Sunday, February 12, 2017

The Day Swede Came To Town

Anyone who pays attention to my Facebook page knows I'm a history buff, especially when it comes to my hometown of Chillicothe, Ohio. I love picking out details from old photographs, using them as a springboard for research to find out more of the history behind those photographs.

The first two photos here are from an album Chip Daniels posted on Facebook a few years back of photos taken by his father, a photographer for Mead Paper. They were identified simply as "Paint St. Carnival, Early '60s." There was an air of mystery about the photos among some of the commenters on the post, who only remembered circuses and carnivals being held in Yoctangee Park, either on the site of the current city pool, or the parking lot next to the baseball diamond where carnivals are still held today. Nobody could remember one right on one of the main downtown streets, yet here was photographic proof.

Capt. Carl "Swede" Johnson in his "steel arena" on Chillicothe's N. Paint St., 1964.
One detail stood out originally, the name "Swede Johnson" painted on the side of the trailer by the animal cages. Some research on the Internet turned up the name of Carl "Swede" Johnson, who was an animal trainer for the soon-to-be-defunct Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus and various other circuses over 55 years. He was also a circus clown, a member of the Clown Hall Of Fame, in fact. As a trainer he was known for his humane techniques which involved no whips, pistols, or other scare tactics. After retirement, he lived in Punta Gorda, FL, until his death in the early 1970s. The research turned up a couple of the black and white photos shown here.
Recently, Chip reposted his dad's photos, and I decided to see if I could dig up more information about how Swede Johnson's animal act ended up Chillicothe, Ohio, in the early '60s. I came across another photo of Johnson that I hadn't previously seen, in the Florida State University archive. The photo, dated July 3, 1959, shows Johnson guiding a lion on a "high wire" in his act at the Paul A. Miller Circus. Another clue! So I Googled the name. There's not a whole lot about these small-time circuses online, but I got several hits, including one for an appearance by the Miller Circus at Ridgeview Shopping Center, in Lorain County, Ohio, not far from Cleveland in 1960.
Courtesy of the Harrison Sayre Circus Collection, Florida State University.
It turns out that the Miller Circus toured the Midwest in the 1960s, usually promoting shopping centers by appearing in their parking lots. The Ridgeview stop was one such promotion. The poster, shown below, lists among the featured performers "Capt. 'Hunky' Johnson and Capt. 'Swede' Johnson and Lions performing in outdoor steel arena." The poster also mentions "kiddie rides," some of which appear in other photos of the Chillicothe stop.
Ad for the Paul A. Miller Circus appearance at Ridgeview Shopping Center, from the Lorain (OH) Journal, 1960.
Courtesy of "Brady's Lorain County Nostalgia."
I'm now fairly certain that it's the Paul A. Miller Circus that visited Chillicothe, Ohio in the early '60s...but when? This time around, another "blink and you'll miss it" detail caught my eye. In the photos from Chip's collection, Johnson's "steel arena" is set up directly in front of the Warner Hotel building which still stands in downtown Chillicothe (the hotel itself closed in 1963). Visible on the awning of the hotel building is a banner which reads "Ross County Democratic Headquarters." Those signs only pop up in election years. In the 1960s there were three -- 1960, 1964, and 1968.

Daniels told me that his father left Mead Paper in 1966, and agreed with me that 1963/1964 seems the most likely time period for these photos (he also remembers going to a speech in town by Sen. Barry Goldwater, who lost to Lyndon B. Johnson -- no relation to Hunky or Swede, I would imagine -- in that year's election). He says 1960 would be too early -- he was only 3, too young, he feels to remember the circus as much as he does.

Unidentified circus act, N. Paint St. Chillicothe, 1964.
In a 1960 "Billboard" article about the Miller Circus that mentions the Ridgeview Shopping Center appearance, it is stated that Miller had two units touring, each with 12 rides, concessions and the circus, presented on a stage with a "big top style background." One unit, then in its fourth season, was "tied in with a shopping center promotion under the name of 'Easy Living,' sponsored by Red Book magazine." It's a bit of a mystery why the Miller Circus would have appeared in downtown Chillicothe in 1963 or 1964 when it was mainly presented in shopping malls. At the time, Chillicothe had one shopping mall, Central Center, which opened in 1956. A second mall, Zane Plaza, opened in 1964, and would presumably have been under construction when the circus came to town.
The Paul A. Miller Circus also included various "kiddie rides."
Downtown Chillicothe's status as the town's commerce center had not yet been usurped by the malls, although by 1968 there was an attempt to lure shoppers back by turning this very stretch of N. Paint St. into a "pedestrian mall" with flower beds, playground equipment and fountains. The experiment was short-lived. Curiously, the pedestrian mall was considered little more than a nuisance among motorists and the very business owners the "Paint St. Mall" was supposed to benefit. But that event was still several years in the future, with the Miller Circus being an even more temporary downtown "disruption," much like today's annual Feast Of The Flowering Moon.
Chances are we are unlikely to see a spectacle quite like this on the streets of Chillicothe again. Swede Johnson's long time employer Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus will soon end its 146-year reign as "The Greatest Show On Earth," while smaller circuses have long been falling out of favor with animal rights activists.

A few more notes on Carl "Swede" Johnson: He was born in Denmark in 1903. Shortly after arriving in the United States, he took the first job he could find -- as a rodeo clown. He then became a circus clown, performing as a clown with various shows, while also developing his animal training skills. Besides his affiliation with the Ringling Bros. and Paul Miller Circuses, he also was connected with Bradley & Benson Circus & Rodeo, C.R. Montgomery Circus, Elks Circus, Shrine Circus, Biller Brothers, Rogers Brothers, and Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus. Johnson retired to Punta Gorda, Florida, where he died Mar. 3, 1977. He is buried at Indian Spring Cemetery in Punta Gorda.

(BLOGGER'S NOTE: This article was originally a Facebook post on my own page, fleshed out from comments I made on Chip's post on "You Know You're From Chillicothe, Ohio When..." following my research into Swede Johnson. Many thanks go to the online archive of FSU, Brady's Lorain County Nostalgia, Clown Hall Of Fame,, and of course, Chip Daniels)

Carl "Swede" Johnson, animal trainer. (Courtesy of
Carl "Swede" Johnson, Clown Hall Of Fame member, 1903-1977.
(Courtesy of

No comments:

Post a Comment