lions & tigers & bears, oh my!

February 20, 2020


Lions and tigers and bears, oh my! At the beginning of June 1938, Vernon was buzzing with excitement following a thrilling announcement: the Al G. Barnes and Sells Floto Combined Circus would be coming to town. The day before the circus’ arrival, the Vernon News reported that five herds of elephants and their trainers, as well as dozens of clowns and trapeze artists, 50 ballerinas, and scores of perfectly trained horses would leave Kamloops for Vernon sometime after midnight that evening, to arrive in the early hours of the following morning.

The circus in question was started by the American Alpheus George Barnes Stonehouse in 1895, with the first show consisting of a pony, a phonograph, and a stereopticon (more commonly known as a magic lantern). The “Al G. Barnes Wild Animal Show” grew from there, and was eventually purchased by the American Circus Corporation. Following the Great Depression, two of the corporation’s acts, the Al G. Barnes Wild Animal Show and the Sells Floto Circus, were merged under one name.





Although the circus featured a variety of acts, they were largely known for their menagerie of trained animals. One of the most famous was Black Diamond, a massive Indian elephant. Black Diamond had an unpredictable temper, and was usually kept between two calm female elephants while out on parade. In 1929, while being unloaded before a show in Texas, he went in to a rage, injuring his trainer and killing a female assistant. He was deemed too dangerous to continue using as a circus animal, and the decision was made to have him put down. 50 to 100 shots were required to kill this formidable creature.

The circus arrived in Vernon on the morning of June 3, 1928, in a long line of red and yellow train cars, and the weary travelers were provided a meal of hot coffee, wheat cakes, and sausages. The circus professionals then started the long task of setting up the site at Schubert Street (now 32nd Avenue); in addition to the Big Top, the circus consisted of a large menagerie, a side show, a blacksmith shop, a dinning tent, a doctor’s office, stables, and numerous other smaller stations. The setup work took quite some time, and a large crowd of Vernonites gathered to watch the progress.  

The circus put on two shows that day, one in the afternoon and one in the evening. The highlight was a display by eighty highly-trained horses, under the direction of celebrated trainer Jack Joyce, who cantered through difficult marching routines with the trainer nowhere in sight. In total, the circus brought with it more than 500 horses, a four-ton performing hippopotamus named Lotus, and 900 other furred and feathered creatures.

Although a change in sensibilities about the treatment of animals has meant that circuses have largely fallen out of fashion, it is easy to imagine the excitement the arrival of the Al G. Barnes and Sells Floto Combined Circus would have brought to the city of Vernon in 1938.

Gwyn Evans

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