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Friday, May 7, 2010

THE GRAT MONKEY CIRCUS AND BURLESQUE TROUPE

Lavinia Warren, also known as Mrs. Tom Thumb, ca. 1860. From the collection of the Library of Congress.
Riots followed burlesque show in 1858 Stillwater
by Brent Peterson
Stillwater Historian Published: Thursday, May 6, 2010

Recessions in the economy come and go, and some are worse than others. It seems as though the current recession may be getting better, but others in the past lingered for years.
As Minnesota was to become a state, the Territorial Legislature passed a railroad bill of $5 million to entice and help the railroads reach Minnesota. After all the money was spent not a track was laid, and with a corresponding national recession, Minnesota was in a terrible way.
The lumber industry of the St. Croix Valley was hit hard. Many lumbermen were without work and had no way to pay for basic items for their families. Still, with the hardships going on, there were traveling shows that would stop from time to time in Stillwater to help people forget about their troubles — even if it was only for a short time.
In early June 1858, just a month after Minnesota became a state, a show called “The Great Monkey Circus and Burlesque Dramatic Troupe” stopped in Stillwater for several performances. The show had trained dogs, monkeys and the Billy Birch Minstrels. The Stillwater Messenger later said, “The Monkey Circus fully equaled the expectations of the public, and (was) largely attended. The performances of the trained monkeys, dogs, & etc. afforded a rich treat to the curious in such matters.”
Even with all the jovial entertainment, the harsh realities of life were just around the corner. There were men fed up with employers not paying their wages, and protests and conflicts came to a head as the minstrel show was ending.
According to accounts in the local papers, there was a group of “lawless characters, under cover of the hard times” who started for the levee, where they planned to cut rafts of lumber loose and let them float away. They also planned to enter the stores and houses of citizens to help themselves to whatever they wanted.
As the leaders of the gang reached the Minnesota House Hotel, at the corner of Main and Chestnut Streets, the city police and the City Light Guard militia captured them and brought them to the state prison. Several efforts to rescue the leaders of the group were fought off by the police and militia.
In the meantime, the performers were on their steamboats the Banjo and the James Raymond and were trying to push off and leave the city. One of the performers, described as a “three-year-old Pigmy Woman,” was actually 16-year-old Lavinia Warren.
Warren would later marry Tom Thumb and travel the world with P.T. Barnum and his circus.
When Warren got older she wrote down memories of her incredible life. Although she met Presidents Lincoln and Grant, traveled the world and saw incredible sights, she remembered that time she spent in Stillwater and the riot that took place.
“At Stillwater, Minnesota, a great lumber country, the lumbermen came down the river from their camps on rafts to visit us,” she wrote. She had described the lumbermen as “red shirts” and said that they were a “terror to peace-loving people.” As for the riot going on, she said “firearms were freely used,” and that those red shirts “would cut no more lumber that season.” Warren then expressed that “considering discretion the better part of valor, we chose the better part and left the locality before daylight next morning.”
The Monkey Circus would not come back to the Midwest, and the leaders of the riot were punished and put in jail. The economy eventually regained strength and made Stillwater and the St. Croix Valley one of the most prosperous lumber centers in the world.
Brent Peterson is the executive director of the Washington County Historical Society and author of “Stillwater: The Next Generation.” He can be reached at 651-439-5956.
from the St. Croix Valley Press

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