Monthly Archives: December 2016

Lansing’s Early History – The First Shows

Copied from The Lansing Journal – MI – Saturday, May 12, 1906

Lansing’s Early History – The First Shows

It was in 1847 that the capital of the state of Michigan was moved to the town of Michigan, renamed Lansing; and in February 1848, while the first legislature which met at the new capital was still in session, the first opera troupe to exhibit in the future auto metropolis appeared in the dining room of the old Seymour house, now Franklin Terrace, on Franklin avenue east.

Wood & Gillam’s Minstrels was the first show staged here and the dining room was packed with state officials, legislatures, townspeople and visitors from Dewitt and other places. Van Rensselaer Tooker can remember well the show which the two mulattoes and their troupe presented, and it is perfectly evident that the event, the first of the kind he or Lansing had ever seen left a vivid impression upon his memory.

There were twelve members of the company,” he says, “all colored men, and they gave a regular old-fashioned minstrel show. It was there I first heard that song “The Camptown Races,” with the chorus which became famous: “I’ll bet my money on the bob-tailed mare, who’ll bet on the gray?

Those minstrels were reckoned very good in those days, and they certainly had one of the finest shows of its class I ever saw.

The next show which came to Lansing was the Antonio Brothers, Frenchman, acrobats, who exhibited at the same place to a large house. Many people had to be turned away. As I remember it, the troupe consisted of the father, who was the manager, four sons and two daughters.

Shows were given in different halls throughout the city after that. In March 1873, the first entertainment was given in Buck’s opera house, before it was finished, a fly-by-night concern exhibiting there. The opera house was formally opened May 3, 1873, by Edwin Booth in ‘Hamlet’, exhibiting to a house which netted $1,596. That night 30 tickets were sold to Greenville people. May 9, the same year, Joseph Jefferson appeared in ‘Rip Van Winkle’, playing to a $900 house.

Lawrence Barrett appeared here in ‘Cardinal Richelieu’, the date I do not remember, it was soon after the house was opened. Barrett and I were chums in Detroit, where we lived together as boys. Barrett used to ‘supe’ in Ellis & Parker’s old theatre there, and would frequently get passes for me. Later he became a bell boy in the old Michigan Exchange, then he set type in the office of the old ‘Advertiser’, all the time studying for the stage. When he finally became a full-fledged actor I lost track of him until he came here.

I had been told by theatrical people that Barrett would not recognize me. When he appeared at the opera house I was lighting the gas, with which the theatre was lighted. I asked him if he remembered what had become of a friend, Chauncey Tibbles. He had not. Asking my name, I told him ‘Jim Tooker’. After that he was very cordial, asking me from the front of the theatre – I was tending door – to the stage where he had a long visit. He asked about my family, said he would like to meet my wife, and we had a good old time, talking over early days in Detroit.

Accidents in the old opera house? Not a one. Panics? Not a scare. Once we did have a small sized riot. A spiritualist was the bill – one of the fake variety – and he had a lot of people up on the stage when someone raised a kick, and the audience demanded their money back. The old fakir started for the box office where Mate Buck had the money, but I got there first and Mate went across to the furniture store, where it was dark, with the money done up in a bag. We finally succeeded in quieting the audience, who had begun to toss the chairs around, and got them out of the house, locking the doors.”

Once too, a member of college students became dissatisfied with the show and tried to block the hallway, but ‘Billy’ Matthews, who was a special policeman, and I cleared the hall and dispersed the crowd.

The first circus that came here was Levi J. North’s in 1858. North showed on the lot across from R. E. Olds present home. He had one tent, a 90-foot round top, the early circuses having no menagerie. He came here in wagons from Jackson. I remember that ‘Bill’ Lake was the clown, one of the best clowns in the early days.

Dan Rice in 1862, had the first railroad show, and came to Lansing from Owosso on the ‘Ramshorn’ which had only been completed to the deep cut. From there the wagons had to be drawn to what is now the Third Ward Park, where the exhibit took place.

Shows were held here for several years. Later the state lot was used. Forepaugh once put up tents on the site of the Wagon works. The Olds Gas Power company site, the Sparrow block on Washington avenue near the Grand Trunk tracks, and a lot in the western port of the city, between Ottawa and Ionia streets were also used. The only time John Robinson showed here, I forget the date, he used the land now occupied by the Omega Separator company.

In 1872 I first entered the bill-posting business here, before that, since 1862, having been associated in the the circus business with J. E. Warner, with whom I visited every important town from Mackinaw to Cincinnati, and from Portsmouth, New Hampshire, to Council Bluffs.

Van Amberg brought the first menagerie to Lansing in 1874. Van Amberg, I remember, was the first man who entered a cage of lions. Hyatt Frost was the manager, and he had another intrepid animal tamer, Herr Drisback, a German or Russian. That year I handled paper for five circuses, the greatest number ever in Lansing in a single season. Besides Van Amberg’s, there were the Great London shows, Forepaugh’s and two others. Barnum, at a later date, was the first to use private cars, all others having hired their trains of the railroads. Barnum was also the first to have two trains.

Buffalo Bill had their first ‘Wild West’ show, in the opera house. The next year he came back with the canvas fence.

The parade was a feature of the old circus, but was a meager affair compared with the display that has been made in late years. One year, Dan Rice’s parade consisted of Mentor’s cornet band, the blind horse, Excelsior jr., and two trick mules.

Bill posting in those days was carried on in a more extensive scale than now. The paper was cheaper, but it was well printed in colors, although with fewer lithographs. Most of the printing was done by the Cincinnati Enquirer, the Buffalo Courier, and two New York firms. Booth & Co., and Clavey & Riley. I recall one show when I handled nearly 350 sheets of bill-board advertising.”

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Pioneer Times At North End

Copied from The State Republican – Lansing, Michigan – Tuesday, May 9, 1905
(About 1850)

Pioneer Times At North End

By J. E. Warner

Old Settlers are often importuned to tell the present generation what they knew about Lansing before the majority of its present inhabitants were born. I have on several occasions made a public revelation of what I knew of its early history, but now am requested to brush up my memory and reveal to the readers of the State Republican something of the early history of that particular locality called by comment consent, North Lansing.

Fifty-five years ago in March, I came by the “Foot and Walker” line from Wayne county and landed in North Lansing and somehow the attractions that I stumbled onto in that locality proved so magnetic that I have been chained, as it were to the part of our city all these years.

Business at that time was very much condensed and clustered about the corners of Franklin and Center sts. Jas. Seymour and his co-partners owned nearly all the land in this immediate vicinity, and to boom their property, erected a fine hotel which they called the Seymour house. This was the attractive feature of the village, and for several years the leading hotel in Lansing. This hotel was headquarters for the law makers of the state who were at that time in session in the new capitol, located on the block bordered by Washington and Capitol aves on the east and west, and by Allegan and Washtenaw sts on the north and south. As an aggregation of law makers and fun makers, this first general assembly here out Webstered Daniel the Great and put to shame the favorite Sons of Momus.

Social events were limited for the lack of convenient places to meet. There were no theaters, no clubs, and no special attractions, and when the men and boys wanted an evening of good solid enjoyment they would gather in the spacious bar room of the hotel and listen to the jokes and yarns of their neighbors.

A two-plank walk extended from the hotel to the capitol, over which the distinguished sojourners were wont to tramp, to and from every day during their stay in the city of the woods. One member, an old hunter, always carried his gun and one night he came home with a large turkey strung over his shoulder that he killed near the hill where Bailey M. Buck lives. Fresh meat, other than wild game was a scarce article. Partridges and quail were plenty, and as there was no law limiting for killing, the hotel table was always well supplied with these dainty and palatable meats, and when the warm spring days brought the chattering squirrel from his winter hiding place, the landlord would go or send a man out with a shot gun, who would return in an hour or so with a dozen black squirrels, that would provide a delicious pot-pie for dinner.

Quite frequently deer were killed within what is now the corporate limits of the city, and one day I remember a large black bear came into the village. Just west of the bridge two Indians took the trail and captured the animal about where the School for the Blind is located.

Indians were very plenty here in those days, Old Okemos, a noted chief, with his tribe, made frequent visits to the village. They would go into camp in what was known as the Turner woods, now occupied by the spacious residence of Hon. F. L. Dodge. They would remain several days, exchanging furs, dried venison, roots, herbs, etc. for such articles as their tastes desired and of which the two merchants kept a good supply especially for the Indian trade. A small quantity of “fire water” was usually sandwiched in with other purchases. It was an interesting sight to see the Indians coming to town. They came on their ponies, Indian file or to make it plain to the uninitiated, single file. Old Okemos always in the lead. The squaws, like the males, rode astride and carried their camp equipage strapped on behind the rider. The train always reached from Center st. out beyond the Camp farm nearly a mile in length. It was always a half-holiday when this great caravan was headed for the camping ground in the Turner woods, and one occasion the attraction proved so great that the legistlature adjourned and loaned their august presence as spectators to this wild and weird pagent, illustrated by our original American citizens.

Another incentive for the assembling of the people was the arrival of the stage from Detroit. The Seymour house was the landing place for the stage and at its arrival daily about 6 p. m., the sound of the driver’s horn, for which the inhabitants were listening would cause a stampede of the whole population for the corners, and about the hotel. The stage driver was a bigger man than Gen. Jackson. The interest and excitement that occurs about our railroad stations of the present day on arrival of trains are not compared with the interest taken in the arrival of the old Concord coach, drawn by four foaming steeds and the crack and flourish of the Jehu’s whip.

North Lansing was about the whole thing in those days. It was the principal part of what is now our beautiful city. We were one happy family. No jealousies, no social distinction – all seemed united in the one great object of building up a city, peopled with fathers and mothers, of whom our children, in after years, might with pride turn back the pages of the book of progress and say “they were my ancestors.” Of such was North Lansing 55 years ago.

Photo Caption: Joseph E. Warner. Author of Interesting Sketch of Early Days at North End.

Note from Timothy: Joseph Warner was Mayor of all the city of Lansing in 1878, and his home still stands today at 1230 West Willow Street.

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original article – part 1 of 2

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