Monday, March 6, 2017

Mighty Haag Circus

This week we're on to Louisiana's Mighty Haag Circus. Founded by Ernest Haag (1866 - 1935) Mighty Haag ran for an impressive 43 years before shuttering in 1938. Haag started on his path to the circus after running away from home on a boxcar at the age of 12 in 1878, Riding the train all the way from his home in Indiana to Philadelphia and then to New York, Haag made money as a shoe shine boy and by selling newspapers before joining up with the Robinson Two-Car Show as a member of the band.

After leaving the Robinson show, Haag continued as an entrepreneur selling juice at local events with a "spend a nickel get a prize "gimmick that successfully drew people in. Haag continued the juice business off and on, running a failed minstrel show in between until he finally decided to try his hand once more at the circus, purchasing a small tent for $20 and using it for a sideshow act. Haag next purchased a flat boat he'd spotted tied up on the Red River for another $20 recruiting a juggler and a minstrel show performer. This piecemeal acquisition became Haag's standard business model. Start a show, spot something useful on the river or the road, buy it and add it to the show. When Haag went from river to wagon show with a single second hand farm cart and one team of horses, he took the show all the way from Louisiana to Kansas, buying wagons and show pieces along the way.

By 1909 the newly dubbed "Mighty Haag Circus" was on rails, starting its run that first season with 10 cars and ending with 18. The show ran throughout the golden age of the rail circus until 1914 when it returned to wagons and then progressively became a modern truck show starting in 1918. The show became well known for its unique acts including the somersaulting elephant, "Major," a group of blue faced monkeys capable of "remarkable acts of intelligence," and M. Di'Faulham, an early daredevil pilot. Haag also leased (after a failed bid to purchase) the German "orchestrainia," an instrument who's description and design have since been lost to history.

Haag himself was loved by his employees, some going as far as to name their children after him (Harry Haag James, son of bandleader Everett James and aerialist Maybelle James and a famous big band musician in his own right). He was also a well known member of the community in Shreveport where the show's first winter headquarters was located, owning a sizable amount of real estate and acting as director of the city's largest bank for 18 years. After Haag's death from heart failure in 1935, the show carried on for another three years before closing in 1938. Many of the circus performers who received their start with Mighty Haag, as well as many of Haag's descendents went on to other large circuses including Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey. Haag himself in fondly remembered in his adopted home of Shreveport, most recently a performance in his honor being held on behalf of the local museum of art in 2014 at Pinewold Manor, the location of the original winter quarters.