Thursday, January 10, 2013

The Day the Circus Was in Town

Like so many, I was excited by the release of the 1940 US Federal Census in April 2012.  Even before any indexes were available, I did some browsing on my own.  One of the first places I looked was the census for my husband's home town, Sugar Valley, Georgia.  The census records for Sugar Valley were only 24 pages long and would be easy to browse.   I was certain I would find family listed, but nothing prepared me for the additional information I found.  

Fotokannan at Malayalam Wikipedia [CC-BY-SA-3.0
 (], via Wikimedia Commons
As I browsed through the first 21 pages of the Enumeration District, I found the Nelson family, some relatives, and familiar names of family friends.  Page 22 was blank, but I was in for a surprise as I continued on to the next page.  There on page 23 was a listing of 39 circus performers from the Bailey Brothers Circus!  Yes, the same circus that (according to Wikipedia) eventually became part of the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus.  You can see the page for yourself here.  

Reading all the lines give a interesting snapshot of life in the circus.  Columns 2 and 3 showed the letter T for both House number and Number of Household.  According to the Instructions to Enumerators the T meant "tourist or trailer camp in which households reside in separate dwelling units (cabins, trailers, etc.)".  Besides the way in which the circus people were recorded as living, it was also interesting to see the numbers of families for whom the circus was their way of life.

The section listing Residence in 1935 was very informative.  Some people had been "traveling with [the] circus" for at least five years, while others had lived elsewhere.  The teacher in me hoped that some of the younger circus people had been living at home and attending school in 1935.  Maybe some of these same people really had run away to join the circus. 

It was also interesting to note the number of hours worked in a week (column 21).  Hours ranged from working 48 hours a week for the Foreman to 12 hours for those doing odd jobs.  Another note indicated that they were paid on a percentage basis, a good crowd meant good pay, sparse attendance, less money.

My favorite part, though, was the Occupation (column 28).  I kept remembering Water For Elephants as well as the circus I attended as a child when I read their occupations - trapeze performer, musician, chorus girl, concessions, animal trainer, cook, boss canvasman, carpenter, aerial performer, dance girl, salesman [of] novelties, mechanic.  Just about  everyone you needed to put on a show was listed on that census sheet.  Only clowns and ringmaster were not listed as an occupation.

The researcher in me wanted to know how long the circus was in town, had any of our family attended, where were the circus tents pitched in this small North Georgia town, or had they just stopped on their way to somewhere else?  My father-in-law was a world class storyteller, but none of us remember his ever relating a tale about the circus.  Perhaps the archives of the local newspaper can yield some additional information.  Something else on my Georgia To-Do-List.  

This is what I love about researching our family history.  Sometimes, I finally find that elusive fact about an ancestor or encounter a relative I never knew before, sometimes I find nothing, and sometimes I literally stumble onto something totally unrelated but fascinating, like the circus.  I'm glad the census enumerator was there on April 8, 1940 to document the day a circus was in town.  I'm also glad I went past a blank page and found this interesting record.  The whole experience just puts a smile on my face.

1 comment:

  1. Fantastic site. You have inspired me to begin a new and exciting journey discovering my family. TY! CCP