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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 178

show featured a mule with a deformed head, common animals that were billed as something
exotic, and other animals that were altered to fit their billing. (Fox and Hartman 1969:4)
Robbins apparently made money from his side show, because he was able to get into the
legitimate circus business by purchasing the defunct John Stowe Circus in 1871. Renamed the
Burr Robbins & Co. Circus and Menagerie, it originally was based in Michigan. At the end of
the 1873 season, Robbins wintered his circus in Janesville, where he remained for the next 15
years. He would prosper while based in Janesville, building a larger and better show that
would soon bring him fame and fortune. (Fox and Hartman 1969:4-5)
Robbins began the 1874 season in Janesville under the self-promoting name Robbins & Co's
Museum, Circus and Menagerie, Burr Robbins & Co., Proprietors, and Burr Robbins, Manager.
His large menagerie included snakes, crocodiles, a trained buffalo, and horse acts. At the end of
the season, he gave a performance in Janesville to benefit the School for the Blind. Afterward,
he purchased a 100-acre farm from a Mrs. Doty along what is now Delavan Drive (Jeffris Park).
He announced plans to erect buildings for his circus animals and equipment, including a large
indoor training ring. (Fox and Hartman 1969:5)
Robbins called his complex Spring Brook Farm, and the facilities included a large fenced
animal park, two large barns for 130 horses and equipment, a bermed building for exotic animals
that required a warmer environment, and a hippodrome for training circus acts. Robbins
reported that he had over $100,000 invested in his circus and its quarters. In May 1875, he gave
a show in Janesville during which the pastor of the All Souls Unitarian Church, the Rev.
Jenkin Lloyd Jones, on behalf of the people of Janesville, presented Robbins with a gold-headed
cane, and his wife with a tea set. (Fox and Hartman 1969:5-6)
During the 1870s, Robbins had workers improve the facilities at Spring Brook Farm and make,
upgrade, and maintain the circus equipment while he went about acquiring more animals, acts,
and wagons. In her home, Mrs. Robbins supervised the wardrobe department that made and
repaired the circus costumes. After trying out several long and somewhat bombastic names,
Robbins decided on the Burr Robbins Great American and Royal German Allied Shows. It was
not the largest circus in the country, but Robbins often placed it in the top ten. His circus
employed 175 people, and during the season, they used 60 wagons pulled by 225 horses. During
the 1878 season, the circus wagons traveled over 3,000 miles and played in over 140 communities
in the Midwest. (Fox and Hartman 1969:6-9)
In 1880, Burr Robbins was in a serious boating accident on the Rock River. Gravely injured, he
sent his wife out on tour as general manager in his stead. In 1881, perhaps because of his injury,
he incorporated his circus and took on partners. Also in that year, Robbins began moving his
circus by the railroads. In 1882, he decided to sell most of his circus and dispose of his
remaining circus assets. But the new owners quickly failed; Robbins had a change of heart and
went about reacquiring his circus. With two partners, he formed a new corporation and started
the Burr Robbins New Consolidated Railroad Shows. (Fox and Hartman 1969:9-11)
Robbins purchased 22 railroad cars to transport his circus and went about building up the
business again. Although he lost money during the 1884 season, he apparently had enough
personal wealth to carry on. By 1885, he was employing 295 people and operating a two-ring
big top and smaller museum top. He had several successful seasons in the 1880s, but by 1888, he
was ready to retire again and turn his attention to real estate and other business interests in
Chicago. He traded part of his circus assets for a Chicago theater and sold the rest to the
Ringling Brothers of Baraboo, who were just developing their circus. While Robbins remained
involved in the circus business by making loans to other operators, he never operated a big circus
again. He had a successful second career in Chicago after he founded an outdoor advertising
Recreation and Entertainment
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