Charles Wood, Circus Man


Levi Knight Fuller Residence, Canal Street, Pine Heights.jpg

Levi K. Fuller Residence, Canal Street, Pine Heights


Charles K. Wood


The Unique and Picturesque Career

Which Came to an End in His Death Last Evening.


Charles K. Wood, the brother of the late Mrs. Jacob Estey, and uncle of Mrs. L. K. Fuller and Gen. J. J. Estey, died at 7 o'clock last evening at his home with ex-Gov. and Mrs. Fuller. His personal characteristics were marked and unusual, and his career had been unique. If its full story could be written it would make a volume of rare interest, and would cover personal reminiscences of some of the most interesting periods in our country's history.


Mr. Wood was born in Centreville June 28, 1820. The house stood near the brook or mill pond, opposite the present sewing machine factory. When asked where he was born Mr. Wood always answered, "On the mill dam in Centreville." His father was David Wood, familiarly known as "Farmer" Wood. There were four children. Beside Mr. Wood, who was the youngest, and Mrs. Estey, there were two daughters, who married and lived away from Brattleboro, and died some 20 or 30 years ago.


Mr. Wood's peculiarity as a lad appears to have been that he liked animals, and especially horses. When a boy no more than 10 or 12 years old he entered the service of Spencer & Kingsley, the old firm of stage drivers. Their route was from Brattleboro to Greenfield, and early in his teens Mr. Wood began driving on the line. From Greenfield he worked south to Springfield and Hartford, and eventually to New York.


When Congress undertook the construction of a national system of highways between Washington and the Mississippi, Mr. Wood drove that route. It was here that he made the acquaintance of many of the prominent men of that day, notably of Henry Clay. He voted for Mr. Clay for president on the strength of this acquaintance, but became pessimistic over the defeat of his candidate and never voted again until he cast his ballot for his nephew, L. K. Fuller, for governor.


It was in the natural course that a man thus constituted and trained should drop into the life of a caravan and circus man, in the days when the horses and the long journeys by carriage and highway were the main features of that business. He was with Van Amburg when the famous show bearing that name was organized, and remained with it until it disbanded, save only for a year or two now and then when some other manager would hire Mr. Wood away, and then Van Amburg would get him back.


He was the trainer and general manager of the show, and had charge of the transportation and laid out the routes. Being a pioneer in the business in this country, and possessing such strong and peculiar aptitude for the business, he became the trainer of all the modern successful circus men, and was, in fact, the father of the circus, as it is seen today.


He was for some time with P. T. Barnum, and was the early instructor of both Hutchinson and Bailey. Frank Hyatt, the manager of the present Barnum circus, and the most successful man in his line now in this country, roomed and slept with Mr. Wood for 19 years. When the Barnum & Bailey and London shows were combined Barnum made it a primary condition that Hyatt, Mr. Wood's pupil, should be the manager.


When the war of the rebellion broke out Mr. Wood was with Van Amburg in the south, and piloted the show across the line into the north. He afterward saw service in the Union army, being for a time in the quartermaster's department at Fortress Monroe. He was one of the survivors of a government transport which was wrecked in a storm off the fort.


During his long period of circus and caravan life, before the degenerate days when those shows began to travel by rail, Mr. Wood became rarely familiar with the whole country, east, west, north and south. He had been in every county east of the Rocky Mountains. In some of the great states like Pennsylvania, Ohio and Illinois he could describe accurately the course of every highway. He had a rare faculty of minute observation, and could, for illustration, in his later years, describe the entire route which a circus would take in traveling by highway from Vermont to Texas. He could recall the junction of every road and tell the location, color, or appearance of farm buildings, trees or other objects.


For a considerable time in middle life his family lost trace of him, because of his habit of living his own peculiar life in his own way. Gen. Estey recalls that in his own boyhood he knew nothing of his uncle until, on a day when the Van Amburg show was billed for Brattleboro, a stranger appeared at the old homestead on Canal street with the abrupt salutation "Hello, is your mother at home?" It was "Uncle Charlie."


Although often urged to give up his wandering life he could never be persuaded to do so until some 15 or 16 years ago, when he promised his niece, Mrs. L. K. Fuller, that, when their new house was built, he would come to live with her and her husband. He kept his promise, rooms just suited to his mind were fitted up for him on the second floor, and here his last years have been spent in comfort and happiness.


During all these years these rooms have been the Mecca of all leading circus men. Every circus which has come to this locality has sent its representatives to see him, the managers have made special journeys to visit him, and during the winters he has always made visits to New York and other cities to visit them. The old circus followers and employees always looked with envy on the life which "Uncle Charlie" was leading in his closing years. "Only to think," they always said, "of following a circus all one's life, and then having a 'paradise' to go to."


A companion of the old days used to relate that he never knew Mr. Wood to swear except on one occasion. The show had started before light for its day's appointment and Mr. Wood had gone ahead to a sharp bend on a high bank above the water to caution the drivers to pass this point carefully. All went well till a man came along with a pair of especially fine horses drawing a cage of lions. In spite of the warning he contrived to dump his load down the bank, killing the horses, but escaping himself. Those who came to the spot found Mr. Wood using the most profuse and emphatic language at his command to curse a stupid blockhead that had killed such a pair of horses "without getting killed himself!"


While not a reticent or uncommunicative man, he rarely told any connected story of his life; but when the mood suited him would burst out with a chapter of entertaining reminiscences.


Not many Brattleboro people have known him intimately, but he had a great fondness for his nephews and nieces, for his great nephews, and especially for Miss Essex, in whose care and thoughtfullness he had special pleasure. He was a striking figure, with his large, compact, well built frame, white beard, and good gray head.


An interesting chapter could be told of his fondness for animals and kindness to them. He was oftenest seen driving one of the governor's horses, or, if he walked, accompanied by a pair of coach dogs, until recently one of them died. He was an omnivorous reader of the current news. It is related of him that he never put an animal from him but, if he tired of a pet, himself went away. In this way the animal never gained the impression that it was not wanted. Touching incidents are related of the memory of circus animals of, and their fondness for, him. Among these is that of "Old Mose," the Barnum lion, who recognized Mr. Wood in a demonstrative way during a visit to Brattleboro.


Mr. Wood was never married. During the past summer he had been in gradually failing health. A week ago last Sunday he was seized with a violent attack of dysentery. The disease was checked, and when Gov. and Mrs. Fuller left Tuesday for Montpelier it was believed that he had at least several days of life left. Yesterday afternoon, however, he gradually sank away. Gov. and Mrs. Fuller came to Windsor by the regular train, and from there by a special, arriving home at 1 o'clock this morning.


The funeral will be held from the house Sunday afternoon at 3 o'clock. The burial will be by the side of Mr. Wood's father in the Prospect hill cemetery.


Vermont Phoenix, October 5, 1894.


Van Amburgh & Co. Menagerie.jpg


A Lion's Remarkable Memory


--- Mr. Chas. K. Wood of this village, who for nearly 40 years was a manager in Van Amburgh's and other menageries, has just returned from a short visit to the first-named show, and relates a circumstance showing the wonderful memory of animals.


Mr. Wood was conversing with the showman, when an attache said: "Go over and speak to Mose; he hasn't taken his eyes off you since you came in, more than an hour ago." Mr. Wood at once went to the cage and said, "Hello, Mose!" whereupon the old lion turned a somersault, whirled around, rolled over, and rubbed against the bars with all the deligfht of a pet kitten.


"Mose" is a very large lion, and sometimes very cross, but he was as delighted and playful at seeing his old friend as a pet house-dog or cat could be, and allowed Mr. Wood to handle and play with him without showing anything but the greatest affection, although he had not seen him for several years.


Vermont Phoenix, October 14, 1881.


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