The day the circus came to town

Published 4:57 pm Monday, October 10, 2022

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During a very lovely conversation with ninety-five old Ms. Mollie Stem, I got an answer to a question that puzzled me for a long time. The conversation began by us talking about the Beaufort County Fair that was held in Washington every year usually around October during the 1950’s-and 60’s.  Other than Christmas, the County Fair, and the thought of going to it, generally made me do everything to keep my name off of my mom’s ‘naughty list.’  Too many naughty acts as a young child and later what my mom called ‘plain right-out disobedience’ during my teen years made the fair a no-go for me some years. So, I tried my best to do everything right to make sure I would go.

Ms. Mollie talked about going to fair with her children and how much fun it was. For me, going to the fair meant getting a strip of free tickets for rides from school, the rides and getting freshly made cotton candy were the best. The fair was really a big deal for me and my sisters.

Now our conversation turned to the circuses that used to come to town.  I don’t remember going to the circus, but Ms. Mollie mentioned something I had heard in a story as a kid about all the circuses that used to come to Washington. One time a circus came to town that had chariots of pure gold.  I asked Ms. Mollie more about the story and she said her father had saw a big circus that came to Washington with acts from all over the world. The circus was so big it took a dozen acres of land to pitch tents, and they had performers riding in gold chariots.

In my previous columns I have told you about the stories I heard growing up. There was a story about birthday cake downtown as big as an automobile, and that story proved true, with the wooden constructed birthday cake downtown to celebrate President George Washington’s 250th birthday in 1922.

My friend and historian Ray Midgett wrote about a shark that was found dead in the river and ended up at Day’s Fish Market downtown, which collaborated the story I’d heard about a ‘fish’ that was caught as big as a dolphin at the fish market.  Turns out it wasn’t a fish but a shark. I guess folks back then may have called it a ‘fish’ as sharks generally don’t swim in the brackish waters in the Pamlico River.  And now here’s the story about the circus with ‘chariots of gold.’

It took a little history digging but here it is!  Washington had a lot of world-class circuses that came to town beginning in the 1800’s.  The circus would come by railroad cars and were a big attraction for eastern NC. One circus, The Hunting Railroad Shows were billed as a ‘Circus, Museum and Menagerie.’ When Hunting’s Circus came here in October 1894, his show brought acts from all over the world


On October 15th, 1914, The Carl Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus came to Washington, with performing acts that came from all over the world, 18 nations to be exact. It was advertised as the ‘Biggest Circus in the world.’ The circus came to town on three railroad cars. With 400 performers, 300 wild animals which included three herds of elephants, and pitched tents on 11 acres of land. And here’s the best part of the account.  While not pure gold, the circus floats were made of burnished gold.  The circus location was at what was called back then as ‘Old Wanoca Town.’  All the circus parades were huge events and Washington City schools were closed so the students could attend.

I truly love these old stories I’ve heard and still hear, but even more I love finding the history behind the stories.

Leesa Jones is a Washington native and the co-founder and co-executive director of the Washington Waterfront Underground Railroad Museum.