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What goes around comes around


July 24, 2019
When I was growing up, I thought the old saying "What goes around comes around" meant when I did wrong, or did someone wrong, it would come back to haunt me. Actually, it can mean the opposite.

What we realize is that what goes around, comes around in life has its compensations, good or bad. It is said that we can actually squeeze a grunt out of a dried pigskin, so in our hearts we must believe there is good to come out of anything sometime in some way.

The story that I would like to tell you this time is in three parts. The first part is about a boy who was born in 1824 on top of the river bank in the first bend of Big Blue River, at the first ford, before the dams were built on the Ohio. The boy was George Washington Lyon. His father was Joel Lyon, a very early settler around Blue River. George was truly born with river water in his veins. He helped his father on the farm until he was old enough to cub on the river.

By 1850, George had become a fine river pilot in his own right. He owned two small packet boats with towing knees, so as to be able to also tow freight. On the river, they called these small boats "skeeter fleet." They were good in low water times.

By 1863, George was known as Uncle Wash or Captain Wash. He had built up a good business on the river, and was also the captain of the Leavenworth Artillery. It was Uncle Wash and his artillery in 1863 that took cannon on his boat, the Izetta, and he captured most of Hines Raiders on the upper Blue River Island. A few weeks later, he again took the cannon on the Izetta to Mauckport at Morvin's Landing to block Morgan crossing the river, but this time he wasn't so lucky. Morgan captured the cannon.

By 1868, Uncle Wash had started a family, and he really wanted to expand his business. He moved his family and boats to Tell City, a town that had just started up 10 years earlier. Shortly, his good friend and brother-in-law, John S. Whitten, from Leavenworth moved his banking business to Tell City. Moving to Tell City got his business downriver of the Leavenworth Bar and the Peckinpaugh Bar at Alton. These were real problems in low-water times. This also helped his business expansion to the Mississippi River. Uncle Wash will come up again later in the story.

The second part of this story is about a man from New Orleans by the name of Clark T. Ames, who was in the entertainment showman business and in 1864 was starting up a traveling circus. It was 1865 before he hit the road with his circus. 1868 was probably his biggest year. The C.T. Ames Circus, Menagerie, and Aviary started its season on April 15, 1868, with its first performance in New Orleans. It consisted of a tropical bird show, 14 dens of animals, a group of lions, a Bengal tiger exhibited by Herr Lengel and several other small entertainers who were subbed to Ames.

This year, it traveled over land by wagon and train to Montgomery, Ala.; Macon, Ga.; Richmond, Va.; Washington, D.C.; Nashville, Tenn.; and Louisville. There, it chartered a steamer up the Ohio River to the mouth of the Kanawha River, then to Malden, W.Va., then down the river, showing at all stands of any consequence, stopping at Leavenworth on Wednesday, Sept. 30, 1868. It made Carrollton, La., by Nov. 11, 1868.

Admission charges for the shows were 75 cents for adults and 50 cents for children. The season made 136 stands in 30 weeks. By the 1871 season, the admission charges were down to 50 cents for adults and 25 cents for children. Again this year, the Ames Circus, along with Robinson's Excelsior Circus, Herr Lengel with his tigers and the Great Van Amburg Showman, worked their circuit, and again met up with their charted steamer, working up the Ohio, then back down to Cairo, Ill. At Cairo, they traveled up the Mississippi, making their engagements until they reached the Davenport, Iowa, landing. Their chartered steamer was, yes, Capt. George Lyon.

They unloaded what animals and equipment needed to travel about 30 miles to Maquoketa, Iowa, to an engagement on Tuesday, Sept. 19. Uncle Wash tied up on the opposite side of the river at Rock Island, Ill. At this engagement, they had over 200 men and horses exhibiting along with the many other exhibits.

When the group arrived back in Davenport on Saturday, the 23rd, the roof fell in on the companies. The sheriff took into hand about 50 horses, a tent and other effects and put some up for sale to pay creditors. On Sunday evening, some of the circus men made a dash out of town, with cages of animals, some wagons and teams of horses crossing the river on the Rock Island Ferry. They looked up on Uncle Wash's steamer, and he headed south.

Uncle Wash, having not been paid, took possession of what was left of the circuses on his boat. He ordered the circus people off, and cast off, headed back to Tell City. When he arrived in Tell City, what a pickle he found himself in. He hadn't been paid for all his towing. Winter was coming, and he was stuck finding buildings in Tell City to house all these animals and many other items. It wasn't hard getting rid of horses and ponies, but lions, tigers and bears, "Oh my." Think of the feed expense he had while the animals were there.

Bert Fenn, an old Tell City historian, told me his uncle, Jacob Zoecher, said the boys of the town enjoyed the free circus on their daily visits to the animal storage areas. Uncle Wash saw no fun in it.

In 1878, Uncle Wash moved his operation to Granville, Miss., where he made it big in the packet business. His brother-in-law, John S. Whitten, took care of his local affairs, finally selling the last beautiful circus wagon in 1880 for $200 to the Tell City Mechanics Silver Band, who used it in parades for many years.

Now, we come to the last part of the story. Are you getting bored? I hope not. The last part of this story took place Saturday, June 15, 2019. The renowned Beckort Auctions of Corydon held a live auction at the Old Maynard and Fern Coffman General Store at New Amsterdam. This store had been closed for nearly 50 years. One of the items auctioned was a 13-inch-by-17-inch poster from the Col. C.T Ames Triple Combination Menagerie, Circus, and Aviary which stated it will "Exhibit at Leavenworth, Ind. Wednesday, Sept. 30th, 1868."

I talked with David Lee, project manager for Beckort's. He told me the winning bid for the poster was $1,900. He said it sold to a Harrison County couple. A friend of mine told me the purchaser was a professional who was going to place the poster in their office for viewing. This is a fine gesture. It sure would have been nice if Uncle Wash could have gotten Beckort Auctions to auction those animals for him. This was just 150 years ago. I bet there were several hundred of the posters left to ruin.

A lot of things in this story that went around also came back around. The debtors were somewhat paid, Uncle Wash did well in the end, the kids enjoyed a free circus, the Tell City band got a fine wagon, the poster helped the Coffman Auction, and many people enjoyed the circus. Most likely, the circuses were back in business the next year under different names.

David W. Wilkins is a historian from Leavenworth.

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