When the circus came to Sheridan
Date posted: September 10, 2013
Sheridan’s normal population of about 15,000 swelled to more than 35,000 when the circus came to town on April 29, 1919. But it wasn’t a traditional circus that attracted the hordes of people from across Wyoming and neighboring states; rather, it was a Flying Circus performed by the United States Air Service.
The Flying Circus was on a nationwide tour to demonstrate what America’s “brave men have done to win the war.” Its purpose was also to promote victory bonds and recruit young men into the Air Service. It was the biggest event to ever hit Sheridan.
The touring Flying Circus consisted of nine baggage cars that carried 18 aircraft and various sleepers and dining cars to accommodate 25 officers and 50 enlisted men. The aircraft, which had to be assembled for every demonstration, and then disassembled and loaded back on the train, consisted of 5 Fokkers, 4 Spads, 4 SE-5’s, 5 Curtiss H’s. Two trailers to haul the aircraft around were also on board the train.
Sheridan was in a state of “breathless excitement” and left no stone unturned in preparation for the event. To complement the one hour air show, which would pit the German Fokkers against the allied planes in mock combat, Sheridan planned a parade and a program that included a band, a Boy Scout drill, a drill by the United War Veterans of America, and, of course, speeches. And the Victory Loan committee planned a big picnic for all.
Sheridan went on full alert to prepare for the expected onslaught of people; citizens were encouraged to rent rooms in their houses to visitors, because the hotels were full, and churches were encouraged to serve meals. Those who lived in the country were asked to bring their own picnic lunches because of an expected shortage of food. Also, the Commercial Club arranged decorations for the downtown area and, to accommodate the Circus, downtown shops were closed at noon so everyone could join in the festivities.
The Burlington railroad provided a special train which left Edgemont, S.D., at 1:05 a.m. and made 14 stops to pick up passengers before it arrived in Sheridan at 9:30 a.m. After the air show, the train departed Sheridan at 7 p.m. for the return trip. The folks that came from Edgemont had a very long day.
But the trip was worth the effort. The hour long air show was performed from a field on the Brundage ranch near the old sugar factory (the original site near the fairgrounds proved to be unsatisfactory). The headlines in The Sheridan Enterprise were effusive: “35,000 Thrill At Daring Feats of American and Allied Airmen In Spectular (sic) Flights In City” and “Multitudes See The Cavalry Of The Sky” and “Hair-Raising Stunts and Aerial Thrills that to the Spectator Seem Almost Incredible.”
The experience was incredible—and unreal to some. Vie Willits Garber, from a pioneer Big Horn family, said in an oral interview many years later that her mother “couldn’t believe there were men flying around in those things up there.” Vie also described how residence hill, then with very few residences, was covered with people in all sorts of vehicles who gathered to watch the display and enjoy their picnic lunches.
The multitudes flocked to every vantage point in and around the city to watch the aerial display overhead and apparently there wasn’t a bad seat in the house. From the air they must have looked like ant swarms. In fact, the crowds were so thick that a Lieutenant Gatchell, who had an engine problem shortly after take-off in his “Spad machine,” had trouble finding a place to land because every time he tried to land people got in the way. He eventually made a forced landing on the prairie east of the Big Horn road.
And so the day ended. The multitudes dispersed to the hinterlands, the Flying Circus, after some local socializing at the Elks Home, loaded up on the train and left for the next stop, and everyone was left with the memory of the greatest spectacle ever witnessed in northern Wyoming. For most, it was a wondrous affair.
But there was one exception. Don Woods’s horse hated it. The mare, gentle as a dog and used to pulling a milk wagon, “decided this was too much.” She leapt the fence during the air show and was still missing the day after the Flying Circus came to town.
Tom Ringley was re-elected as a county commissioner in 2012. He is the author of four books. Ringley grew up in Sheridan and returned home in 1990 after 27 years as an Air Force officer. He has been involved with the local hospital foundation, the Sheridan-Wyo-Rodeo and has been the facilities director at the county fairgrounds.