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Travelling circus not a big hit in Glenwood in 1888

Frontier Diary
Willa Kane
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado
Photo Courtesy Frontier Historical SocietyPosters advertising the Sells Floto Circus are seen in the window of Hughes Wholesale Liquors at 824 Grand Ave. Despite a poor showing by the Sells Brothers Circus in 1888, many other circuses performed in Glenwood Springs in the years following. The Sells Brothers Circus eventually joined with the Floto Dog and Pony show, becoming the Sells Floto Circus, which, before World War I, featured Buffalo Bill Cody.
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“Praise the fates, the circus is gone.”

– Ute Chief, July 14, 1888



Nature presented a hot, dry and dusty beginning to the Dog Days of Summer in 1888. A light winter snow pack in the high mountains coupled with little rain and wickedly hot temperatures proved that July in Glenwood Springs would be physically unbearable. The citizens of Glenwood Springs needed a diversion. That diversion came in the much anticipated arrival of the Sells Brothers Circus.

The Sells Brothers Circus was touring Colorado that July. It was advertised as being a three-ringed circus with an “elevated stage, royal Roman Hippodrome, five continent menagerie, Indian village and racing carnival.” Traveling from town to town by rail, the circus arrived at Glenwood’s Denver and Rio Grande depot at Seventh and Pitkin Avenue just before dawn on July 13. Little time was lost in unloading the 50 rail cars of animals, tents, poles, side shows and “general circus paraphernalia” at Enzensperger Park west of the town. Five passenger coaches for the circus performers and staff were also attached to the train. Included in the “circus paraphernalia” were the ingredients for a thirst quenching treat – lemonade.



To announce their arrival, the circus held a small late morning parade. The procession of animals and wagons kicked up a cloud of dust along the dry streets. Hucksters visited every residence and business in town, advertising the gate opening at 1 p.m. and the single performance beginning at 2 p.m. Soon, a crowd of 2,000 residents and visitors from other communities converged upon the grounds, waiting for the start of the show.

Patrons soon realized that the circus was less than quality. The show started 15 minutes late and lasted a mere one hour. The Ute Chief newspaper reported “the horses were poor, the riders were only fair, the clowns were way below par, and the artists generally second rate.” Warm and poor quality lemonade did little to quench a thirst or to make a poor show palatable.

Grumblings turned to allegations of open robbery. Marshal Scott investigated complaints by patrons of being swindled at the gate. Many complained of receiving only $1 bills in change when $5 or $10 bills should have been returned. The marshal reunited some with their money. Others, due to embarrassment from being duped, never reported their loss.

Reporters for the Ute Chief newspaper panned the circus performance, attaching the Sells name with the slang definition of the word “sell” which was to swindle, hoax, cheat or dupe. The paper declared that “the weather was warm enough to entitle the spectators to a first class show.”

A large group watched the circus train depart Glenwood Springs for Leadville, and a sigh of relief was felt throughout the town. The Ute Chief encouraged residents to get back to the work of building the community and “saving their odd change for the necessities of life.”

Willa Kane is former archivist of and a current volunteer with the Frontier Historical Society and Museum. “Frontier Diary” is provided to the Post Independent by the museum, 1001 Colorado Ave., Glenwood Springs. Summer hours are 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday. For more information, call 945-4448. “Frontier Diary” appears the first Tuesday of every month.


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