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In April 1909, "the Smith Greater Shows" came to Johnson City

Bob Cox • Jan 15, 2018 at 12:00 PM

What were you doing on early April, 12, 1909? If you were alive and so inclined to do so, you could have attended "The Smith Greater Shows."

I recently came across an advertisement for the entertainment venue, which was en route to Johnson City and would arrive the following Monday and remain for a solid week, giving what was described as the greatest attractions ever seen in the city. It must have really been good to make that statement.

The "The Smith Greater Shows" that were to appear in Johnson City at the Baseball Park (Soldiers' Home?) are under the United Confederate Veterans who enjoyed the reputation of being the largest, the best and the most meritorious organizations of its kind now before the public.

This company traveled in its own private train, carried its own electric lights and power plant and exhibited in the largest cities in the country. From Johnson City, they went to Knoxville where they made their second annual appearance in that city under the patronage of the Police Relief Association.

The Savannah Press on January 20 spoke of this company saying in part: "What impresses one most about this traveling show is the absolute lack of questionable features; everything was said to be in tip-top order."

My research of this traveling group yielded sad news that permeated throughout the carnival world in that year with the announcement in Billboard Magazine of the death of Chris Smith. With his father, the late Pop Smith and his brother, Ed Smith, Chris was one of the co-founders of the original "Smith Greater Shows," one of the leading early day carnivals.

Wilbur C. Cherry, was general agent of the shows for 12 years and Lee Vandiver had charge of practically all concessions.

"The Smith Greater Shows" were the first organized carnival to play the North Carolina State Fair in Raleigh and among many of their other firsts was a Shrine Celebration around historical Bienville Square in Mobile, Alabama. The Smith family at one time were ride operators and concessioners at Exposition Park, Conneaut, Lake, Pa.

It was while they were there that Ed Smith invented the first jumping horses for Merry-Go-Rounds, while Chris pioneered one of the first wild animal shows to travel with a carnival. They were on the leading edge of such shows.

Although he had been living in retirement here since leaving the road six years ago in 1943, Chris Smith still evinced a lively interest in all phases of outdoor amusement business and made it a point to visit nearly every show to play this territory. He was quick to make improvements to stay ahead of the competition.

Always known for his ability to split the infinitive, his interesting tales of early-day happenings were a source of amusement to his old friends with whom he conducted a voluminous correspondence until his death at the age of 70.

An examination of my 700-plus articles reveals many such shows that visited Johnson City and surrounding area. One favorite spot was at Walnut Street below Love Street (the latter site being totally demolished to make space for East Tennessee State University and other student housing).

Other carnival/circus sites were off East Main Street near Broadway. The one that most of us can recall was the rental property that was between East and West Main streets, north of Memorial Stadium and adjacent to the main Fire Hall to the west. I have many fond memories of attending shows at these locations.

And no, I did not attend the "The Smith Greater Shows." Like you, I can only read about them. Take time to examine the information in today’s photo. It is most interesting.

Reach Bob Cox at boblcox@bcyesteryear.com or go to www.bcyesteryear.com.

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