Tag Archives: Elizabeth Coombs

“The Elephant Was the Great Show”

The circus comes to Bowling Green, 1921 (Kentucky Library)

The circus comes to Bowling Green, 1921 (Kentucky Library)

The recent news that Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus will shut down “The Greatest Show on Earth” in May 2017 brings to mind Bowling Green’s long history of circuses, some of which is documented in the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives collections of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections.

Research into the city license records by a former librarian reveals that by 1875, some 36 circuses had come through Bowling Green, often several times a year.  The P. T. Barnum circus paid for its first license in 1853, with an additional fee for “one side show.”  The very first circus, however, appears to have been in 1839, when the “Raymond & Waxing” troupe came to town.  A witness to the extravaganza was Henry Fox, who marveled at the many kinds of animals, including camels and lions.  But “the elephant was the great show,” he remembered, the biggest creature he had ever seen: “He had tusks that come out and crossed and he could throw his snout up and drop it down.”

In an age when entertainment on such a scale was rare, the arrival of the circus in Bowling Green caused tremendous excitement.  One April day in 1879, 15-year-old Josephine Calvert went to school as usual, where her older sister Lida happened to be the teacher.  Lida, however, had to give up and dismiss the class when only three students showed up.  The reason?  “There is a circus in town,” Josie wrote in her diary, “and all are perfectly crazy.”

True to their reputations, circus folk and their animals could generate some strange legends.  Born in 1852, Elizabeth Gaines recalled her mother’s description of a cholera epidemic in Bowling Green “said to have been caused from the death of a very large snake,” that had expired while the circus was in town.  “They buried the snake,” Elizabeth was told, but some of the people connected with the circus also fell victim to the disease.

Click on the links to access finding aids for these collections.  For more, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

"Step right on in" (Fannie Morton Bryan Collection)

“Step right on in” (Fannie Morton Bryan Collection)

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A Little Flight Through History

Mona Lisa; Elizabeth Robertson Coombs

Mona Lisa; Elizabeth Robertson Coombs

January 8, 1962 saw the unveiling, for the first time in the United States, of Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpiece La Gioconda — or, as it was probably better known to an advance audience of dignitaries at Washington’s National Gallery of Art, the Mona Lisa.

The painting was on loan from the Louvre, but half a century earlier a petty thief named Vincenzo Peruggia had attempted to borrow it permanently.  On August 21, 1911, he hid in the Louvre until it closed for the night, then removed the Mona Lisa from its frame.  The next morning, he sauntered out of the museum with the treasure concealed in a smock.  By the time it was recovered more than two years later, the Mona Lisa had entered the public imagination as the world’s most famous, and now closely guarded, work of art.

Traveling in Europe at the time, an aunt of Bowling Green’s Elizabeth Robertson Coombs had a unique experience of the theft.  She had spent the summer in England, touring the countryside and enjoying London — “of course it isn’t New York,” she wrote, referring to Elizabeth’s home at the time, “but it is very nice.”  After a tour of France’s chateau district, she went on to Paris for a month, where she shopped for her winter wardrobe, wandered through Montmartre, and visited the Moulin Rouge (which fell short of a promise that it was “eminently respectable”).  And yes, she reported, “we saw Mona Lisa before stealing — and the hooks where she had hung — after.”  But one can imagine Elizabeth’s aunt smiling as serenely as La Gioconda when she dropped this bomb on her 18-year-old niece: “By the way — I had my first aeroplane flight while we were in Paris . . . in a biplane — went around the horizon — and mounted to about the height of the Eiffel Tower . . . it was perfectly heavenly.”

Letters written to Elizabeth Robertson Coombs early in the 20th century are part of the Coombs Family Collection in the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives holdings of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections.  Click here to access a finding aid.  For more collections, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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Happy Fourth!

Nathaniel Lucas's letter; modern July 4 fireworks

Nathaniel Lucas’s letter and modern July 4 fireworks

Robert Clay Blain, Jr., of Lincoln County, Kentucky was only 21 in 1839 when he composed “Union,” an eloquent love letter to his country.

“For more than fifty years,” he wrote, “has this union been formed–formed by those generous patriots who valliantly contended & nobly achieved their ‘dear bought liberties’–by those . . . who taught the haughty sons of Britton, that those contending for the cause of freedom are invincible.  It was union, Blain continued, that had been “the grand cause of our country’s prosperity” and had guided its founders to victory.  “Cemented by love and dearest ties of national interest, did these brave souls promulgate a declaration of their right; and fearlessly continued their course thro’ blood and fields of deepest sorrow until freedom was established.”

The Manuscripts & Folklife Archives section of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections has many resources relating to the War of Independence including veterans’ pension applications, land grants to soldiers rewarding them for their service, and data assembled in the 1960s by WKU librarian Elizabeth Coombs on Revolutionary War veterans with connections to Warren County and southcentral Kentucky.  We even have a letter written by Nathaniel Lucas to his future wife just before the decisive battle of Yorktown.  “There is great appearance of success in our taking Lord Cornwallis,” he declared.  “Our army is very strong.”

Click on the links to access finding aids for these collections.  For more, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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