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Exploring ‘The Cradle of the American Circus’ in Somers, New York

by Larry Kellogg (11/13/12).

The Elephant Hotel, a National Historic Landmark, was built in Somers, New York, in 1825.

Our son, Jon and his family moved to New York earlier this year when he accepted a position at Children’s Bible Fellowship, just north of New York City. So, it was no surprise my wife and I drove up from Florida for a visit last month. As always, when we take a road trip, I check out the Internet for circus-related attractions to visit in the area. High on the list this year was a trip into New York City to see the Circus and the City exhibit at Bard Graduate Center, which was the subject of my previous WorthPoint article. Since the 200-plus acre campus of Children’s Bible Fellowship is near the towns of Carmel, Fishkill and Somers, we discovered some other places to investigate on side trips.

In re-reading circus history, I was reminded that Isaac Van Amburgh was born in Fishkill. As a youngster, Van Amburgh had a great love for wild animals and in his 20s he became a keeper of lions and tigers for Raymond & Co.’s Menagerie. By the 1840s, Van Amburgh owned his own circus.

Carmel, N.Y., was the home of Marcus Sloat, who sold a one-third interest in an elephant named Pet to brothers Thaddeus and Gerard Crane of Somers, N.Y.

In Somers, the early history of traveling menageries comes together. Some might recall that in 1966, the United States Post Office issued a special cancellation naming Somers the “Cradle of the American Circus.” We left CBF and drove 30 minutes to the Elephant Hotel, which today is the home of the town government offices of Somers.

Hachaliah Bailey (1774-1845) was a pioneer of early menageries.

The hotel was built by Hachaliah Bailey, who made his fortune touring the countryside exhibiting wild animals, his most famous, Old Bet, the second elephant to arrive in America. Bailey built a granite shaft in front of the hotel topped by a wooden elephant, which has since been replaced by a replica of the original.

A circus museum, operated by the Somers Historical Society, is located on the third floor of the hotel. It’s an impressive collection of items relating to early circuses and traveling menageries and well worth the visit. Don’t miss it if you are ever in the area.

“Cradle of the American Circus,” by Jo Pitkin, is available at the Elephant Hotel gift shop. It retails for $16.99. The book has poems about Somers, N.Y., and numerous essays about the early growth of the American circus in and around Somers.

Larry Kellogg is a Worthologist specializing in circus memorabilia.

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