In 1904, Gov. Bob Taylor Made a Memorable Visit to the John Robinson Circus in Elizabethton

Governor “Our Bob” Taylor often commented about the John Robinson Circus that he occasionally visited. It was the first one that he ever witnessed, never forgetting the lingering memories of it. Bob speculated that he would always remain young as long as this circus would fill his memories of those special days long passed by. He was convinced that it was the best tonic old men could ingest.

An Early John Robinson Circus Parade As It Passes Model Mill on W. Walnut Street

In 1904 when Taylor was a young lad, the Robinson Circus came to town. His family lived in the Watauga Valley then and the great posters of that day created excitement when it announced its exhibition at Elizabethton. The heart of every mountain youngster beat high with eager anticipation. The circus date was more firmly embedded in the minds of area youth than that of the Declaration of Independence.

Wise old farmers seized the opportunity to receive double chores from his family with the promise of taking them to the circus. Bob's heart tingled for that special sensation again. He obtained faint symptoms of it in his aging years when a band blared out its melodies and painted clowns performed their funny magic before crowds of spectators.

“I remember one time,” Bob said, “we had the circus with us at Elizabethton. It was the first show I had been to and I was one of the gladdest lads there. The performances that day were all under one tent and the acts occurred one at a time in a single ring, not three that came later.

“An elephant would occasionally became unruly, drawing attention from the crowd. I later suspected that the circus somehow made the big pachyderm that way in order to draw attention from the thrill-seeking crowd.”

Bob explained that during the performance, word spread that an elephant had been given a “chaw terbacker” (chew of tobacco). To local mountaineers, this fabrication meant the highly-exaggerated destruction of the entire population surrounding the event. 

Shortly, the elephant was pacified and to save the legend from obscurity, a report circulated that it was not a “chaw terbacker” after all. The elephant had instead gnawed on a chinquapin (ching-K-pin) burr, a spiny nut fruit that grows in higher elevations. The reassured crowd soon meandered back to the big tent with confidence restored.

Bob noted that when he acquired enough courage to enter the exhibition area, he encountered a situation that took him all day from which to recover. It was the custom of circuses in those days to tie an elephant to a stake just inside the entrance as an mesmerizing publicity stunt.

About that time, young Bob spotted a big strapping fellow slip in under the influence of strong drink. His pants legs had been stuffed into his boots and he had just enough mountain dew in him to banish any hint of fear.

As the lad staggered past the big pachyderm, he bumped into it and lost his balance. When he got back on his feet, he wrongly surmised that the big critter had something to do with his fall. He greatly resented it and stood there a few seconds looking at the beast with a hint of revenge permeating his thoughts.

Almost immediately, word began to spread that the five-toed mammal had purposely knocked him down by his trunk. The drunk stood angrily before the creature and disgustedly uttered the words: “Lookey here you two-tailed scoundrel, if I jest knowed which end of your head contained your brain, I'd kick it out of you.”

Fortunately without further ado, the imbibed man sensibly meandered off without further incidence. Later in life, Bob would say that this amusing incident still resided firmly in his memory.

I wish to thank Alf and Martha Gene Taylor for sharing this story with me from a treasured family scrapbook.