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Cartwright, Carol Lohry; Shaffer, Scott; Waller, Randal / City on the Rock River : chapters in Janesville's history
(1998)

10. Recreation and entertainment,   pp. 177-188


Page 177

Recreation and Entertainment
Carol Lohry Cartwright
T hroughout Janesville's history, there have been outlets for public recreation and
entertainment. As early as the 1840s, public halls were included in prominent commercial
buildings. These public halls were used for political meetings, lectures, social events, and
theatrical productions. After the Myers Opera House was built, Janesville had a first-class
theater for both local and traveling entertainment. Nineteenth-century residents also looked
forward to fairs and circuses. The first and several subsequent state fairs were held in
Janesville, along with local fairs. Traveling circuses came to town in the nineteenth century, but
Janesville also had its own circus, the Burr Robbins Circus, with its winter quarters at the south
edge of town.
In the twentieth century, fairs, circuses, and theatrical productions remained popular. In
particular, the Rock County's 4-H Fair, held on the fairgrounds in Janesville, flourished. But
the 1900s ushered in a new form of entertainment that would become one of the most important
forms of mass popular culture in the United States, the motion picture. Several theaters were
built just for this form of entertainment. But live theater did not disappear entirely; Janesville
residents supported a flourishing local theater company, still active today.
Recreational activities were important outlets for the community in both the nineteenth and
twentieth centuries. During the nineteenth century, open spaces in town were easily found for
casual recreation. The Rock River was a popular spot for boating, fishing, and swimming. Some
residents even established a small golf club in the 1890s, the first in the state. As the
twentieth century progressed, recreation became more organized and the City of Janesville
became more directly involved, forming city parks, erecting sports facilities, and creating golf
courses. The city parks program is discussed in the Landscape Architecture and Planning
chapter; it should be kept in mind here because residents have used city parks primarily for
recreational activities.
Circuses
Circuses began touring in Wisconsin during the 1850s and continued to tour into the late
nineteenth century. Because many chose Wisconsin as their home base, the state became closely
identified with circuses. As early as 1840, circus troupes began settling in Wisconsin, leaving
the crowded areas of New York State where many of them were previously located. Perhaps
they chose Wisconsin because many other New Yorkers were coming to the state during the mid-
nineteenth century; perhaps it was because Wisconsin farmers produced a lot of hay, a major
source of animal feed. In any event, 26 circuses came to the city of Delavan over the years. In
the 1880s, one of the most important circuses, the Ringling Brothers Circus, formed at Baraboo.
And, between 1873 and 1893, at least nine communities were home for one or more circuses.
(Current 1976:128, 538; Nesbit 1985:527)
For 15 years, between 1873 and 1888, the Burr Robbins Circus was based in Janesville. Burr
Robbins was born in 1837 in New York State. When he was 18 years old, his family wanted him
to study for the ministry, so he "ran away with the circus." He ended up in Milwaukee, then in
1858, he joined the Spaulding and Rogers North American Circus in St. Louis as a property boy.
During the Civil War, he joined the army as a wagon boss and left as superintendent of
transportation. He got back into the circus business in 1870, when he bought a small magic
lantern and side show and began touring the fair circuit in Michigan. This early Robbins side
Recreation and Entertainment
177


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