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Friday, July 1, 2016



     Recently the Somers Historical Society helped celebrate World Circus Day. As you know, Somers is the "Cradle of the American Circus." It is not the "Birthplace of the American Circus," since there are a bunch of towns fighting over that moniker. There will probably be some DNA testing, a custody battle and some shaming by Maury Povich, and it might get messy, so watch where you step. But even being a "Cradle" rocks!

     Somers has long been associated with the circus, and you have only to look at that pulchritudinous pachyderm on top of the granite obelisk in front of the Town House to know why. Hachaliah Bailey was a farmer and rancher in Stephentown, soon to become Somers. While at a tavern in New York on a cattle trade, Bailey agreed to buy what was probably the second elephant in America for $1,000 dollars. Was there alcohol involved? My research suggests that 9 out of 10 elephants bought at a bar are acquired after considerable cocktails.

     Some say the sea captain who sold him the elephant was his brother, and some say the elephant was his brother. The year was 1804 or 1805, and Hachaliah sailed the beast up the Hudson in his sloop and disembarked at Sing-Sing, now Ossining. He named her "Old Bet." This could not have pleased his daughter very much, whose name was Elizabeth.

     Bailey and the elephant packed up their trunks and started walking to Somers. About 10 or 15 miles into the journey, Bailey was thinking that if he had only gotten a little drunker, he might have held out for a tiger or something that walked a little faster. No one knew how many days it took him since he traveled only at night- he didn't want gawkers getting a free glimpse.

     It's unclear whether he might have bought the animal to help plow his fields, but he soon realized that the attention it got could translate into a better living than he could make on the farm, since money doesn't grow on trees. He knew that he had something huge on his hands, and once he convinced the behemoth to stop sitting on his hand, he began to charge money for the privilege of viewing it.

     The Somers Historical Society has a newspaper clipping from 1808 announcing that a "living Elephant" will be seen at the house of William Satterwhite from the 20th to the 31st of December. It didn't say whether William Satterwhite had any choice in the matter. Admission was 25 cents, which back then was only a quarter of a dollar.

     Bailey wanted to address the elephant in the room, and the address he gave it was 335 Route 202, where he built the Elephant Hotel. His enterprising idea of showing exotic creatures was copied by others, and soon there were traveling "menageries" touring the country. The exhibition of lions, bears and others grew into what we now know as the NFC Central Division.

     Unfortunately, Old Bet was shot and killed while on exhibition in Maine by a farmer who thought it a sin to display animals for money. He should have known that even in the wild elephants are known to charge.

     As of 2018, elephants will no longer be employed in the "Greatest Show on Earth." Whether or not they will appear in the greatest shows on any other planets remains to be seen, but Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus has said that new local laws governing the transportation and housing of the animals has made it difficult to continue the tradition. The thirteen elephants now traveling with the circus will retire to the Center for Elephant Conservation in Florida. There they will complain about their bad hips, knees, and how their kids never call them, like everybody else who retired to Florida.

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