By CARL E. FEATHER
Ashtabula County was home to several circuses in the latter half of the 19th century, but none of them was as famous as that of Water Main.
Main grew up a farm boy in Geneva but demonstrated an inclination toward showmanship at an early age. He learned the business from Elwood Hamilton, another local circus owner, and Walter's father, William, who started his own show in 1879.
After several years of working with his father and other circus owners, Main stepped out on his own in 1887, clearing $10,000 in his first year of operation. He was only 25.
By 1891, his circus required 10 railroad cars to transport. Two years later, the Walter Main Circus was all but destroyed when his circus train, rounding a curve at Latrobe, Pa., wrecked. Fifty-two people and 90 horses were killed.
Believing the show must go on, Main stayed in Latrobe eight days, during which time he assembled another circus by borrowing and buying from others in the business. He went on to complete his show engagements for the season.
By 1897 Main had built up his circus to a 20-car train. The show went to the Pacific Coast, and the following year, Main included Canada in his tour. Main took his show to the end of the railroad line at Edmonton, Alberta. Five engines and five trains were required to get the show to Edmonton - the trains picked up audience members as they headed north. The tents were packed, despite a heavy snow storm - in June.
Main ended his 1899 season solidly in the black. Deciding it was best to quit while he was ahead, he sold off his circus at Geneva in June 1900. Buyers came from as far away as Europe.
Circus life was in Main's blood, however, and the following year he was back on the road with other shows. He spent 1905 resting at his home in Geneva, and called that year "the softest summer I ever knew in my life."
Main invested $125,000 in Cunninghams' Wild West Show in 1906. He lost his investment when a disgruntled employee set fire to the show, which was camped on Main's property near the railroad tracks at Walter Main Road. Main's trick horses were killed; only his rail cars, elephants and draft horses survived.
He kept his hand in the business by leasing what properties remained and selling his name to other show owners. Main became a familiar figure around Geneva, where he enchanted youngsters with his stories of circus life.
Main died at the age of 88 in 1950 and is buried in Pittsburgh. He and his wife were childless.
Source: Catherine Ellsworth's "Historical Sketches of Ashtabula County"
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