided to call upon his old friend.

The two men first met when they worked together in the Charles Hunter Circus which traveled through Nebraska, Kansas, and Missouri. Hunter, the former circus owner, still lived in the area, but instead of wrangling animals and acrobats, now proprietor of the Crescent Hotel in Pittsburg, Kansas. The two men said the circus consisted of one car, a camel, two ponies, six or seven mules, and two or three horses. Altogether there were twenty five men employed by the circus.

The circus car, an old condemned Pullman, had a secret compartment underneath it. When times were hard, half of the employees would hide in it when the conductor came around to collect train fares. One day, however, Hunter’s adopted son poked his head up out of the trap door when the conductor came through. Hunter’s circus “had hard luck on that road ever after.”

Underwood recalled the time he came to Joplin with the De Haven Circus and a fight broke out between circus employees and local miners. Angry miners cut up and destroyed the circus tents and half of the outfit was “broken up.”

After things seemed to have cooled down, another fight broke out after miners and circus workers got into a brawl at one of Joplin’s saloons. Underwood remembered “billiard cues and bottles were freely used” in the fight. Circus workers were arrested and thrown in Joplin’s city jail for a few days before they were released. Underwood remarked, “I have never forgotten that incident in Joplin. I have been all over the world since then and in every civilized nation, but I nearly always sign my residence as Joplin, MO., because of that fight and subsequent stay in jail.”

That same week, Hardy Hardella and William Underwood met old friend William McCall, who performed with Hardella as the “Hardella Brothers,” to discuss old times. The men recalled when Hardy was known as, “Hardella, the wonderful contortionist.”

Hardella Brothers ad

An advertisement for the Hardella Brothers, courtesy of Judy Hurdle.

Underwood remembered how the “old time circuses sure used to clean out a town. There was always a bunch of ‘fakirs’ that went along with the show and paid big concessions. The games they used to devise were many and varied. Yankee ingenuity being a mild term to apply to it. What money wasn’t taken in at the gates or by the shell games was usually cleaned up the ‘gooseberry crowd’ that followed the circus and while the people were watching the performance, raided the houses. Sometimes the ‘gooseberry’ bunch was in cahoots with the show and sometimes they were not, but they usually made a cleaning. Some small towns were literally wiped clean by the circus bunch.”

Locals, however, often lashed out after discovering their town had been “wiped clean.” Underwood recalled, “When they got a chance to get their breath and compare notes, they usually came down on the circus with blood in their eyes. The ‘fakirs’ had moved on to greener pastures by this time and were ready to work the next town. The circus hands had to bear the brunt of the storm. One experienced stake driver with the heavy, banded circus stake, could usually clean twelve or fifteen ‘rubes’ but just the same there was much bloodshed and cracked heads.”

He also somberly told the story of a young Kansan who had just sold a load of corn for a large sum of money, possibly as much as $200, and decided to bet it all on a shell game. He lost. The shell game operator, scared the crowd was going to attack him, fled. The young farmer chased him into a tent where the man cracked the rube over the head with a club. Underwood claimed, “It was one of the most cruel sights I have ever witnessed, but those were hard days in the circus business.”

Circuses are few and far between these days, but undoubtedly the big top once thrilled crowds all across the country, and Joplin was no exception.

Sources: Joplin Globe, Joplin News Herald, Livingston’s History of Jasper County, Bale Milling Odyssey by Judy Hurdle, Missouri Death Certificate Database 1910-1959, Judy Hurdle private collection

Joplin Celebrates the Fourth

Bingville Bugler 4th of July

Bingville Bugler, insert of Joplin News Herald, 4th of July banner.

The celebration of America’s Independence Day was no less important a hundred years ago in Joplin than it is today.  A principal slogan of the city of Joplin in 1910 was to have a “Safe,  Saner Fourth of July for Joplin.”  In June of that year, the city council had passed the Kelso ordinance which oversaw the sale, display and use of fireworks.  Proponents of the safer and saner Fourth were women groups and the Ministers Alliance.   Both Mayor Guy Hume and Chief of Police John McManamy supported the measure and the idea of a “quieter Fourth.”   Further support was also sought by the local school systems.  Unsurprisingly, the motivation for the ordinance had been to reduce the injuries from the celebratory play with explosives.  If injuries could be reduced it was hoped the city could proceed with more support for the holiday.  The “Sane” Fourth motto was also raised the next year in 1911 and reinforced by a city ordinance that prevented the sale of firecrackers more than 2 inches in length, as well “exploding canes and blank pistols”.

If people were not buying fireworks, Joplin shopkeepers likely hoped they would do some holiday shopping.  One such business was Meyers, which paid for a patriotic Fourth of July ad three years later (when the same belief in a “quieter Fourth” prevailed):

A patriotic ad from Meyers in 1913.

Many in Joplin opted instead of celebrating in town to travel to two of the popular recreational parks in the area, “Since early morning wagons, buggies, autos and street cars have been busy carrying people from the city.  Contrary to the usual custom, there seem few people from the country coming to town to spend the day.  Both Electric and Lakeside parks are the scenes of great activity.”  The bill of events in 1911 for the Electric Park in, located within Schifferdecker Park, advertised a fun and entertaining day:

Electric Park Fourth of July ad from 1911.

An advertisement for the Electric Park in 1911.

An entertaining area of the Electric Park of Joplin, Mo.

One area of the Electric Park where visitors enjoyed the nearby stage.

Not mentioned in the ad above was an inviting swimming pool, an escape from the hot July heat.  Likewise, as the name reveals, Lakeside Park also offered a cool, aquatic retreat.  The attractions at Lakeside in 1911 were several.  The Trolley League, a local baseball league of four teams, was scheduled to present a doubleheader.  A standard at Lakeside was boating, in addition to swimming, and a band had been secured for a patriotic performance.  For those in the mood for dancing, a ballroom was also available.

Lakeside Park, Joplin, Missouri

By accounts, the there was far less room to stroll, as presented here in the photograph of Lakeside Park

Lakeside Park 4th of July ad from 1913

A 1913 Fourth of July ad for Lakeside Park

For those in Joplin who opted to celebrate without visiting the parks, one option was to enjoy a meal and music atop the Connor Hotel.  48 booths were made available in “The One Cool Spot in Southwest Missouri,” each designated with a separate flag which represented one of the 48 states of the United States.  “A telephone message to the Connor Hotel will be all that is necessary to have a state held.”  For those who opted to reserve “a state,” the rooftop garden was decorated with lanterns, flags, and festoonings, and the evening was filled with cabaret singers such as, “Ward Perry, Ned LaRose, Nell Scott and Grace Perry.”  Of course, fireworks of some sort were to be expected and for the Connor Hotel diners, a “grand illuminated display of pyrotechnics” among other novelties was offered.

Connor Fourth of July ad from 1913

Ad for the 4th of July entertainment atop the Connor Hotel

The Connor Hotel's rooftop garden.

A view of the renovated Connor's rooftop area where the 4th of July celebration was held.

From we at Historic Joplin, have a great Fourth of July!

Sources: The Joplin Globe, Joplin News-Herald

For more on the Connor Hotel, click here!

Blind Boone comes to Joplin

Blind Boone

Blind Boone, famed Ragtime piano player.

In June, 1907, a crowd in the large auditorium of the First Methodist church sat enraptured before the musical genius of John William Boone, better known as “Blind Boone.”  Boone had lost his eyesight at the age of six due to illness, but the handicap had not prevented him from finding a career as a piano player.  Managed by John Lange, Boone toured Missouri and the nation performing a mix between the classic and the popular.  His visit to Joplin coincided with his 26th season on the road with Lange.  Considered a Ragtime player, Boone entertained the Joplin crowd with songs from Chopin, Sidney Smith, Liszt, Gottschalk, and Wollenhaust.  Additionally, Boone performed songs of his composition.

The Daily Globe reporter who covered the event described Boone’s playing and its effect as, “He plays in perfect time and interprets the most difficult selections with ease.  He is very enthusiastic when about to begin a selection and his laughs at the end of his songs made a decided hit.”  The reporter continued on the laugh, noting that it, “enraptured his audience.” Furthermore, “Boone has a constant motion of the body backward and forward as he plays and sings which affects him only in appearance.”

Boone was not the sole performer, but was joined by a Miss Emma Smith who sang several songs, and then was called back by the crowd to sing several more.  Among the songs that Boone performed was the famed “Marshfield Tornado.”  Composed after a disastrous tornado swept through Marshfield, Missouri, the reporter stated of it, “so realistic a portrayal of the wind and storm that several small children in the audience cried out in alarm.”  Boone also exhibited imitations of various instruments on his piano, such as a violin, drum, and a fife.  The black performer closed with “The Mocking Bird” and “Home, Sweet, Home.”  For those Joplin residents who missed this performance, the article noted that Boone would be playing again a second night at Joplin’s First Christian church in South Joplin.

Source: Joplin Globe