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Kacie Cooper has been trying to fill in the gaps of what she has learned about her grandmother’s life with the circus. Working from memories of her grandmother’s tales, Kacie acknowledges exercising a little “literary license” in fashioning this account; but her grandmother did join a well-known circus as a young girl, and learned to train animals and walk a tightrope. Shared Stories is a weekly column featuring articles by participants in a writing class at the Norwalk Senior Center. Bonnie Mansell is the instructor for this free class offered through the Cerritos College Adult Education Program. Curated by Carol Kearns
My paternal grandmother Gracie was born in November of 1896, and these are some of the things I remember her telling me.
Gracie’s mother had married several times, but Gracie said that the last stepfather was physically very demonstrative with her. This is what prompted her to run away from home. I wonder what kind of life she would have lived if she had not made this choice.
Gracie went to the sheriff’s office and brought him back to her house. While the sheriff held on to her stepdad, Gracie went back into her bedroom, got her belongings, and then kissed her mother goodbye and left. This was in 1912 and she wasn’t quite sixteen years old at that time.
What the future held for her was uncertain, but Gracie felt relieved to have escaped from her mother’s husband. At that time there just happened to be in town a circus by the name of Sells/Floto, which was owned by Barnum and Bailey.
The gigantic big tent intrigued her. She had been traveling a few miles without knowing where she was headed; so she decided to investigate.
Gracie hid under the bleachers and watched the different acts perform. Suddenly there was a one-legged man with crutches in one hand and a furry little creature dangling from the other. Then another man was cussing him out and demanding to know what he had done.
“What the heck you got in your hand?” demanded the older man who appeared to be the leader of the show.
“This little critter has no mama now,” explained the one-legged man. “I had to shoot her because she was coming after me. And, Daddy, you know what happens when a mama bear goes after a one-legged man. So don’t tell me anything about why I shouldn’t have shot her. You know who is responsible for me having only one leg. Don’t you, Daddy?”
The father was about to have his son shoot the cub when my Grandma Gracie jumped out and volunteered to take care of the cub in return for letting her join the circus. The owner agreed, but had one stipulation: she would have to marry his (one-legged) son since the law did not allow single women to travel with the circus. I don’t know if the part about having to be married was true. I often think that the owner of the circus grabbed the opportunity to get his no-good son a wife.
Shortly after she agreed to this arrangement, another worker walked in carrying the brother to the first bear cub. That night my grandmother married the mama-bear-shooting jerk and entered the world of circuses.
Gracie spent that night bottle-feeding two bear cubs, one that she would call Maggie and one that she would name Jiggs. She always referred to the two cubs as being so much more loveable that the man she married that night.
My grandmother was four foot, eleven. I remember her saying that we were somehow related to Tom Thumb, a little person who was quite well known in the circus at that time.
Gracie was taught to walk the tightrope, hang from her teeth, and also hang from her hair. She trained dogs to walk the tightrope, and she had her own boa constrictor and elephant.
She was the sole trainer for the two black bear cubs, and eventually, as with the dogs, she trained them to walk the tightrope while the little dogs ran in between their legs.
I guess Gracie finally warmed up to this husband of hers and became pregnant. But one day she found her husband fooling around with another woman. This is the part that she never explained to me in detail.
Upon finding the two together, my pregnant grandmother immediately walked to the steps leading up to the tightrope and began walking the rope to the other side. She said it was the “Indian grass that cushioned the fall,” saved her life, but killed her unborn baby. I don’t know if her action was deliberate or if she was not thinking because of a broken heart. I never got the answer to this question.
One time Gracie went on ahead of the train and transported her bears, which were full-grown by now, by truck. She got a flat tire, and the bears, which were in cages, fell off the flatbed truck. The bears scampered off when the cages fell open.
Gracie passed out when she put her hand under the tire to find out why it had gone flat. She had a scar on her hand from this and I once asked about it. When she came to, she could hear the coyotes yelping. All she could do was sit on a tree stump and wait for Maggie and Jiggs to return. When they finally came back, Gracie said that they were shaking like babies who had just seen the Boogieman.
Gracie worked with the circus for twelve years, from 1912 to 1924, and somewhere along the way she left from that no-good first husband. She gave up circus life when she met my grandfather Edgar, who was a railroad engineer. My grandfather was a real sweetheart who reminded me of Gary Cooper. They had two sons.
These are the only memories I have about Grandma Gracie’s life, but with the help of a little imagination, I hope to put her story into a novel. I want my daughters, sons, grandchildren, nieces, and nephews to know what a brave woman they have as an ancestor.
Gracie was a woman before her time. She had to make choices that were not easy, but she did it. I would hope that Gracie would be an inspiration to all who might read her story.
Published: May 15, 2014 – Volume 13 – Issue 05