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Major Circus Families

Major circus families in Michigan history include: the Lewis Bros. of Jackson; Nelson Family of Mount Clemens; Silver Bros. of Acme and Greenville; Whitney Family of  Imlay City; Wixom Family of Argentine and Bancroft;  Stow(e) family in Berrien Springs; and Skerbeck family of  Escanaba. 

Lewis Bros.-Jackson

The Lewis Bros. Circus operated 1931-1942 and 1945 out of Jackson, MI. The circus was owned by Paul Lewis 1931-1942, and by Paul Lewis and Ray Marsh Brydon in 1945. 

Paul M. Lewis previously owned the Lewis Zimmerman Circus beginning in 1926. By 1931 Paul Lewis had bought out Zimmerman.   Paul Lewis owned the circus until his death in June 1953 and it operated in the eastern and midwestern states until 1945. Since Lewis lived in Jackson, the winter quarters were there.
In May 1931 the Lewis Bros. Circus needed 18 trucks and a railroad baggage car to transport the show’s personnel and equipment. “The big top was a 90-ft. round with two 40’s [40-foot tents]. Most of the equipment for the 1931 show came from the Lewis and Zimmerman Circus. 

In 1934 the three-ring circus had a wild cat act, an elephant act, high school and jumping horses, and a comedy act. The Circus offered a parade for several weeks after it opened, a calliope played by Tommy Comstock of Jackson, a side show and a band. Jim Swafford was the show’s agent.

Lewis Bros. Circus and Trained Animal Show opened on May 4, 1935 at Albion. It needed 24 Chevrolet trucks and 18 semi-trailers to transport the show. The big top sat 3,500.  It had a “big gorilla…[as] a pit show attraction.” and “Buck Owens, cowboy screen star, [had] the concert.”  The Funny Ford closed the show.  Whitey Ford, the Duke of Paducah, also performed with the circus.

In 1936 Lewis Bros. Circus opened in Jackson.  The show’s 27 acts included lions, clowns, acrobats, dogs, iron jaw, horses, perch, ladders, elephant, trapeze, goats, wire act, ponies, horses and the Funny Ford.
The show survived the Great Depression better than most. In 1938 the circus included a 90-foot round big top, three 40-foot tents, a side show-menagerie tent, 60 vehicles including trucks, cars, trailers and semi-trailers for heavy loads. A Hawaiian style opening spec began the show which consisted of 31 acts of lions, acrobats, trained animals and aerial acts, and closed, as usual, with the Funny Ford act.

In 1942 the shows elephant keeper, a dog and two elephants, Tony and Lou or Lew, were killed when a train struck their truck near Canton, OH.  Earlier in his career Lew twice attended Republican presidential inaugurations and welcomed Wendell Wilkie in Jackson when he campaigned for president.
After World War II, the Lewis Bros. Circus was considered a “strong member” of a small group of motorized circuses that existed then.

J. Adrian Rosenburg was Paul Lewis’ brother, treasurer of the company and a lawyer in Jackson, MI.  Rosenburg remembered circus life as tough. On one occasion he remembered it snowed 14 inches after the circus left Springport and before it reached Albion.

Paul Lewis’ wife, Mae, was an “excellent equestrian and animal trainer” of “ponies, horses, goats, sheep, dogs, seals and even pigeons.”  Paul and Mae had a daughter Evelyn Lewis Ross.  Paul Lewis died in Jackson in June 1953. Much of the circus equipment and animals was sold to the Mills Brothers of Jefferson, OH. 


Mat Wixom’s Great Show – Argentine and Bancroft

“the only thing worth…living for in that God forsaken country [Alcona County] [is] the annual return of the Wixom Show.”

Martin Van Buren “Mat” Wixom (b. 1843 in Farmington) was the son of Dr. Isaac Wixom, an early, eminent physician of Oakland and Genesee counties who lived and worked mostly in the Farmington, Argentine and Fenton area.  Mat was never listed as a showman or entertainer in the census. In 1870 Mat, age 27, was a merchant tailor in Holly, with his wife, Celia A. Wixom, age 25, and their children: Frank I. Wixom, age 6; Russell P., age 2; and daughter Almeria Wixom, age 1 month. All of Mat’s children were born in MI. In 1880 Mat, 37, was a lawyer. His family included Celia, and their children: Franklin, age 16; Russell age 12; Ernest age 8 (b. 1872); Martin V. B., Jr., “Mat”, age 3(b. 1877); and Celia’s mother. They lived in Argentine. Almeria had died. Mat also practiced law in Bancroft.

In the spring of 1874 Mat the tailor/lawyer organized a circus. Why? As a child, he had painted a white mare with black stripes and charged people to see the “zebra.” He never forgot the experience. Mat went broke by the end of his first circus season. Undeterred, he organized Mat Wixom’s Great Show the second season; which he operated through the 1897 season. The circus continued with Mat’s sons Ernie and Van managing the circus from 1898 through 1907, but “Mat Wixom was the main cog in the circus wheel, he continued to act as attorney, manager emeritus and all around Boss.”  

Click to Make LargerIn 1900 Mat Wixom, age 57, was a lawyer in Bancroft with his wife Anna C.[elia] Wixom, age 55. Ernest, age 28; his wife, Katie, age 22; and Martin V. B. “Mat” Wixom, age 25, lived with them. Ernest and Mat were showmen.  “Mat”, the father of the family, died in 1907. Celia died between 1920 and 1925.
The family enterprise had various names, functions and modes of transportation over the years.  1874 it was called the Wixom Bros. Palace Show and Congress of Stars.  In 1881; Mat Wixom’s Augusta Mines Minstrels-minstrel show-wagons.  1882-1893 saw the tour of Mat Wixom’s Great Show-circus-wagons. In 1886; Mat Wixom’s Pavilion Show. In 1889; Wixom & Bentley. In 1893; Mat Wixom’s Great Railroad Show-circus with 3 railroad cars. 1894-1895 did not go on road. In 1895 they bought out Nelson Family Circus and put it on road in 1896. In 1896; Mat Wixom’s Great Show-circus-wagons. In 1897; The Mat Wixom Dog & Pony Show-dog & pony show-wagons. In 1898-1901; Wixom Brothers Great Show-circus-3 railroad cars. In 1902-1904; Wixom Brothers Great Show-circus-wagons. In 1905-1907; Wixom Brothers Great Shows-carnival-railroad. In 1908 the Wixom Brothers Dog & Pony Circus-played at Electric Park in Detroit all season.  Stock was sold to Otis L. Smith of Otis L. Smith Carnival Co. in the winter of 1908-1909.

In the spring of 1886 Mat Wixom’s Pavilion Show opened at Bancroft. The staff included: M.V. B. [Mat] as proprietor and manger; R.[probably Robert] P. Wixom, treasurer; F. I. [Frank I.] Wixom, Gen. Manager in advance; J.A. Bramble, agent; Allie Harrington, chief of the Past brigade; Uncle Peter, master of horses; Tom Deo, master of canvas. The performers were Fannie Moore, trapeze artist, and Eddie and Bert McArthur, called Eddie & Bert McCarthy. Eddie was a contortionist. The show had 16 horses and 12 mules. The mules also pulled the Band Chariot without reins. The show performed throughout MI. 

Otto Deming kept an interesting daily notebook of the Wixom Bros. Great Railroad Show for the 1900 season.  He ranked each day’s business as    “G.B.=good business, F.B.=fair business, P.B.=poor business.”  On May 20th he noted “Deckerville Saloon open on Sunday.” On May 25th he wrote, probably happily, “Pigeon. ...Germans. Free Beer, Date, Dance, Hot time. G.B.”  On May 26 he wrote, probably despairingly, “Fairgrove, P.B., Dry town.”  On August 2nd he noted “Constantine. F.B. Loaded in 35 min.” That must have been a record. On August 20th “Shepard.[sic Shepherd] Blowdown.”               

An interesting event happened in 1905 in Kalkaska. The Wixom carnival employed that year “Professor Lee Demorest a high diver of considerable fame at that time.” The morning after the performance a dead man was found on the bottom of the water tank. It was believed he drank himself into a stupor at a local saloon but whether he dove or fell in nobody know.

Mat’s sons:

#1 Frank I. Wixom (1864-1943) received a magic set from his father; which Frank used to give shows from a wagon. He bought a couple of wagons into which he put some musicians and called it the Augusta Mines Minstrels. The show grew to nine cages of animals and 110 people, mostly athletes. In 1874 Frank’s father, Mat, bought a circus and called it the Wixom Bros. Palace Show and Congress of Stars.  Frank and Mat combined their shows. Frank served as canvas bossman for Matt’s circus.  Frank sold his property for $25,000 after the 1897 season ended. He then went into the cigar manufacturing business in Bancroft. In 1900 Frank, age 37, lived in Bancroft with his wife, Ida M. Wixom, and their son, Clyde D. Wixom, age 10.  In 1930 Frank, a widower, was president of the Wolverine Power Co., powered by the Tittabawassee River, on which he lived.  Clyde’s collection of Wixom Circus Papers and his meticulously researched family history notes are at the Benson Ford Research Center, The Henry Ford.

#2 Russell P. Wixom (1868-after 1900) a physician lived in Bancroft.

#3 Ernest Wixom (1872-after 1925) played the alto or tenor saxhorn in the 1887 Mat Wixom Circus band. In 1920 Ernest and his wife, Kate, lived with both their mothers, and Ernest was a painter. By 1925 Ernie owned the family home and winter quarters in Bancroft, so his mother died between 1920 and 1925.

#4 Van B. Wixom (b.1876-after 1912).  Van loved to work the candy stand operated by “candy butchers,” who sold candy, peanuts, popcorn, lemonade, crackerjack and taffy candy. This leads to the Taffy in the Cemetery story.  At one time the circus was in Mecosta next to a cemetery. Van made candy and a marble slab he used to cool the taffy on was broken. He chose a tombstone, cleaned it well and used it. Unfortunately for Van, his father, Mat, walked by and both the tombstone and taffy had to go. Van was punished.  Later in life Van worked for as a candy salesman. Van, like his father and brothers, worked all the circus jobs: “ticket seller, ticket taker, hostler, canvasman, stake driver, property man, rigger, lay out man, chandelier man” (this is in the era of gas lamps or torches) “announcer, musician, end man in the black face concert minstrels, animal trainer (in which job he was exceptionally adept), fixer, ringmaster, arenic director, and co-owner with his father and brothers.” As an “end man” in blackface musical, Van delivered the punch line.  Van could “keep perfect sequence with… stake drivers.”  He played the snare drum and the glockenspiel in the Wixom’s bands.  From 1898 to 1907 he and Ernest operated the show. When the circus was sold, Van went with Otis’ show for three years to work the stock and acted as manager.  Van died of cancer.


Whitney Family – Imlay City

Whitney circus was founded by George L. Whitney (1833-1889), who was born in NH. As a teen he toured with a minstrel, or musical, troupe. From 1852, when George married teacher Nellie E. Packard, until 1861 they toured with the troupe consisting of themselves, their son, Charles (1853-1934), and a few others on the east coast. Like many shows, they traveled as a wagon show in summer and in the winter they performed in theaters and halls.

Whitney FamilyIn 1867 the troupe disbanded. In 1872 the Whitneys formed a new company including David S. Helmar, Dutch comedian, and Calvin M. Gillette.  E. B. Whitney died in 1872. They left Boston in the spring of 1877 for the Midwest, probably due to the economic depression and competition.  By fall 1877 they arrived in OH.  George Whitney leased a hotel with large barns near Imlay City, MI the next year.  He later bought the property. For the next 25 years this was both the home and winter quarters for the Whitneys.

The show developed from a minstrel, or musical, show – with everyone playing instruments, singing, and performing comedy, some in blackface – into a circus. Acrobats, animals and a side show were slowly added over time. The show rotated its route by performing one year in MI, and the next in MI, OH, and IN.  The show’s title changed over the years reflecting their change from minstrely, which was featured until 1887, and concerts, featured from 1878 to 1894, to circus.  In 1878 it was Whitney Family’s World Entertainment during the summer and Whitney’s Concert Company in the winter.  In 1882 it was The Original Whitney Family Combination.  1884 was The Original Whitney Family, Combined with Locke and Long’s Acrobatic Troupe.  Whitney Family Three in One.  1887 was Whitney’s Circus and Museum. “Museum” here means a sideshow.  In 1888 it was known as Whitney’s New Enterprise Circus and Museum. 1892 was Whitney’s New Imperial Shows.  1896 was called Whitney’s Concert Company.  In 1897-1898 they were called Whitney’s Acrobatic and Specialty Company. 1899-1903 was Whitney’s Big One-Ring Show.

In 1882 the show included 32 wagons and 64 horses. Every man helped put up and take down tents. No drinking or staying out was allowed. The wagons moved out at 8 a.m. 2-3,000 could be seated in the show’s big tent. The band was led by Otis “Floyd” Whitney.  The band was very good and played from memory, as there was no sheet music. The band played for an hour daily to attract attendees for the circus and for an hour before the two-hour long show began at 8pm. Wm. Fairweather and George L. Whitney both sang, sometimes in blackface made from burnt cork.  The stage was set up on a long wagon. Acrobatic, trapeze, and rope-walking acts performed in front of the stage on the ground. The show began with a band, some in black face playing and making funny responses to a man who asked questions. When the band started up, a boy pulled clothes out of a box and Fred Locke jumped out. That was considered good entertainment by an unsophisticated audience at the time. Songbooks were sold to supplement the circus’ income.
1889 George L. Whitney died. Following his death his wife, Nellie E. Whitney, and later his son, Charles, managed the circus.  Charles Whitney’s children were the first family members to perform actual circus acts. Prior to their performances other circus performers were hired to fill the ranks.  Charles’ daughter Josie Whitney (1874-) performed trapeze and acrobatics. In 1890 when the tent caught on fire, Josie cut the curtain ropes to contain the fire. The next night the performance was given outdoors until a new tent could be procured.  Charles’ son Leon Packard (1878-) performed a comedy acrobat aerial ladder act. Charles also had a daughter Lula “Lou” L. Whitney (1882-) who performed.  Trained dogs, ponies and mules were part of the Whitney show, but the show never had elephants or an equestrian act.

From 1887 to 1894 the Whitney show was at its peak, with both a menagerie and a street parade. The show employed about 100 people and had about 30 wagons. “The big top being a 110-foot round top with a 40-foot middle piece.”

With larger circuses cutting into their route, the Whitney closed at the end of the 1903 season.  In 1921 both Mrs. George L. (Nellie) and Mrs. Charles A. Whitney died.  Charles Whitney died in 1934, Josie, his daughter in 1896. In 1951, Leon lived in CA and Lou (Mrs. Lou Whitney Weber) in Wyandotte, MI.


Silver Family – Grand Traverse County

Like the Whitneys, the Silvers began as more of a musical act than a circus.  Richard Silver (b. about 1830 in VT) and his brother, Jim, played violin and banjo with L. B. Lentz and his circus.

Richard Silver and his wife,  Eliza, had five sons: Charles E. “Bert” (b. 1861  NY), George L. (b. 1863 NY), James F. (b. 1867 WI), Harry (b. about 1874 MI), and Glen (b. 1876 MI). By 1880 they moved from WI to Whitewater, Grand Traverse County, MI. In 1880, Richard farmed. Charles, age 19, and Glen, age 4, were at home. George worked at a saw mill and James and Harry attended school.

Between 1880 and 1895, Richard Silver organized a musical group “Original Swiss Bell-Ringers” and the boys joined it. In 1895 Glenn Silver became the advance man for the family’s one-ring circus. It had “15 wagons, 45 people and 40 horses.”  They played many small MI and WI towns. The tent canvas was purchased in Traverse City by Bert Silver.  His mother, Eliza Silver, and Bert’s wife sewed the canvas into a tent. The first tent was a “60-foot round-top affair with 20-foot canopies, seating about 600.” The circus had various titles: the Silver Brothers Tent Show, the Silver Family Solo Band & Orchestra and G. Lote Silver’s New York Minstrel Show.  The family provided “clean, entertaining and meritorious performances.” The circus sold in 1905 for $2,500.  So, the circus only operated for about 10 years.  In 1900 Richard was listed on the census as a musician; Harry, Glen, and Charles as showmen. They all lived in Acme.

After the circus was sold, three members of the circus bought movie theaters which were very popular at the time.  “G. Lote…took over the Traverse City Dreamland in 1909. Harry bought the Cadillac Dreamland Theater…, and Bert began the Silver Theater in Greenville.”

In 1910 Harry F. Silver lived in Boyne City, MI and managed an opera house. His World War I Draft Registration Card in 1918 lists him as self-employed at his theater.

While the family circus toured MI and WI, Charles “Bert” Silver formed a band with his children which toured southern MI.  In the 1920s and 1930s Bert and his family lived in Greenville, MI and he owned a theater.  In 1920 his daughters, Laura and Ruby, were theater musicians; and his son, Richard, was a theater operator.  Burt was considered a prominent businessman in Greenville.

Glen Silver briefly owned the Merrill Theater about 1920. In 1925 he briefly owned the Linden Theater. Later, he leased the Mack Theater in Detroit. With the lease he operated a portable movie show; with which he traveled around MI. Between 1928 and 1930 he operated theaters in Elk Rapids and Kalkaska.  By 1954 he retired to Bellaire, MI.

George and James Silver left show business. In 1930 George S. Silver worked as a millwright in a NY (State) sawmill. James Silver and his wife lived in Jackson, MI in 1910, where he worked as a stock keeper for a carriage factory. By 1930 James was widowed and lived in Flint.


Hannefords - Detroit Shrine Circus

The Hannefords were originally from England.  By 1807 the family toured as a troupe. By 1903 they had their own circus; The Hanneford Royal Canadian Circus. John Ringling saw the family perform in Spain in 1915 and bought their whole circus in order to get them to perform in the U.S.  The family then consisted of George, Sr. (1895-1972) and his wife, Catherine (1892-1985), Edwin who was nicknamed “Poodles” (1891-1967), George, Grace and Elizabeth “Lizzie”. Of these Hannefords, Poodles was enshrined in the International Circus Hall of Fame in 1968, George, Sr. in 1977 and Catherine in 1990.

Poodles (1891-1967) is considered to be the greatest trick horse rider of all time. Since Philip Astley, nobody else expanded the art form more than Poodles. Poodles developed an unduplicated “step off” from the side of the horse, and was the first performer to somersault from the back of one running horse to another running horse in the ring. He held a Guinness Book of World Records record for performing a running leap onto a horse at full gallop and then stepping off again; repeating this 26 times in a row.  Besides performing in circuses, and developing his art form, Poodles was featured in more than 40 short films. In 1954 he retired.

Poodles’ nephew, George, Sr.’s son, Tommy Hanneford (September 27, 1927-December 5, 2005)  was recognized as a circus performer in 1933 at the age of five when he performed as the “Riding Fool,” a clown, of the Hanneford Riding Act, George Sr.’s act. Tommy was later known as “The Funniest Man on Horseback” for his comic equestrian performance. He performed from the late 1930s through the 1960s except for a period during which he served in the U. S. Army beginning in 1946. Besides his circus performances he appeared on television shows, in motion pictures, and most major Shrine Circuses in the U.S.  Tommy began producing circuses in 1965, among them ‘The Royal Hanneford Circus’ which is considered an outstanding example of an American circus, and numerous Shrine circuses.  He also staged circuses, directed circus-type productions, and served as a technical adviser for TV productions.  Tommy said… “there is no life without the circus, circus is my life!” Tommy’s wife, Struppi, was an outstanding circus performer who mastered trapeze, high wire, and training tigers. Together Tommy and Struppi produced circuses. Struppi was inducted into the “Ring of Fame” on the famed St. Armand’s circle in Sarasota, Florida, on January 22, 2005. Tommy was inducted into the International Circus Hall of Fame on July 19, 2008.


The Nelson Family – Mount Clemens

Robert Nelson, Sr. was born in London, England in 1840. He formed an acrobatic troupe, which performed in Great Britain and sailed to the U.S. in 1866.  He married Miss Emma Smart.  The troupe later toured Cuba and then disbanded.

Robert and his two young sons, Robert, Jr. and Arthur, then performed as a Risley Act. A Risley Act is where one person on their back, against a support, balances and rolls with their feet other people performing acrobatic stunts. Several people can be in the bottom position and several people flying from one set of feet to the other performing acrobatic maneuvers.  The troupe maintained an excellent reputation for their routine of “Risley, shoulder work, and ground tumbling.”  They toured Europe several times, as well as India, and performed with a number of major circuses including Dan Rice Circus, 1871-1875, and P.T. Barnum’s Circus, 1880-1882.    In India in 1884 Robert Nelson, Jr. married Miss Adele Burt, an equestrian and steeple-chase rider. In 1885 the Nelsons were a special feature with Thatcher, Primrose and West’s Minstrels. They “opened at the Detroit Opera House in 1885.”  They again toured Europe and performed with: Orrin Bros. 1885; Reilly and Wood’s Combination, 1886; Ringling Bros. 1895-1896; and the Great Wallace Shows, 1897-1901. In late 1896 Arthur Nelson married Miss Sarah Warren.  After forming a tightwire act they joined the Nelson Family acrobats.

The Nelson Family then consisted of: Robert Nelson, Sr. and Jr., Alice and Elizabeth Welch (cousins of Mrs. Robert Nelson, Jr.); Robert Jr.’s sons Arthur and Artie, and daughter Adele; Sid Buttons, an apprentice; and Bill “Willie” Welch (another cousin of Robert Jr.). “The act included all of the tricks known to high class acrobatics, including wonderful Risley work, ground and lofty tumbling, and perfected the four high lean (“the four high lean” means four people on top of each other balancing as the unit leans at or near a 45-degree angle) as well as the finest known feats of shoulder to shoulder work.”  Mrs. Sarah Nelson, Mrs. Adele Nelson, and Arthur Nelson also performed separate acts.

The Nelsons performed with: Ringling, 1902-1903; Walter L. Main Circus, 1904; Hagenbeck-Wallace, 1907; and Sells-Floto, 1909-1910.

Original family members in the troupe then began to retire, marry or die.  Mr. and Mrs. Robert Nelson, Sr. retired to Mount Clemens, MI, where they had owned a home since 1889.  Robert Nelson, Sr. owned a theater, the Nelson Opera House, and the family owned the Arlington Hotel in Mount Clemens.  Robert Nelson, Sr. died in 1916 and his wife in 1925. Robert Nelson, Jr. died in July 1914 and his wife, Adele, in 1912.  Robert Jr.’s son, Artie, later died of pneumonia. Robert Nelson, Jr.’s daughter, Adele Nelson, a multi-talented performer, married elephant trainer Lewis Reed. Alice and Elizabeth Welch both married and worked on vaudeville.

Arthur Nelson then became the head of the Nelson Family. With his wife, Sarah, he had six daughters and a son: Rosina, Oneida, Theol, Estrella, Hilda, Carmencita and Paul. All the children, except Rosina, were born in Mount Clemens and all of them were educated in Mount Clemens.  The Arthur Nelson family resided in Mount Clemens when not engaged in circus work.

The Nelson Family worked for: Hagenbeck-Wallace, 1911-1912; John Robinson’s Circus, 1914-1916, 1919-1920; and Ringling Bros.-Barnum & Bailey (RB-BB), 1923-1926.  In 1923 RB-BB created five different special lithographs of the Nelsons; one featured Oneida, Rosina and Hilda on their wire act, another featured Theol.  They worked for Sparks Circus, 1929-1931; Sells-Floto Circus, 1932; and Cole Bros.-Clyde Beatty Circus, 1935.

Arthur and Sarah retired after 1935 to Mount Clemens. Arthur died in 1941in Mount Clemens at the age of 75. Sarah survived him into the 1950s.

Estrella married circus owner Zach Terrell in 1935. Carmencita died in 1934 and Oneida in 1937.  Paul Nelson held various positions in circus work related to horses, 1938-1949, with Cole Circus and with Mills Bros. from 1951 until he retired.  Hilda Nelson married Noyelles Burkhart, manager of the Cole Show, in 1944. Theol married Ray Marlowe and was on RB-BB for many seasons.  Rosina married Dr. G. A. Brown, a Detroit dentist, and after his death resided in Mount Clemens.

On January 6, 1969 the Nelson Family was elected to the Circus Hall of Fame.