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M.L. Clark & Sons Circus

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The circus wagon shown above is from two identical picture postcards mailed from De Leon, one to Sulligent, Alabama postmarked June 13, 1909 and the second mailed to Comanche on October 27, 1909.  From blowups of the signs above Harmon Drug it appears that the circus was held on Monday, June 7th.  Handwritten on one postcard is “This is on Clark’s Circus day” and on the other “Big Show-M.L. Clark & Sons Show.   The advance wagon was said to be “big and ornate, and looked much like a band wagon…carried a driver, poster and (required) a four horse hitch” (where the other wagons only required a two horse hitch). However, according to a reader Mr. A.W. Stencell, the wagon pictured above is a “tab” wagon  probably used to carry trunks, props and wardrobes.  Usually, Clark’s circus parade consisted of the circus wagons, an elephant named Mena and the elephant’s long time inseparable companion, a camel named Mose.

Other things to notice in the photograph are that there are three drug stores in a row along main street.  The white building to the left of Wilson and Whaley is Weaver Drug, the adjacent two story building is Harmon Drug with the signs advertising the circus on the 7th on the balcony, and the next building to the left is De Leon Drug.

There is a sign on the overhang of the Wilson Whaley Co. touting Star Brand Shoes, claiming that “Star Brand Shoes Are Better” and that they were “Sold Here.”  Star Brand Shoes were produced at the time in St. Louis by Roberts, Johnson and Rand.  That company merged with Peters Shoes in 1911 forming the International Shoe Company and established a plant in Hannibal, Missouri.  It later acquired Florshiem Shoes in 1952, and then in the 1980s, International acquired furniture companies Ethan Allen, Broyhill, and Lane.  It spun off Converse and Florsheim in ’86 and ’87 and changed its name to Furniture Brands International.

The Clark Circus had simple beginnings in Brownwood when Mack L. Clark joined his older brother Wiley C. Clark in 1883 forming the Clark Brother’s Shows a tent show that featured the ventriloquist Wiley, his two dummies-one white called Irish Mike and one black called Snowball, and a magic latern show.  Mack supplied the freight wagons and the behind the scenes work while Wiley the showman of the family, handled the entertainment.  In 1888 they purchased parts of the Pogey O’Brien Show which included the show’s first elephant. They toured southern cities playing schools and community events including weddings until 1892  when bad weather caught up to them in northern Louisiana and they went broke.

The brothers went their separate ways with Wiley forming W.C. Clark’s Wagon Show which at times still operated as Clark Brothers and later came to be called W.C. Clark’s Crescent Show.   W.C., who was about 20 years older than M.L. quit the circus business and purchased a hotel in Atoka, Oklahoma.  He died there in 1899 but his sons continued the W.C. shows for several years.

His younger bother Mack Loren Clark was born in Brownwood in 1857.  He cut and hauled lumber for the first frame house constructed in Coleman and later developed a freight business in Brownwood.  Following the breakup, Mack who apparently retained ownership of the family ranch near Brownwood, settled in Alexandria, Louisiana and started over with a medicine show.  It grew to become the M.L. Clark Oriental Circus in 1894.  He acquired his prime attraction in 1895, an elephant named Mena which was purchased from the Carl Hagenbeck Zoo in Hamburg, Germany.   By the mid 1920s, Mena was being billed as the “largest elephant in captivity” and was said to weigh more than 12,000 pounds.  The show became what was what was called a “one ringer”.

In 1904 he purchased part of the equipment and animals from the Smith Shows and the circus became a “two ringer”.  The purchases included a band wagon, four animal cages, two chariots, a ticket wagon 80 head of stock, 15 wagons, and two covered hacks.  The show had a 100 foot round top with a forty foot middle, a smaller 30 foot round top, 2 horse tents and a dressing wagon.  One of the animals acquired was a second elephant named Ned.

At the end of the 1904 season, Clark and Ernest Haag owner of the Mighty Haag Show, the other big southern wagon show, jointly purchased twelve camels (which included Mose, the constant companion of Mena the elephant) and equipment following the close of the St. Louis World’s Fair.  The name of the show was changed to the M.L. Clark Combined Shows.  In 1907 the name was changed again to the M.L. Clark and Sons Combined Shows and Animal Exhibition.   And, although the show was named “Sons” only M.L. and his son Lee were owners.  At its peak the show laid claim to being the “largest wagon show on the road.”

In 1906, the show was in New Orleans during Madi Gras and the show’s animals were used in the parades marking the first use of live animals other than horses at Madi Gras.  They continued to be used annually in the King Felix parades for years.

In 1909 the show switched to rails with a coach car, a baggage car, three flat cars and two stock cars.   It was reported to have a menagerie of 12 cages of animals including the two elephants, a pair of leopards and a puma; 60 wagons; 200 horses; two large horse tents (one for performing animals and one for working animals); and side shows.  The Clark Ranch in Brownwood provided the working stock for the show.  In later years the name was leased to various promoters but continued operation until the end of the 1945 season.  M.L. Clark died in Alexandria, Louisana on October 4, 1925.  Mena the elephant was eventually sold to the Al G. Kelly & Miller Bros. Circus in 1940 and died on October 25, 1943.

  • Stencell, A. W.

    That’s not  the advance wagon. That’s a tab wagon probably used for trunks, props or wardrobe and it is in the circus parade. You wouldn’t see folks lined up on he street like that other wise.
    A.W. Stencell

    • admin

      Thanks for your insight.

      Since I am not knowledgeable on circuses what does the term “tab” stand for? Also I always found it curious that the parade was moving toward the railroad instead of away from the railroad in a town that was really only three blocks long. Any thoughts?

      Thanks again.

      Phil Tate

    • Ralph marter

      That’s correct. Ashley is my cousin and Wiley Clark is my great great great uncle.

  • Ashley Irwin

    It’s really cool to be a decendant of this Circus family!! Wiley was my Grandmother’s Grandfather!! 

  • Ashley Irwin

    It’s really cool to be a decendant of this Circus family!! Wiley was my Grandmother’s Grandfather!! 

    • Gina Smith

      Ashley, I would like to know more information about the connection you have with this family. I am married to the grandson of Dixie Clark, Wiley Clark was her grandfather if memory serves me, please email me so that we can discuss our heritage. I am researching this and love meeting family member. browneyedchick68@yahoo.com

      • Ralph marter

        That’s correct. Ashley is my cousin and Wiley Clark is my great great great uncle

  • Ralph Marter

    Willie not wiley

  • Charmain Zimmerman Brackett

    My great-great-grandfather was M.L. Clark. I am working on a book about my family history, and I’m wondering if that photograph is copyrighted in any way. I have some great photos that have been passed through the family, but they are mainly of people.

    • Charles Hart

      Does anyone know of any old posters or payroll information? My great-grandmother and grandfather traveled with one of the Clark Bros. shows in the early 1900′s. She was from Coleman.