Skip to main content

Marginalia, Magical …

July 2024
2min read

“Explosion in the Magic Valley,” our picture story in the April/May 1981 issue, brought forth two unusual items in response. The story had to do with the birth of Twin Falls, Idaho, as an adjunct to a private irrigation project in 1905 and featured the pictures of the pioneer photographer Clarence Bisbee.

The first reaction came from Tom Parkinson, president of the Circus Historical Society in Savoy, Illinois: “In regard to the photograph on pages 34–35 depicting a ‘1904’ circus parade, the correct date was 1909. The posters on the wall behind the elephants might lead one to believe that this was the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus. Wrong. It was the Sells Floto Circus, which came to Twin Falls on July 3, 1909; Hagenbeck-Wallace, which did come to Twin Falls on July 23 of that year, had more elephants than those shown in the photograph.

“Sells Floto was owned by the operators of the Denver Post , Harry Tammen and Fred Bonfils, who ran their circus the same boisterous way they handled their brand of journalism. From Twin Falls, the show’s route took it into the big cities of the East for the first time, where it was met with poster wars by such well-established circuses as John Robinson, Hagenbeck-Wallace, the Gentry Bros., Barnum & Bailey, and Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. But perhaps the best fight was in court. Tammen and Bonfils had begun their operation with something called the Floto Dog and Pony Show. To make it sound bigger, they hired Willie Sells, adopted son of one of the founders of the Sells Bros. Circus. Ringling Bros, owned that old show name and sued when Sells Floto not only used the name but posters showing the likenesses of the original Sells brothers. But they sued in Denver, and while the federal court there prohibited the use of the posters, it allowed Bonfils and Tammen to keep the name.

“They had less trouble with the other half of their show name. Otto Floto was sports editor of the Denver Post . His employers were so entranced with his name that they borrowed it for their circus. Later, Floto would bring his protégé, Jack Dempsey, into the show as a feature.”

Paul Ward, of Hollywood, California, provided us with a similarly informed comment on another of the pictures: “The photograph on pages 36-37 shows two of the ‘new electric cars of the Twin Falls Railway,’ sitting outside the light and power building. The cars were electric, all right, but were not the kind that used trolley poles and overhead wires. They were storage battery cars that were designed to be used on a suburban line out of Twin Falls. The line lasted from 1913 to 1918. Such cars were intended as selfpropelled, inexpensive vehicles that could be used by city and interurban railways that planned eventually to string wire overhead and truly electrify. They came into use around 1897 with an Edison-designed storage battery. But they were slow, and the smallest amount of ice on the rails stopped them. The ones in the photograph are four-wheel cars of very light construction, good for a distance of about thirty miles at speeds of up to thirty or thirty-five miles per hour. Then they had to be recharged, or the batteries transferred at a battery station along the line. Very cumbersome, altogether. While some battery cars lasted into the early 1930’s on a couple of crosstown New York City lines, they were an unsuccessful experiment.”

Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.