Historical Markers
Circus History Historical Marker
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Circus History

Lake Erie Region


Marker Location:
U.S. 20 at the Diamond in Girard

Dedication Date:
August 21, 1974

Behind the Marker

Dan Rice  Albumen silver print, Mathew Brady Studio
Dan Rice, circa 1873.
Without Dan Rice, there'd be no Will Rogers, no Mort Sahl, no Mark Russell, no Dennis Miller, no Howard Stern, no Bill Maher, no John Stewart and The Daily Show, and no "Weekend Update" on Saturday Night Live. For as surely as Rice's favorite costume of patriotically striped trousers, a star-spangled coat, top hat and a beard that would do a billy goat proud, helped form the image of the nation's "Uncle Sam," his wise-cracking political commentary and cracker-barrel philosophizing laid the foundation for every tart-tongued, quick-witted political satirist who's followed.

If Rice, perhaps the best-known American of the mid-1800s who neither led an army nor lived in the White House, is recalled as barely a footnote today, his vibrant legacy continues to surround us. Which is quite a claim for a man whose primary job description was "clown."

The son of a grocer, Rice was born Daniel McLaren, in lower Manhattan, on January 25, 1823, but didn't stick around long. He ran away before he was ten - ultimately to join the circus, though he made a few stops along the way, most importantly in Pittsburgh, where while working as a stable boy he discovered his affinity for performance and training animals.

Cirus poster of the trained horse, standing on his hind legs, in the ring. Smaller images of his stunt capabilities encirle the canvas.
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Circus Poster, "The Wonderfully and Beautifully Trained Horse Excelsior...
Rice, as he became known, had a knack for training horses and performing tricks with them, a pair of skills that ultimately served him well; as would his ingenuity and daring. When Rice saw opportunity, he seized it, and in 1841, it presented itself in the form of a performing pig named Sybil, whom he later renamed Lord Byron in the hope that it would make his act sound higher class than it really was.

Performing animals were quite popular at the time, particularly among the less fashionable and educated classes. Rice pictured Lord Byron as a step toward fame and fortune, and even though the pig headlined their traveling act, Rice's accompanying song-and-dance routine garnered enough applause that when Lord Byron died, Rice's desire to perform did not. He soon joined a Philadelphia circus as a strongman, and then joined a circus owned by his friend and occasional rival, Gilbert “Doc” Spalding.

In 1844 Rice entered the ring for the first time - in Galena, Illinois - as a clown. To be sure, there had been American clowns before, but none quite like Dan Rice. He crammed his routine with animal acts - including an elephant on a tightrope - equestrian derring-do, feats of strength, wire-walking, songs (often self-composed riffs on current events), dances, topical orations, and lots of quick-witted and easy banter with his audiences.

Home of Dan Rice, Girard, Pennsylvania.
"Home of Dan Rice," Girard, PA., circa 1870.
The crowds loved him. He was funny and he was provocative, and he grew into such an attraction that by the late 1840s he had established his own traveling one-ring circus, Dan Rice's Great Show. Circuses in the nineteenth century had broad appeal, and Rice’s was no exception to the rule.  Even politicians he lampooned came to his shows, including President Zachary Taylor.

In 1853, Rice established a permanent home for himself and his circus in Girard, Pennsylvania, a transportation hub not far from Erie. The main road east-west road through northwestern Pennsylvania ran through the heart of town. More importantly,  a canal connected Girard to Lake Erie. For a while, Rice even had his own steamboat, which carried his circus to towns along the shores of the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River. Later, the newly completed Erie railroad connected Girard to other railroads that could carry his circus to towns and cities across the eastern United States..
Dan Rice in a striped Uncle Sam suit.
Dan Rice, "The Original Humorist," as he appeared in his "Great...

Rice quickly became one of Girard’s leading citizens and also its most controversial one; and not just because of his extravagant lifestyle.  In 1860 Rice divorced his first wife. A year later he married the daughter of one of the town’s most well-to-do families just after she turned eighteen, the same age as his daughter, Libby.  Despite this and other controversies, Girard remained his permanent address until 1875. 

Horrible as the Civil War was, it made superb fodder for Rice's marker comic parodies, tart observations, and his ability to connect with crowds. Labeling himself "The Great American Humorist," he regularly addressed large assemblies, and his political bite and acid-tongued commentaries - in costume in the circus ring or in mufti on the soapbox - made him the nation's first entertainment superstar. It also whetted his appetite for elective office.  A northern, pro-Union Democrat with southern sympathies, Rice was a harsh critic of President Abraham Lincoln and used his celebrity to mount an unsuccessful run as an independent for the Pennsylvania state senate in 1864. Two years later the Democratic party courted Rice to run for Congress, but he declined the offer. In 1867, Rice made a run for the White House, actively seeking the 1868 Democratic presidential nomination. Despite strong early support, his candidacy soon floundered.

Then Rice's star fell - quickly. Part of the fall can certainly be blamed on the missed performances ascribed to his now heavy drinking, but as America changed in the decade after the Civil War, so did its tastes. As entertainment, the circus fell in esteem, and Rice's brash participatory style of humor, loud and interactive, took on an air of crude tastelessness fine for the lower classes, but no longer acceptable to those aspiring towards a more refined culture and higher rungs on the social ladder.  Rice attempted to change with the times, but failed to do so.

Rice made one final, uneventful circus tour in 1891, then broke and broken, was taken in by relatives in Long Branch, New Jersey. There he died, essentially forgotten, on Feb. 22, 1900. Today, Girard holds an annual two-day celebration in his honor.
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