A Trip to the Circus: The Elephant Hotel

As a kid, I could sing you the entire jingle for the Big Apple Circus.  I was obsessed with seeing the magic of the circus, like many kids.  Little did I know, I lived just forty minutes away from the root of all that magic.  In Somers, New York, lay a story that deserved to be uncovered: how the circus began and the role the Elephant Hotel played in it all.

Our story begins with Hachaliah Bailey—yes, that is the Bailey of the soon to be famous Bailey and Barnum Circus.  Bailey ordered an exotic elephant, whether to be a farm animal or a showpiece is unknown.  He named her Old Bet, in honor of his daughter and soon discovered that people wanted to see an elephant—it was something beyond their wildest dreams.  And so, the traveling menagerie business was born right in Somers, New York.

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An advertisement to attract people to see the exotic animals.  The animals look different than in reality, as the artists had never seen these animals before, according to Historian Grace Zimmerman.

The business continued to flourish here.  Individuals in the area became involved, creating businesses that spun off of the traveling menagerie, as people continued to visit to see the exotic animals.  You may be wondering though—how does this building fit into any of this?  Well, because Bailey was a smart man.  He understood that the traveling menagerie was a business beyond just animals.  The Elephant Hotel was, shocker of the year, a hotel.

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During the winter, the traveling menageries made their headquarters in the south but in the summer, Somers was home.  People travelled all over to visit the cradle of the circus and see the exotic animals—they needed somewhere to stay and the Elephant Hotel filled that role.  But this hotel was no ordinary hotel.

In 1835, the men of the traveling menageries formed a company together called the Zoological Institute.  This organization wanted to provide people with education on exotic animals—it only lasted three years, but it set the foundation for what zoos would eventually become.

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A booklet from the Zoological Institute on education about exotic animals

At some point in its history, the building also housed a bank that was largely used by the men of the traveling menageries.

Today, the Elephant Hotel is the Somers Town Hall and stands as a National Historic Landmark.  In this building, magic was made.  Every child who ever fell in love with the circus owes to it to the man who left this hotel as his legacy.  As I left the Elephant Hotel, I looked as I watched cars whizzing by the hotel and I wondered—do they know how important this building was?  Do they know it’s story?  Because it is one that desires to be uncovered by all.

 

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A representation of what the early circus was like

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Another booklet from the Zoological Institute dedicated to education about animals

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The statue of Old Bet that stands outside the hotel.

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