A circus was the hottest ticket in Cincinnati in 1905, but this was no ordinary big-top extravaganza. The Riding Club of Cincinnati, comprising the very cream of Queen City society, staged a one-ring performance every other year and the stars of this exclusive entertainment were, in fact, the scions of the city’s most established families.
The opportunity to witness various Tafts, Probascos, Hulberts, Graydons, Burtons, Schmiddlapps, and other social-register luminaries demonstrating their skill in trick riding and clowning could probably have generated immeasurable ticket sales. This was, however, an occasion organized by the smart set for its own amusement, so each Riding Club member was issued three, and only three, tickets to distribute to friends and family. The audience never topped 500. Thankfully, the newspapers were invited and so we have a record of the evening’s various acts. And, according to the record, Cincinnati’s upper crust acquitted themselves admirably in the tanbark ring.
The 1905 circus was organized by real estate magnate John Van Buren Scarborough, president of the Riding Club. The performers, mostly younger members of the social set, were trained by the club’s riding master, Leon De Gisbert, and his assistant, Frederick “Fritz” Schaurer.
Ringmaster W.H. “Buck” Harrison narrated the opening parade including, he claimed, “a magnificent menagerie of carnivora, herbivora, omnivora, exotics, epizootics, neurotics, microbes, molecules and germs.” The pageant was led by drum major Murdock Burton, who later went on to Harvard University and the presidency of several Cincinnati companies. In addition to horses, donkeys, dogs and clowns, the procession included two floats occupied by older members of the club costumed as historic figures.
Since it was organized by the Riding Club, it is not surprising that most of the acts featured in the 1905 circus involved equestrian skill—riding bareback, prancing in formation, various jumping routines—but the membership also demonstrated their capabilities in gymnastics, dog training and, notably, clowning.
Even in 1905, with the automobile encroaching ever more ominously onto the city’s streets, the Riding Club’s greasepaint skits were largely directed at mocking mechanical transportation. According to the Cincinnati Enquirer [26 March 1905]:
“The modern way of traveling was illustrated by the clowns’ trouble with the automobile, which finally exploded and was carried from the ring in baskets as kindling wood.”
This anti-automotive theme was a position of long standing among the Riding Club. Two years previously, several members announced, according to the Cincinnati Post [31 October 1903] that they were dissatisfied with the city’s streetcar service. They recommended abandoning electric streetcars in favor of horse-drawn omnibuses.
“A circular letter has been sent out by the entertainment committee, consisting of Messrs. Scarborough, Holland, Burkhardt and Laws, which proposes to start omnibus lines for the accommodation of members of the club and their families. At first this is to be used for the musical rides this winter, but it may be extended later to every-day service. It is proposed to run the lines between Walnut Hills, Clifton, Avondale and Vernonville.”
That proposed omnibus route indicates the neighborhoods in which the Riding Club members mostly resided. Originally organized at Music Hall in 1890, the Riding Club moved out to the hilltop suburbs not long after and constructed a bridle path running from Reading Road in Avondale along Victory Parkway (then still known as Bloody Run) to Walnut Hills.
The headquarters of the Riding Club was located on Reading Road at Asmann Avenue, on property later traded to the Ohio National Guard for its armory. Ranny Matthews recalled that old building for the Cincinnati Post [7 May 1945]:
“It was always murky and cold in the Ohio Guard ring. Our mothers shivered. The horses steamed. And red-nosed, black-habited Fritz, the assistant riding master, had a perpetual cold.”
Despite his ongoing battle with rhinoviruses, Fritz Schaurer saw his role as preparing the upcoming generation for leadership. He told the Cincinnati Commercial Tribune [24 June 1923] that learning to ride was an important component of learning to lead:
“A horse is not the least bit deceived about the rider on his back. That horse knows exactly whether the rider is master or not of himself, and therefore, of the animal.”
Interestingly, since most of the Riding Club trainees were young women, they were, perhaps unintentionally, instructed in how to manage men. This side effect came out when the young ladies of the Riding Club held a leap-year ride in 1904. Since they were trained in horsemanship, and their beaux were generally not, it presented an amusing turnabout for the Cincinnati Post [6 February 1904]:
“There will be beauteous damsels, until now waited on with assiduous attention, vainly striving to assist 240-pound swains into the saddle. Gracious me! And should one of the spirited equines prance and curvet with its burden of bachelor, a snowy hand must restrain its joyous spirit and care for the safety of the rider—it is so nominated in the bond, and a leap-year party means the ‘Ladies Paramount.’”
Eventually, the city’s wealthier families, and the Riding Club, adjourned to greener pastures in Indian Hill and environs more suitable for fox hunting and horseback riding in general. The old Armory, afflicted with dangerously outdated wiring, burned to the ground in 1954.
The memory of the 1905 circus lived on for decades. Among the highlights of that long-ago event was the Maypole Ride, in which 10 young ladies holding gayly-tinted ribbons galloped at full speed around a maypole planted at the center of a 42-foot ring. The newspapers noted that every last one of the riders would “come out” in the next debutante class and be presented to society in a very different setting indeed.