Many of you are likely headed to the McCracken County Fair tonight to witness the Weiner Dog Races, which sounds fairly amusing, but in taking a look back at the line up from the 1903 McCracken County Fair, we’ve found an animal attraction on a slightly larger scale.
Beyond the harness races (which the fair still features today), the attractions from over a hundred years ago included a wide variety of circus-like acts:
An eccentric acrobat (awesome!)
Trick mule and clowns (incredible!)
A bagpipe band (stupendous!)
A monkey walking a rope (phenomenal!)
Captain Sigbee’s famed mathematical horse, Princess Trixy (mind blowing!)
But the true headliners of the 1903 McCracken County Fair must have been W.H. Barnes’ Famous Diving Elks.
We’re not talking about members of the local Elks Club here; we’re talking about the actual animal—burly and antlered and four-legged.
Their trainer, W.H. Barnes of Sioux City, Iowa, began displaying his gifted ruminants at fairs before the turn of the 20th century, but his teaching of the animals had started many years before that. The idea came after observing elk naturally, and without seeming concern on their parts, jumping over or from any obstacle in their way. He built a slight incline which he trained the animals to ascend and then to leap from. Their first jumps were a mere five feet high, but with Barnews raising the incline incrementally, the elks reached twenty feet before the end of their first winter—a height which began to garner the troupe some recognition, though only half the height they’d ultimately achieve. By the time they reached the McCracken County Fair in 1903, the elks were jumping from a forty foot tower into a tank sixteen feet across and only six foot deep.
By today’s laws and standards, the training of elks (or any other animal) to jump off of high platforms into a tank of water sounds ghastly, if not cruel, so please keep in mind that we in the Local and Family History Department do not condone or revel in the practice. But it’s hard not recognize that 101 years ago the citizens of McCracken County must have marveled at the sight of a 500 pound beast swan-diving into a shallow pool.
Mr. Barnes himself was a little astonished at their success, having said, “I did not realize what a sensation the elks would create, as I have put in so much time training them and raising the elevation foot by foot that I have become, like the elks, used to it. But I have since been told thousands of times that it is one of the most wonderful feats ever accomplished with animals.”
The elks had no comment.
For more about questionable animal stunts, visit us in the Local and Family History Department at the McCracken County Public Library.