June 28, 1876: Circus in town, complaints ensue

1876, Worthington’s Year of the Park, was a year of ups and downs for the young town.

Ray Crippen
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Editor’s note: Former longtime Daily Globe Editor Ray Crippen died Dec. 27, 2015. We will continue to publish previously run “Isn’t That Something” columns on Saturdays, until further notice, as a tribute to Crippen and his knowledge of local and regional history. The following column first appeared June 30, 2007.

WORTHINGTON — Someone planning a Fourth of July picnic at Chautauqua Park wondered how old the park has come to be.

Well — I think Chautauqua Park is 131 years old.

Chautauqua Park ranks among Minnesota’s oldest parks. I also think we are coming upon a park “birthday.” On July 6, 1876, the Worthington newspaper had the following report:

“The Railroad Company have finally laid off and donated to the village five acres for a City Park, on the first point up the lake. They have laid off some fine lots on each side of the park which will be put upon the market. This will make a beautiful park if fenced and set with trees, and this should be promptly done. Let us get the park in shape and hold our first County Fair there next fall.”


In the beginning, it was not Chautauqua Park. It was Lake Park. Civil War veterans pitched tents in Lake Park, along the Okabena shore, when they had their encampments at Worthington.

Three decades later — 1906 — Worthington joined the Chautauqua circuit to bring summertime plays, concerts, speakers and singers to town. Lake Park became the Chautauqua ground where residents of the region set up tents and spent a week or 10 days at the Chautauqua pavilion which they built on the site.

1876, Worthington’s Year of the Park, was a year of ups and downs for the young town. The park was an “up.” The year itself was an “up.” It was America’s centennial year. 1776-1876.

Just ahead of that historic Fourth of July, Gen. Custer and his 7th Cavalry Regiment were erased on the banks of the Little Big Horn River (June 25-26). That was a “down.” The Custer disaster stirred an Indian scare across northern Nobles County and Murray County, which caused people to flee their farm homes. Another “down.”

The 1876 Fourth of July celebration at Worthington tilted more down than up.

On the eve of the Fourth, “two bonfires were built in the streets and numerous fire crackers and shot guns were discharged … Dr. Barber illuminated the front of his store with Chinese lanterns …”

There probably was not much sleep. There was “music from several anvils, and from the band, which was kept up nearly all night.”

“On the morning of the Fourth, at sunrise, a salute of 37 guns (anvils) was fired and bells were rung. … During the afternoon the boys had a game of ball at the park …” Before the sun set, there was a thunderstorm.


Worthington’s big day of celebration in the summer of 1876 was June 28. That celebration brought disappointments.

Nearly a month ahead of time the announcement was made:

Cooper, Bailey & Company’s Great International Show is coming. The Cooper-Bailey show was hailed as 10 small circuses, now rolled into one (10 Allied Shows!). The circus would arrive at the Worthington railyard on the morning of June 28 in 43 rail cars.

“Everything Grand, New, Fresh and Bright. The Only Five Trained Elephants in America. The Only Living Giraffes in America — 17 to 20 Feet High. The Only Living Sea Lions, Weighing 5,000 lbs. The Biggest Elephant … the Smallest Elephant…”

People crowded into town. Forty people arrived on the train from Sibley. They complained about the price of lemonade: 25 cents a glass.

There were other, sadder complaints. “In one case, a lemonade vender deliberately snatched $10 out of a man’s pocket book and refused to return it.”

The price of admission varied from 10 cents to 10 dollars — circus people were wheeling and dealing with the folks who came to see the creatures.

“One man from Spirit Lake was cheated out of $5 in making change.” “In many instances girls were swindled out of from 50 cents to one dollar.” The Worthington newspaper reported ruefully after the show was on its way to Yankton, Dakota Territory:


“We do not hesitate to say Cooper, Bailey & Co.’s show is accompanied by the boldest and most shameless set of thieves that ever attached themselves to any show.

“We hope the St. Paul and other newspapers will mention this matter as a warning to the public where this show is to appear.”

The circus was June 28. When the Fourth of July arrived, Worthington was short on pocket money.

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