Showbiz Hooked the Kids of Cairo, Illinois

Seventeenth in a Series

By Matt Chaney, for

Posted Thursday, December 14, 2017

Copyright ©2017 for historical arrangement by Matthew L. Chaney

Following the Civil War, the children of Cairo, Ill., experienced an array of heroic models to emulate, including celebrity Americans and Europeans.

The community of 6,000 residents was remote yet strategically located at confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers, serving as intersection for a transient multitude from nationwide and abroad. Cairo kids encountered steamboat pilots, locomotive operators, military officers, civil engineers, politicians, doctors, authors, poets, philosophers, teachers, preachers and athletes, among intriguing types.

Figures of “show business” were powerful symbols for a Cairo youth, regardless of the kid’s socio-economic class, race, gender. Stage-struck children were common, given the influence of Cairo’s entertainment choices and glittering performers, ranging from circus to theater. Show organizers, talent scouts and news writers were regulars around town, juicing showbiz atmosphere.

The circus captivated Cairo kids. “No less than eighty-six youngsters white and black, male and female, were, at one time today, in full chase of the circus bandwagon,” The Cairo Bulletin reported on Nov. 18, 1870. “Their object was to hear the musicians in red coats ‘blow.’”

Cairo kids witnessed America’s grandest circuses, including the shows of Spaulding and Rogers, P.T. Barnum, Cooper and Bailey, C.W. Noyes, John Robinson, and Dan Rice. When a circus was due at Cairo, children gathered at the Ohio levee and railroad depot, turning somersaults and handsprings, popping handstands, singing and dancing.

All ages anticipated arrival of Dan Rice’s circus boat on a Saturday morning in September 1869. The steamer’s calliope organ boomed across the flatland, pumping music from miles out, and folks hurried to the Cairo wharf and immediate shorelines of Missouri and Kentucky. “The steamer Will S. Hays, with banners flying, and giving out strains of delicious music, sailed into port this morning with Dan Rice’s… circus on board, under the special management and direction of the irrepressible Dan himself,” The Bulletin reported.

Performers strode off the boat, down the gangplank; horses were led off and caged animals unloaded. Circus workers and levee roustabouts hauled equipment for show setup. “The canvass was soon spread at the corner of Poplar and Tenth streets, an eager crowd eyeing the operation, in delightful anticipation of the sights and sports of the afternoon and evening. While we write [at the newspaper office], the shouts of a delighted multitude reach us from the cover of the canvass.”

The big-top tent seated 5,000 spectators, with more tickets for standing room. Boys with no money plopped down outside, peering underneath tent flaps for “a thrilling glance at the horses’ hoofs as the animals lope around the ring,” the paper described. “Other youngsters find small rents in the canvass, not larger perhaps than a finger would fill… They tell [their] eager companions gathered about that they can almost see the clown; that they did see a man in spangles; that the bass drum stands in full view.”

Circus personnel and exotic animals posed a spectacle by merely shipping through Cairo. “Col. Robert Stickney, the famous bareback rider, arrived here from Memphis with a large circus yesterday, and had his menagerie wagons and other circus paraphernalia strung along [the] Ohio levee, with the intention of have them forwarded by rail to Pana, Ill., where he intends to give a show,” The Bulletin reported.

“Among his curiosities he had a horse—a hump-backed horse—that was about as intelligent as man could make him… At the command of Col. Stickney, he walked backwards, knelt down, sat on his haunches and stood up and walked around on his hind legs. The cages of the wild beasts were standing just below the stone depot on Ohio levee; some of them were open and were surrounded by a large crowd of curious spectators.”

Circuses visited Cairo year-round at the southernmost tip of Illinois, parking massive, domed barges and more showboats at the wharf and on Missouri landings across the Mississippi. Circus trains and special cars often parked along tracks circling this railroad town. Performers wintered in the area while show managers restocked talent and revamped programs. Watercraft and equipment were stored and repaired, new parts shipped in. In springtime circus outfits organized and launched from Cairo while others opened show seasons at the locale.

Cairo anchored northern end of the delta trough, flatland stretching south to the Gulf of Mexico, draining major rivers of the interior. National railroad and wagon routes intersected at Cairo, with Missouri situated across the Mississippi River and Kentucky across the Ohio. Cairo boosters proclaimed their tri-state vicinity as the navigation head for water, rail and trail through the continental heart, “a gateway between the Northeast and Southwest.”

The Barnum circus and accompaniments, arriving by some 150 railcars, attracted enough humanity to cover the little peninsula of Cairo Township. “There were people of all sizes, shapes, sexes and colors, who came from all around us,” the newspaper reported. “The trains were all full, the [railcar] transfer boats ditto, the ferryboat was crowded at each trip, and our streets were full of farmers’ wagons loaded with produce and children. The great Barnum took everything in, and no doubt departed with a snug sum of money.”

Circus was only a facet of amusements in Cairo. Dramatic productions had been popular since the floating theaters of troupes like the Chapman family, and stage venues on land had been established during wartime, when federals strengthened Cairo levees and installed pumps to reduce seep water.

Headliners of American drama, including Kate Claxton and Lawrence Barrett, played Cairo venues in the 1870s. Sol Smith Russell and Katie Putnam, former precocious players locally, were renowned in comedy and song. Russell was a Missouri native, Putnam of Chicago, but Cairo proudly claimed the youthful stars. Russell and Putnam headed major troupes touring under their names, with each boosting Cairo’s theater reputation by appearing regularly.

Variety format led river entertainment, with requisite sex appeal, and audiences loved Putnam, always applauding for encore. In Cairo and throughout the delta, Putnam enjoyed sold-out runs for “her exquisite songs, dances, and her unrivalled banjo solos,” per an advertisement. She adorned herself with diamonds and rubies on stage.

The market embraced performers such as Andy McKee, a comic and “breakdown” dancer. “Andy McKee first appeared professionally in 1865 at Cairo, Illinois,” author Edward Le Roy Rice noted in Monarchs of Minstrelsy. “Mr. McKee’s success was so pronounced with his eccentric dancing that he had little trouble in obtaining other variety engagements in Memphis, New Orleans, Cincinnati and St. Louis.”

Illinois historian Roy Stallings concluded that Cairo competed mightily with Chicago in western theater. “In the post-Civil War period, amidst a general revival of drama in the United States, southern Illinois, and Cairo in particular, were beginning to develop their own brand of drama culture… Cairo was as important a center to southern Illinois and points farther south, as Chicago was to its surrounding territory. Cairo was not only immune to Chicago’s brand of drama, but she developed a drama that was more influential and more widely distributed than that of Chicago.”

“Southern Illinois’ own heritage was blended into the drama of the showboat, giving way to the age of the theatrical halls, and finally reaching the zenith of development in the last twenty years of the century,” Stallings wrote for Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society.

Showboats and fledgling theaters coexisted along the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, with the Cairo area long a center of floating entertainment. And that wouldn’t change for generations yet, well into the 20th century, as long as extreme southern Illinois and southeast Missouri remained swampy delta frontier. “The showboats had come into being to serve a region where civilization had been slow to penetrate, especially where… the social niceties of living were retarded by the environment,” wrote historian Philip Graham.

Famed performer Dan Rice remodeled a steamboat in the area, owned by Cairo pilot A.J. Bird, for their partnership’s launch of a show craft in 1880. Rice disavowed circus as passé and wasn’t much enthused about staging dramatic productions on the new showboat, in his speaking with a Kentucky newsman.

Rather, said Rice, native of New York City, his mission was to educate and to elevate “the people along the great Mississippi and its tributaries—to music.” Perhaps Rice was dishing more trademark hyperbole, or was indeed an aging performer, as critics alleged, out of touch with his time and place.

Because fine music already resounded in the delta, from Cairo south to New Orleans, progressing toward greatness.

Children of Cairo sensed achievement ahead for their rural, unique community, and teen Maud Rittenhouse identified entertainment as essential culture. The talented schoolgirl kept a diary of her life in Cairo during the latter 19th century—a vivid narrative to become an American bestseller, titled Maud. In 1881 she wrote excitedly of the new opera house in town.

“Three years ago people said all the hateful things they could about Cairo. Now they’re lavish in their praises…,” Maud crowed, “we are altogether citified.”

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Matt Chaney is a writer and consultant in Missouri, USA. For more information visit Email: