Restoration of an Elephant Walk Recalls Yesterday's Menageries
By ANNE C. FULLAMJAN. 18, 1998
AN elephant is buried on the shores of Lake Waccabuc. A rhinoceros once went swimming in a local creek. A monkey pulled a parson's coat to shreds.
These events and many others occurred during the era of the Flatfoots, the name given to the owners of the enterprise known as the North Salem Circus.
A relic from that time, the Elephant Walk, long a local curiosity for the role it played in the nation's early circus history, is being restored privately.
Not nearly as old as the first American Circus, founded by a Somers resident, Hackaliah Bailey, whose 1804 importation of Old Bet, the second elephant to enter the United States, the North Salem Circus was syndicated in 1820 by the landowners John June, Lewis Titus and Caleb Angevine. Until that time and from the earliest days of European settlement, a Sunday drive might have included a route that went past many farms where horses, cows and sheep were kept.
But by the 1830's, sightseers were roaming local roads in search of exotic animals.
Elephants, giraffes, leopards, tigers and a lion or two, not to mention rhinoceroses, monkeys and the first hippopotamus imported into the United States, could be seen at pasture in North Salem. Horses bolted.
Though the animals are long gone, impressions from the 19th-century circus on the landscape can still be seen. Barns were built to unusual heights for the safe passage of giraffes and elephants. Basements were outfitted with cages for monkeys. A wide stone roadway was built for elephants only.
That roadway, the Elephant Walk, is being rebuilt by the owners of Salem Sunshine Farm, who asked that their names not be used. A large section of the surviving walk is situated along the back edge of their farm.
Built in the 1840's, the Elephant Walk resembles a stone chute. About 4 feet high on both sides and 25 feet wide, the walk was the passage along which elephants were walked to and from local performances and their pastures.
''Everyone owned large tracts of land,'' said Dick Yakman, historian of the town of North Salem. ''It was no problem for them to hold the circus on open pieces of property. There was no structure in the Northern Hemisphere big enough to hold an indoor event.'' Equestrian acrobatics formed the backbone of the circus program. ''For the ring itself, they needed 64 feet in circumference for aerial riders,'' Mr. Yakman said.
Reconstruction of the Elephant Walk consists of new piping laid in culverts where the Titicus River flows under the walk. Rebuilding the walls, where huge boulders are stacked, and laying large stones along the roadbed is the job of Bob Bolender, manager of Salem Sunshine Farm.
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''The Elephant Walk was built to walk the elephants to where the circus was held,'' Mr. Bolender said. ''In winter, they kept the circus here.''
Accepting the fact that there is a dearth of elephants these days, Mr. Bolender is using a tractor to rebuild the walk once constructed with elephant power. Once completed, the Elephant Walk will be used as part of the horse trails that crisscross the farm's acreage.
From Salem Sunshine Farm elephants were walked to June Farm. Titus Farm, also walked America’s first Hippopotamus the approximately 3 miles. At June Farm many performances were held when the menagerie and circus was in town, but from April to October, it was usually not in town. June Farm was not only the location for circus performances but also was the home of the first giraffe imported into the United States. Originally built in the late 18th century as a typical farmhouse, June Farm was added onto as the June family fortunes increased. The Georgian columns were probably added around 1830.
In the 1830's the troupe visited the White House and performed for President Andrew Jackson. In 1839, the Flatfoot circus toured Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan, Pennsylvania and New York. Circus wagons pulled by horses logged 2,482 miles in 184 days. About 150 days were spent traveling, for an average of 16 miles a day. Exhibitions were held in 85 towns and cities on the route.
Admission prices varied. Boxes were 75 cents. Gallery seating was 50 cents. Audience members could stand up for a few pennies.
The term Flatfoot came from a boast attributed to one of the founding members. ''We put our foot down flat and shall play New York State, so watch out.''
During the Civil War, when the North Salem Circus was owned by George F. Bailey, a nephew of Hackaliah, the troupe visited the troops along the Mississippi River.
Bailey in 1875 acquired the P. T. Barnum Show, which Barnum continued to manage. Baily sold the combined effort in 1880 to James Bailey and James Hutchinson. George Bailey was the last Flatfoot to die. He is buried with the other Flatfoots in June Cemetery.