The Circus

Oct 28, 2020

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

I beg to differ with The New Yorker magazine. In their first issue in 1926, they announced that they were not writing for "the little old lady from Dubuque [Iowa]." Easterners passing through Rock Island still sometimes wonder if we have electric lights or indoor plumbing.

Lights and plumbing did come late, but culture in the form of books and music came by wagon and boat with first settlers in this valley. Schools and churches followed closely. But the beginnings of a genuine American culture arrived in 1838, two years after Davenport was founded. On August the 31st of that year, the first circus arrived. From then until 1863, a local historian reported, not a year passed without several circuses. Often, they interfered with edifying lectures. The Davenport Gazette in August 1852 reported that a circus in town drew great crowds, while a lecture by Professor Dodge on “The Laws of Life and Health” was attended by only nine gentlemen and three ladies.

The 1838 circus by the American Arena Company set quite a standard for those following. Posters announced tiered seating for a thousand people, ambitious considering that Davenport's population was under two hundred. There was something for everyone: a bit of entertainment, some education, and a scare or two. The show featured a military band, Jock Ming, a "humorous and facetious clown," as well as edifying dramatic bits from Shakespeare, and two grand Spectacles—"Pocahontas Rescuing Captain Smith" and "The Crusades." Animal lovers got to see a giraffe, and elephant, a polar bear, a rhinoceros, and a tiger.

If this program seems familiar to you, it's because you have seen one or more of its modern versions: Gene Autry, Ed Sullivan, Hee Haw, Jay Leno, or The Readers' Digest. The patchwork American variety show.

And, if the truth be told, not so very different from any given weekly issue of The New Yorker.

Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by Augustana College, Rock Island, Illinois.