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Yankee Robinson

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

Every so often, I wonder what happened to Yankee Robinson.

Whoever he was, he was thinking big in the spring of 1865. With the Civil War finally coming to a conclusion, Robinson must have thought it an ideal season to gather the greatest exhibition of circus acts ever assembled to tour the Nation. This was not just a tour, Yankee said, it was a campaign.

His large, illustrated advertisement in the Rock Island Argus on April 15th promised an exciting show for Rock Island and Davenport on May 2nd. Yankee had invested over $100,000 to buy out eight other famous exhibitions to add to his own.

“Make room for the grand parade through Rock Island at ten o'clock,” the ad said. There would be a forty-horse band team and five splendid chariots, followed by the original Tom Thumb and his entourage on miniature spotted ponies.

Then, in the afternoon and evening, the great "congress of exhibitions" with new scenery. The opening act would be the "Great New York Circus" with six lady equestrians," followed by "the Silver Mountain Equestrian Bears" who would be dressed in men's and women's costumes for a mock wedding and in Yankee outfits for the soldier's drill. Tom Thumb, 15 years old and 18 pounds, would appear, followed by O'Reilley's Untamable Bisons, Monsieur Clarrie's monkeys, ponies, dogs and goats, the Snow Brothers Great Gladiatorum, and the Double Troop of Comic Mules.

Alas, on April 30th, the Argus announced that Yankee Robinson's show would be postponed a week—to May 9th—because of high water and bad roads. Two shows were duly performed on that date in the lot next to the First Presbyterian Church. But in the Argus, there was only one small sentence noting the event on page three. The assassination of Abraham Lincoln on April 14th had settled like a pall on the Nation, especially in Illinois where Lincoln's body had just come home to Springfield.

I have no idea what happened to Yankee Robinson, but his entrepreneurial spirit lived on. Eighteen years later, on May 17th, 1883, at the fairgrounds in Omaha, Nebraska, Buffalo Bill Cody, who grew up just 14 miles up the Mississippi from Rock Island, opened his new Wild West Show and Congress of Rough Riders, with somewhat more success than Yankee Robinson's ill-timed exhibition.

Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by the Scott County Regional Authority, with additional funding from the Illinois Arts Council and Augustana College, Rock Island.

Beginning 1995, historian and folklorist Dr. Roald Tweet spun his stories of the Mississippi Valley to a devoted audience on WVIK. Dr. Tweet published three books as well as numerous literary articles and recorded segments of "Rock Island Lines." His inspiration was that "kidney-shaped limestone island plunked down in the middle of the Mississippi River," a logical site for a storyteller like Dr. Tweet.