The Clinton Herald, Clinton, Iowa

September 9, 2013

The Big Tree, The Circus, and Ringwood Park

By Gary Herrity
Special to the Herald

Picture: Looking north from high atop the Courthouse in 1905 one can still see the ballpark, the open spaces, the limestone quarry, the millionaire’s mansions on the bluff and just out of sight to the north is the original “Big Tree.”

The Ringwood area or Ringwood Park was seven blocks of open fields, at the turn of the 20th Century, that extended from the north end of Clinton to the south end of Lyons at what is now 13th Avenue North. The Phillip Deeds farm acted as a buffer between Clinton and Lyons.

Our hardworking researchers at the Root Cellar of the Clinton Public Library came up with some startling news last week. While going meticulously through The Clinton Daily Heralds of 1904, Dorothy Ryan stopped incredulously at a news article dated November 14th that read, “’Big Tree’ is A Mere Stump!” Under the main headline was a leader: Ancient Landmark in Ringwood Succumbs to the Saw and Axe. It goes on further to state: The Decaying Trunk was Dangerous. (Another) Massive Cottonwood is in the way and shares the same fate as other large trees in the area. -- Who knew? As nearly as we can track down, the original ‘Big Tree’ was on the Phillip Deeds property, a family farm which stretched along the present 13th Avenue North from the current 2nd Street, west to 4th Street. And, as nearly as we can now tell, this giant cottonwood was near the intersection of 13th and North 4th Street.

The tree could have been a cousin to the cottonwood we know as a silver poplar. Many of these trees are evident today along 13th near where beloved former editor Ev Streit once lived. Most people of our fair city, at least those living today, all remember the ‘Big Tree’ as being on 2nd Street and 13th Avenue North, just about 100 feet from the northwest corner. Nevertheless, it apparently wasn’t the first. We suspect that many towns havw a ‘big tree’ and once it is lost, another simply takes its place.

South of the Big Tree was an area of farms and community recreation. From time to time, Ringwood Park contained many different forms of entertainment. Circuses and Wild West shows were held there. And the first ballpark was at its center, just west of the “new” Hawthorne School, (built in 1898). Thereafter, houses began to spring up in the vicinity, and this started the demise of that popular open area.

Many a young boy sneaked under the canvas of the large tents to see the fabulous circuses which came to town. From the time that John Ricketts brought the first circus to America in 1793, (and became a friend of George Washington), circuses have been very popular for exhibiting equestrian skills, acrobatics, tightrope-walking, bareback-riding, jugglers and, of course, the clowns - who originally sang and yelled out jokes. Later, they became mute and pantomimed or acted out their outrageous humor. Emmett Kelly and Clinton’s own Felix Adler were two of the most famous clowns.

One terrific show that had animals was the Hagenbeck Circus. It provided big news in the June 19, 1905 Clinton Daily Herald, which minutely describes all the festivities … including that John Dudak, a Greco-Roman style wrestler who would wrestle “Mufee,” a gigantic Polar Bear!

Most of early circuses appeared at Ringwood. Churches didn’t care for them, but the likes of P.T. Barnum and Ringling Brothers added menageries of wild animals, as an “education” ploy, and often linked them to biblical connections, such as a hippopotamus billed as “The Behemoth of the Holy Writ, Spoken of in the Book of Job.” They came to town and held huge parades …. which attracted paying customers. Their wagons were especially ornate and costly. Noted chiropractor, Dr. B.J. Palmer, once purchased the “Two Hemisphere Band Chariot,” which was constructed in 1896. But, by the 1950’s, circuses (which had numbered 100 earlier) were discontinued as a 100-year traveling show and returned to their roots of staying stationary in large cities and then on television.

On July 22, 1909, Buffalo Bill Cody and Pawnee Bill brought their extravaganzas to Clinton, to be shown together. One reporter described Colonel Cody in the fawning adulation of the day, “with flowing white locks, a complexion that any woman would envy, limbs as straight as any young redskin, Colonel William F. Cody, Buffalo Bill, stood at the door of his tent on the show grounds with debonair gracefulness and an air that showed that life was still in him.”

Over fifty years later, in November, 1964, local attorney and historian Eugene Burke spoke to a group of Clinton citizens. He recalled that the best piece of business the City ever did was to purchase Eagle Point Park from the Clinton Street Railway Co. for $20,000. (They'd bought it from the Lamb family in the 1890’s.) For many years the trolley line ran to the private park and there was really no other way to get there. Many a citizen rode the trolleys also to Ringwood for a ballgame, wild west show, or circus. These were safe and wholesome forms of entertainment, but it was not always so.

On that same occasion, Gene Burke told an interesting story about a circus shooting in the 1880’s. It seems that in a Wild West portion of a show, the cowboys had taken a “dislike” to the Indians. The cowboys were then found touring Clinton and looking for live ammo to spray at the Indians during the mayhem of the show. A shopkeeper, a Mr. Kreim, was suspicious and refused to sell them any, but they somehow obtained cartridges anyway and, in the middle of their sham-battle, they fired live ammunition!

Strangely, no Indian was hit; but one of the spectators was killed! Another was wounded and crippled for life. Naturally, the circus moved out of town as quickly as it could!  However, it was also strange that no one was ever prosecuted for the offense!

Those days are past, when droves of people heard the call for an exciting time and flocked to Ringwood Park in masses that brought fine profit to shows’ entrepreneurs. Now competition is so strong for our entertainment dollars that people often stay home to enjoy such things on the television.