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Circus Fever

North Salem's Wild Past



The Collection of Grace Zimmerman

›› If you think June Road in North Salem took its name from the month that the show-tune proclaims “is bustin’ out all over,” guess again. It is a tribute to a local family that played a key role in the history of the Big Top in 19th- century America. In fact, the colonnaded Greek Revival mansion (today restored and for sale) at 85 June Road was built in the 1840s for John F. June, one of North Salem’s “circus kings.” Not far, on Rte 116, Titicus Road, toward Ridgefield, you will find the large, English country house with imposing iron gates that had belonged to June’s partner, Lewis B. Titus. (The stone retaining wall facing the street is said to have been built with help from elephants.) In the local cemetery, 16 gravestones bear witness to lives tied to the circus.

How come North Salem? In 1809 Hackaliah Bailey of neighboring Somers sold a half share in a female elephant, Old Bet (which he had bought from a ship’s captain) to North Salem entrepreneur Isaac Purdy for $5,000. It was a sound investment, equal to buying a $100,000 slice of Dreamworks today, for before radio and television, people paid good money for the thrill of gawking at exotic live animals on exhibit. Old Bet was walked from town to town only at night so no one would get a free peek.

“Circus fever” quickly spread in the North Salem community, spawning start-up menageries in which locals were eager to invest. Lions, tigers, zebras, camels, monkeys were procured and during the summer months, the shows began to go on the road. In winter, the animals were housed by North Salem farmers, in barns built tall to accommodate elephants, dromedaries and such. (Those barns are all gone, except vestiges of one at the Purdy Homestead.)  In the 1990s, a section of what has become known as the Elephant Walk, a 20-foot-wide path of boulders edged by a four-foot rock wall, believed to have been built for the behemoths’ path to pasture, was uncovered and restored on a local horse property. Further, Town Supervisor Warren Lucas reports: “My great-grandmother Annette Bloomer would tell my Aunt Beryl about the elephants and other circus animals that wintered in North Salem being walked past her house to bathe in Peach Lake.”

Of all the dozens of circus companies that operated in the first half of the 19th century, none was more successful than June, Titus, Angevine & Co. June and Titus had worked as young men in the Crane Brothers’ circus out of North Salem. Sometime in 1830 they got together with another North Salemite, Caleb Angevine, and formed what was to be called The Syndicate, an organization that for the next 50 years had its finger in every aspect of circus business. Not only did it continue to draw capital from prosperous North Salem dairy farmers, but it also recruited and trained local men to work in their businesses. The Syndicate initiated wildly popular equestrian, acrobatic, and juggler performances at their Bowery Theater in New York, and, realizing that keeping their animals idle in winter was a big waste, they stabled them and put them on show next to the theater. They sent scouts across Africa to bring back more animals, and their circus was the first traveling show to feature a hippopotamus, a giraffe, and two elephants at once. The circus business was a very territorial one and when the Syndicate ran up against competition in the Big City, it proclaimed: “We shall put our foot down flat and play New York. So watch out!” Play they did, there and everywhere, and ever after this North Salem circus clan was known in the business as The Flatfoots.

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November 2018

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