Walter E. Rockwell
Few members of the modern generation probably realize that this Bradford County community was once the hub of a thriving circus.
Today, only a few buildings, one containing faded posters, the grave in Park Cemetery of one of the show’s greats, and a few photographs serve to recall the excitement that filled the town toward the end of the last century.
The circus era started here in 1887 when Charles Lee and Sam Schribner’s circus split at the close of the season, in Horseheads, N. Y. While passing through Canton enroute to Muncy, Lee spied a vacant house and decided to investigate the town’s possibilities as a future base of operations for the circus and his winter theater show, which he headed as Professor LeCardo.
He rented the house, and in October 1891, purchased 11 acres of land with a house and other buildings east of town, where he established winter training quarters for his outfit. Here he built a ring barn, several buildings for animals and enlarged the house.
The first mention of Lee’s Circus appears in the Canton Sentinel Aug. 12, 1887 and states, "Lee’s Circus will show here August 22 – Great London 25c R. R. Show" (It was strictly a wagon and not a railroad show, but Barnum had taught the value of ballyhoo).
The local press next noted on April 25, 1889, "Charles Lee closed his "gift show" season at Williamsport last Saturday night". The gift show reference indicates each patron received a small gift with his ticket.
On May 11, the paper carried an account of the Lee exhibition taken from the Springfield Press of April 25, stating, "This was one of the finest shows seen here in years. They made an excellent street parade with everything looking clean, new and bright, with some pleasing features new to the ordinary circus parade. At the grounds everyone was treated with utmost politeness. The circus performance given in one large ring and on an elevated stage was first class in every way – a 50c show for 25c".
On May 16, the circus gave two performances in Canton to "large and delighted audiences. Performances in every way were first class and the show free from objectionable features".
Little is known how the show fared until May 17, 1891 when Lee showed at Troy, in a downpour of rain. During the night the heavy circus wagons started toward Burlington. The first drawn by a four-horse team was crossing the old covered bridge at Long’s Mill when the flood weakened center pier gave way. Driver, team and heavy wagon were dropped into the current and carried over the dam. All came out alive.*
As Lee’s Great London Shows prepared for the 1892 season, it evidently had enlarged and improved the equipment and personnel for issues of the Sentinel for March 24 and 31 devoted much news space to extolling the glories of the outfit. It noted 112 persons were listed as circus employees, with eight Indian extras. A. F. Hagar led the Band Number One, and Bert Saulsman Band Number Two. Featured were Running Elk and Indians from the Blackfoot Agency. A cavalcade of horsemen and Turkish Brigade all combined to make this the "Greatest 25cc Show on Earth." The fact that no drunkards were tolerated on Lee’s show was stressed, and tough characters dubbed it "The Sunday School Show."
The circus continued to prosper until 1896 when Lee suffered a severe stroke in July. In April 1897 it was announced the circus would go on the road under new management and advertisements for attractions were appearing in trade papers.
Lee later sold his property just outside the borough and the circus moved elsewhere. The property now is owned by Roy Allen.
The small one-ring show had far reaching effects on the big-top circus world. One of these was Lee’s discovery of a boy turning cartwheels in a town where the circus was showing. Seeing possibilities in the youngster and learning he had no parental ties, Lee took him with his show.
The boy, known locally as Charles Lee for his foster-father but whose real name was Charles Patterson, was recognized by circus fans for 40 years as Charles Siegrist.
Siegrist first appeared on the Ringling lot in 1898 with the Siegrist-Selbon Aerial Troupe. While doing a flying stunt in Madison Square Garden in 1930, Siegrist fell. He hit the edge of the safety net and broke his neck. Orthopedic specialists agreed he would never "fly" again, but five months later he rejoined the show and was still aloft at age 72.
A Canton boy whose life work was shaped by contact with the Charles Lee show through Siegrist was Francis (Butch) Brann. Not wishing to follow his father’s meat business, Brann spent long hours with Siegrist whenever he was in Canton and eventually joined the circus.
As Francisco and Delores, Brann and his wife did acts with the Ringling-Barnum show for many years and later appeared on the Shrine Circus circuit. Both are now retired, spending part of their time in Canton and the rest in Florida and elsewhere.
Charles Lee died in 1905 and is buried in Park Cemetery here. Mrs. Lee known in the circus world as Madame Elnora, when she had a trained dog act, died a few years later and is buried beside her husband.
His grave is a shrine for circus people who come this way, and a memorial service is held there at intervals by circus friends who wish to keep his memory alive.
*The following account of this incident was apparently published in the Troy Gazette Register, Ralph H. Van Keuren Sr., Troy 1931 and reprinted in "The Settler" May 1975 on page 12.
"Some 40 years ago, the old covered bridge was still in use. On May 17th, 1891 the Charles Lee Circus showed in Troy in a downpour of rain. During the night, the heavy circus wagons started down the road toward Burlington, the first driven by Walter Rockwell, boss hostler, containing the heavy water-soaked tent. To the wagon were hitched two teams of horses. When right in the middle of the bridge, the center pier, weakened by the flood water, gave way and Mr. Rockwell, the wagon and the wagon team were dropped into the swirling current and carried over the dam. By almost a miracle, horses and man came out alive. Mr. Rockwell under water, unbuttoned his slicker, slid out of it and swam to safety. Painted by a Mainesburg fanatic on the stonework of the dam were the words: ‘Prepare to Meet Thy God’ and it is said that Mr. Rockwell glimpsed them just as he went over. Mrs. Rockwell in recalling the incident, doubts this part of the story as she says that he was under the wagon and that when he and his wagon arrived in the pool below, his first thought was that if he had not been killed by that time, he wasn’t going to be."
Note: Walter E. Rockwell was married to Ella WILLIAMS. They were the parents of Blanche ROCKWELL who married Charles E. Stanton, Sr. Walter Rockwell was my great-grandfather. DFS
Through my own genealogical research, I have found that Charles Lee
was my GGrandfather’s half brother, and his true surname is Craw.
Charles Lee (alias Lee Craw or Richard Henry Lee Craw) was born in Muncy.
I have found the stories of his circus very entertaining and just this
past weekend visited both Canton and Muncy in search of any memorabilia
I can find about his circus as well as to visit the Park Cemetery grave.
Your site is super. Thanks for the time and effort you’ve put into
Tri-Counties Page 6502