Albion, Oh, Albion

Neil Johnson

Albion Village Historian

No. 1295—The Wonderful Wonderful World Wide Web

I love the intimate knowledge of a community that a local historian acquires, but it is frustrating to catch only glimpses of the larger world beyond Albion.  Twenty-six years ago, it was very difficult to get information on the many things that came and went through Orleans County—the circuses, canal boats, railroads, trolleys, people, etc.  However, the World Wide Web now makes it miraculously easy.

I was reminded of that when I ran across a little item in the Orleans Republican for February 9, 1910.  The item was a reprint of an article from the Medina Register:

Medina’s great showman, Andrew Downie McPhee, attended the sale of the Cole Bros. circus at Corry, Pa., last weekend and was one of the heavy purchasers.  Among other things, he became the possessor of ‘Chief,’ the big elephant.  It is understood that Mr. McPhee will start out with a circus next spring from Medina and one of the big features of the parade will be the big elephant. . .”  The article then went on to poke fun at the county Republican bosses riding on Chief. 

However, the interesting thing was the circus.  In earlier days I would say, "that's interesting, a circus based in Medina."  And I would have moved on.  But now I Googled “Andrew Downie McPhee circus” and got 425 hits.  What an fascinating cornucopia of data--reminiscences of the circus in Honeoye Falls, connections to Arthur Lake, Jr., who played Dagwood Bumstead in the Blondie movies, horse drawn wagons, railroad shows, motorized shows, all connected to Medina.

McPhee was born in Ontario, Canada on August 13, 1863.  He somehow learned gymnastics, possibly through an apprenticeship, and in 1884, when he reached 21, the end of an apprenticeship, he formed his first circus with Clarence Austin—the “Downie & Austin Parlor Circus.”  Downie spent the rest of his life in circuses, usually as an owner, but also as a performer—tumbling, spade dancing, break-away ladder, acrobat, wirewalker, juggler, and some work with animals.

In 1890, in Guelph, Ontario, he met and married Christena Hewer, who entered the circus world as Millie La Tena.  At some point before 1910, for some reason, they moved to Medina, where they spent the rest of their lives.  However, they were still circus folks. 

From 1911 to 1913, Downie was partners with A. F. Wheeler as Downie and Wheeler’s Circus.  In 1914, he formed his own circus, named after this wife, La Tena Wild Animal Circus, which started as a ten car railroad circus, increased to 15 cars, and folded in Havre de Grace, MD, in 1917.  He then leased the Main Circus name from Walter L. Main, and rolled up a fortune, selling out in 1924 to Miller Bros. for their famous 101 Ranch Wild West Show.  In 1926, he was back with the motorized Downie Bros. Circus.  He retired in 1930 and Charles Sparks took over the title.  The Downie Bros. Circus continued until 1994.

One person who knew him described Downie as “a very loveable person, who certainly made a name for himself in the show business, and remained very active even up to the time of his death, at the age of 67 years.”  Andrew Downie McPhee died on December 17, 1930, and Christena died on April 13, 1933.  They are both buried in Medina’s Boxwood Cemetery.

What an extra dimension the World Wide Web opened to Orleans County history.  Now I must Google the other fascinating tidbits I have stored away over the years.

take a bite out of history—On the third Wednesday of every month, at the Swan Library, I give a 30-minute local history talk.  The title of the series invites people to bring their lunch during their lunch hour.  Coffee, drinks, and snacks are provided.

My topic last month was “George Pullman—the Man, the Car, and the Church.”  Well, I tried very hard to cram all the details into half an hour, but I got only as far as Pullman the young man—his first business of cabinetmaking, his second business of moving buildings, and his third business of making railroad sleeping cars.

Therefore, this month, on Wednesday, September 17, at 12:15 I will continue the story with his departure for Colorado to make more money with more businesses in the gold fields near Denver.  I hope that we will get as far as the success of the Palace sleeping car and the Pullman Strike of 1894.

Cemetery Tours—Every year Orleans County Historian C. W. Lattin and I conduct six free monthly cemetery tours.  There are only two more left, both at Mount Albion at 2:00 on the third Sunday of the month.  We do not have a set Mount Albion tour, but our range all over the cemetery, talking about old favorites and newly discovered treasures.  The two remaining tours at Mt. Albion will be on Sunday, September 21 and Sunday, October 19.

Next week:  Back to the William Hart farm.