There was a time in Mansfield—not so many generations ago—when a circus coming to town meant everything shut down for the day.
The factories knew it would be pointless to open when all their workers were so distracted and wishing they were at the circus grounds, so they just took the day off.
I know it sounds like I’m making this up, doesn’t it? What an amazing world.
They had a name for this impromptu holiday: it was called ‘Circus Day,’ and you said it like “Next week we get a circus day.”
Circus Day actually began about a week beforehand when advance men came to town and plastered up billboards and posters wherever they could find a blank wall or side of a barn. Those brilliant ads planted the seed of anticipation, and from that day on the tension in town grew day by day as excitement mounted.
By the time the circus train pulled into town everyone knew exactly where the unloading would take place, and crowds showed up in the middle of the night to watch roustabouts unload and set up.
When Ringling Brothers showed up in 1936 they had 90 cars pulled in 4 trains. They blocked off the crossings on E. Fourth and E. Fifth Streets from 2 AM to 9 AM while the wagons, animals and canvasses rolled off the flatbeds headed for the circus grounds.
Throughout the decades there were different fields in Mansfield that served as circus grounds, but in the 1930s every Tent City set up on a site north of town, on land adjacent to the county fairgrounds.
The wide swath of our Route 30 highway didn’t exist back then, and the circus grounds were across from the steel mill. It was called the Bowman Street Show Grounds.
During that decade every circus meant serious traffic backups on Springmill and Bowman, so traffic officers directed cars on alternate smaller streets like Stocking Lane and Johns Street.
Today the site is Hamilton Park.
The circus season in 1937 was especially memorable for little Rose Hardy. She was living at the Children’s Home at the time and the kids were all going as ‘guests of the Wallace Brothers Circus.’
She loved elephants and clowns but she went to the 1937 circus for only one reason: because the star of the show that year was Hoot Gibson.
We don’t hear much about him today as a Hollywood legend, but in 1937 he was one of the biggest screen idols of American kids for his cowboy movies. Advance publicity in Mansfield said Hoot Gibson had “slain single-handed more western bad men in his movie career that you could stack in the Grand Canyon.”
Rose loved him. She used to tell people he was her father. “No one ever acted like it wasn’t true.”
She told me that in 1937 she was very seriously planning to run away with the circus and leave the Children’s Home behind. She was certain that Hoot would take her along when the circus left town.
“You know he did his own stunts in all those movies,” she told me. “There were lots of cowboy stars in those days but he was the only one who was a real cowboy.”
Rose had her own cowboy outfit. She told me that people were always trying to correct her into saying ‘cowgirl.’ “I didn’t want to be a cowgirl. I wanted to be a cowboy. A cowboy was somebody.”
The kids from the orphanage went to the matinee performance, and the woman who sponsored their excursion bought them each a bag of peanuts. Fifty years later Rose said all she could remember was Hoot on his horse.
“There must have been elephants and acrobats,” she said, “it was a three-ring circus. But all I remember is him in that tall hat.”
Afterward Hoot posed with the children, and Rose was too overwhelmed to speak even a word to him.
Then he performed a special exhibition for them out in the field to show off his cowboy skills roping and stunt riding.
When I met Rose in 1989 she was about to retire from a career working in a series of factories in town, all of which had successively closed down and laid her off.
She told me she never rode a horse in her life, but when Hoot Gibson was in Mansfield she was absolutely certain she would grow up to be a cowboy.