Thursday, October 11, 2007

WATER FOR ELEPHANTS -- Not Fiction in My Ancestry

I just finished reading WATER FOR ELEPHANTS by Sara Gruen. It is a new and very popular book, and I found the story gritty and gripping. But I am betting that my reason for picking it up to read was different from every other reader. I picked it up to read because my grandpa, Albert Davenport, had spent 11 years in the circus when he was a young boy. He kept it a pretty tight secret, but my mom and dad uncovered the story nearly 30 years after his passing. In this blog, I am sharing the story that my mom, Joyce Davenport, compiled so that Grandpa's descendents would know a little more about that piece of his life history.

When my dad, Roy Davenport, now age 88, was growing up, he was always told that his grandfather had "run his dad, Albert, away from home." Dad and his brother and sisters knew their dad had been in the circus, but they had no factual information because Albert never talked about it. His family was always curious. If a twelve-year-old boy gets "run off," where does he go? What does he do? So when Roy and Joyce Davenport made a trip to Chester, Nebraska to attend Roy's 50th high school class reunion in 1987, they decided to try to find some answers to the questions.

Joyce Davenport: "We learned the Campbell Brothers' Circus Winter Quarters was in nearby Fairbury, Nebraska. Was this the circus Albert had been in? We went to the office of "The Fairbury Journal" where we obtained newspaper articles about the Campbell Brothers Circus. They also directed us to the Lester Jones Studio in Fairbury where we could meet Estaline Carpenter with the Jefferson Historical Society who would be able to assist us. She had several pictures pertaining to the circus, and she promised to have copies made and mail them to us. She also directed us out of town to meet Stanley Kasperek on whose property stood the elephant barn." (If you have read WATER FOR ELEPHANTS, you just got chills on your arms, didn't you?!!...).

"We located Mr. Kasparek and after visiting for a while in the pouring rain, we tromped through the muddy field to the barn. The rings where they had tethered the elephants could still be seen inside." (More chills??)

From there we drove about twelve miles out of Fairbury to Steele City where some of the circus people lived and worked. We used the key Estaline Carpenter had loaned us to get inside the Blacksmith Shop dating to ca 1900. It was so interesting to see the old equipment. Albert Davenport had been a blacksmith by trade, and we decided immediately that this was probably where he had learned his trade. Also inside, Roy picked up an elephant head decoration and a clown's broom. This gave him a very strange feeling -- he felt that his dad was right there. He did know his dad had been a clown in the circus. While there, we could peek into the Bank Building and the Livery Stable which they were also restoring. We drove back to Fairbury to return the key to the Studio."

But what about this Campbell Brothers Circus? Joyce writes: "As children, the four Campbell Brothers had lived in Galesburg, Illinois where many circus performers spent the winter practicing tumbling, etc. The boys watched and became fascinated with show business. They all learned tumbling and acrobatics from the performers and soon developed a love for the circus. The family moved to Kansas where their father thought they could raise more and better corn. They were all hard-working and ambitious. However, the drought and hard times in the early 1880's made the boys think more seriously of show business.

The boys opened their first "circus" in 1889 in Haddam, Kansas. It was not on the rail line, so they moved to Fairbury, Nebraska where they began to make their mark in the circus world. In 1896, they started with five wagons; admission was twenty cents for adults and ten cents for children. In 1898 they had about 30 wagons and 100 people. They went on the rails in 1899. Before they closed in 1912, it had grown to nearly 40 railroad cars and was acknowledged to be the second largest circus in America at one time.

Cecil Lowande, formerly the Sells-Forepaugh king bareback rider, joined the circus in the 1901 season. That is probably when Albert became acquainted with him. On the 1905 Season Programme, "Lowande & Davenport" are shown as "Jockey Act." On the 1906 "Official Program of Campbell Bros. Shows" "Display No 8 Ring No. 1 Principal Act, sensational somersault bareback riding act -- Cecil Lowande" and "Ring No. 2 Principal Act somersault bareback act -- Albert Davenport."

In 1906 the circus had 36 cars. However, it began to lose money, and many things were against them; bad weather, fires, wrecks, worries and problems. In 1907 one of the Campbell Brothers and their father died. In 1908 and 1909 the rainfall was a factor. There were no cars or trucks, and the circus had to be moved on and off the lot by horses. People did not attend the circus in the rain, but the expenses continued."

"Albert and Cecil could see the Campbell Brothers Circus coming to an end when they were in Denver, Colorado. So that's probably the reason they enlisted November 9, 1909 for three years in the United States Army at Fort Logan, Denver, Colorado.

In researching family history, ca 1988-89, I located Albert Davenport on the Ft. Logan 1910 Colorado Census, but I didn't find Cecil Lowande on that census. I decided he may have been married and living off the base, so I searched for him further on the 1910 Colorado Census but could not find him.

In 2003 while researching on the internet on the 1910 census, I located Cecil Lowande in Baraboo, Wisconsin. I knew immediately that it was where the World Circus Museum was located, and there he was listed with the circus. Apparently, he didn't enlist with Albert in the Army in 1910. Instead he must have joined the circus in Wisconsin. The World Circus Museum is the original winter quarters of the Ringling Brothers and a National Historic Landmark Site nearly eighty years after their departure. Cecil Lowande must have joined the Army later because he was wearing an Army uniform when he visited Albert Davenport and his wife, Carrie while they were living in Gilchrist, Colorado ca 1919."

"Now we believe we know a little about Albert Davenport's life in the circus. When we were at the Lester Jones Studio in Fairbury, Nebraska, Estaline Carpenter showed us a picture that was marked on top -- Winter Quarters of Circus 1898 -- S. W. Cor 4th & B Sts." We could easily tell one of the fellows in the picture was Albert. He had his head cocked as Albert often posed, and he was standing with his arm on the mule -- and Albert loved mules. That finally answered so many questions for all of us. Albert would have been 12 years old in 1898 and he got out of the circus in 1909. He must have spent ll years in the circus. He only had a sixth grade education probably because he spent those years in the circus away from his family and was unable to attend school."

Sometimes fact is more amazing than fiction. My own grandpa was forced to run away from home. He joined the Campbell Brothers Circus at the age of 12. Twelve! He was a sixth grader out there on his own living and working with circus people. He was part of a "sensational somersault bareback riding act." He was the real version of Jacob in WATER FOR ELEPHANTS.


b said...

Dear Norah,

My book club just finished with this book and I wrote a review on my other blog. What a wonderful story. Thank you for sharing.


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Anonymous said...

I hate to disappoint you but the performer you cite was a rider named Albert M. “Stick” Davenport (1871-1932) from a well-known family of circus bareback riders who was with Campbell Bros. at the time you specify and who spent his entire life in the circus business. Cecil Lowande (1877-1940) also came from a large and well-known family of circus riders.
Richard Flint
Past President
Circus Historical Society

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Finding this post was true serendipity. My ancestors are from Steele City, NE and one of my great uncles was with the Campbell Bros.Circus. No one living seems to know anything about it, so reading your post was as close as I'll come to hearing our family story. Thanks for sharing.

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