While doing the research for our “next” blog post on the history of black theaters in Winston-Salem, in light of the announced closing of the Ringling Brothers circus, I was diverted to another story, the arrival of the Adam Forepaugh Circus in the town of Winston in 1894. The history of the Rex, the Dunbar, the Lafayette and the Lincoln theaters is still next, but first:
Adam Forepaugh was born into poverty in Philadelphia. Around age 12, he ran away from home and wound up in Ohio, where he became an expert on horses. During the Civil War, he made a fortune selling horses to the Union Army. In 1864, he got into the circus business and soon became P.T. Barnum’s greatest rival…they battled back and forth for 25 years until Forepaugh’s death in 1890, when his son, Adam Forepaugh, Jr. took over. He spent several years organizing his father’s estate but eventually arranged a merger with Sell Brothers Circus and left the show business scene. The Forepaughs always maintained an agent in Europe to scout out new shows and attractions, so usually had the advantage over Barnum.
On April 26, 1894, an ad appeared in the Western Sentinel.
Early on the morning of May 1, 1894. two trains arrived at the Southern Railway depot in Winston and began unloading the Forepaugh Circus.
Seven of the eight performing elephants are seen at the railway depot in Winston. The Forepaugh show required two trains, both of which can be seen here. Just beyond them along Depot Street are, left to right, the six story R.J. Reynolds plant #256, the Life Insurance Company of Virginia offices, S.T. Mathis, wines & liquors, and Coleman Brothers, leaf tobacco dealers.
Above Coleman Bros is a Reynolds leaf storage house and to its right, the tobacco factory of Benjamin Franklin Hanes, brother of P.H. Hanes. In the distance, is the steeple of the First Baptist Church of Winston, on Second Street between Church and Main. The 35’ smokestack next to it marks the site of the Winston Electric Light and Car Plant, where the power to run the streetcar system was generated and cars were stored when not in service.
Circuses never bothered to mention where they would be performing because the event began with a free public parade which led the spectators to the site.. Here we see the 1894 parade moving up the first block of Main Street from First Street in Winston.
By the time that the parade arrived at the circus grounds, the crew had erected the huge tent that seated over 10,000 and the sideshows were waiting to collect extra dollars. We know that the Forebaugh Circus performed at Piedmont Park, on North Liberty Street near the Smith Reynolds Airport, because of the telltale picket fences.
Two days later, the Sentinel reported on the event.
The Piedmont Park remained the principal circus and fairground in the Twin City from the 1890s into the 1950s, when the current fairground was created.
Unidentified circus at Piedmont Park, 1936. The 1/2 mile dirt race track was built by R.J. Reynolds’ brother Will in the late 1890s for harness racing, in which he was a major player nationally. The track also hosted the first motorcycle race held in North Carolina, in 1912…another blog post coming soon on that event, which was inspired by my motorcycle racing cousin Johnny Sink.