When the circus came to town
Along the east walls of Alvord Elementary School on Alarid Street stands a colorful reminder of the way we were — a painted depiction of simpler days when Fiestas de Santa Fe floats were fashioned from horsedrawn buggies or mounted on the flat beds of newfangled motorized carriages.
Children from the Guadalupe neighborhood around what are now known as Hickox Street and Paseo de Peralta gathered at the Santa Fe railroad depot to watch loaded train cars roll to a steambillowing stop on the narrow-gauge tracks. Nearby, their elders prayed for their safety at the Santuario de Guadalupe. Back then, time seemed to move a little slower— unless, of course, the circus was in town.
Completed in 1995 after six weeks of stenciling, sketching, and painting, the mural at Alvord Elementary School was funded by the Santa Fe Arts Commission’s Community Youth Mural program as part of an anti-graffiti push by the city and then-mayor Debbie Jaramillo. It was painted by nine artists between the ages of 16 and 18 under the direction of Chrissie Orr and Ken Wolverton. Along with some of the young artists and figures from New Mexico history, Orr and Wolverton appear in a section of the mural devoted to the circus.
To create the mural, Orr, who received a 2009 Mayor’s Recognition Award for Excellence in the Arts and incorporates oral history into much of her work, gathered photographs and collected stories from older residents in the neighborhood along withWolverton, New Mexico writer/historian Orlando Romero, and CCA Teen Project (now known asWarehouse 21) director Ana Gallegos y Reinhardt, whose father, former New Mexico senator and pugilism aficionado Ralph “Sabu” Gallegos, also appears in the mural’s circus panel— he sits with knees raised, wearing a purplish shirt, to the far left.
One of the recurring themes in the stories collected by the mural team was the arrival of the circus to the area in the 1930s. According to elderly residents interviewed in the mid-’90s, canvasand-pole workers, acrobats, circus freaks, fortunetellers, clowns, and other performers pulled into the Santa Fe railroad depot and then made the short trek by elephant, carriage, horse, or foot to a flat section of land west of the depot, where the school now stands. Once there, they would set up camp, temporary animal stables and feed troughs, and a performance tent.
Richard Roybal, 84, a longtime Santa Fe resident and retired carpenter who lived in the neighborhood and then worked near the Santa Fe railroad depot, also recalled an occasional “advance car” pulling into the station to announce an upcoming show. As quickly as the circus had come to town, he told Pasatiempo, it would pack up and head off to the next stop on the tour.
With the exception of the unrecorded oral histories collected by Orr and the rest of the mural team, little evidence about the circus coming to Santa Fe— and setting up camp during the ’30s on what is today the site of Alvord Elementary— can be found in state or university libraries or official New Mexico archives. According to Orr, the family of Santa Fe gallery owner Rey Móntez— and specifically his father, santero Ramon Móntez — remembers elephants and circus performers parading through the area in the 1930s.
The Móntez family, which for many years has owned property behind Alvord Elementary School on a street that now bears the family name, has centuries-old roots in the Guadalupe neighborhood near the school, according to a 2000 Pasatiempo story by Craig Smith. In Smith’s interview with Rey Móntez, the gallery owner states that Ramon Móntez began exhibiting his work at a gallery in the Guadalupe District in 1931, when he was just 12 years old— an age at which seeing elephants pass by or near your home would undoubtedly leave an indelible impression.
There is evidence in The New Mexican’s archives that, in early July 1930, John Robinson’s Circus made it to the area: “The John Robinson wild animal circus is just the thing for the kiddies and it is the kind of show that calls out the old-time alibi that you had to go to take the kiddies. The shows and circus will all be in full swing tonight and will stay every night this week including Sunday.” Robinson’s circus was well known for its trained animal show and WildWest themes. Also in 1930, Christy Bros. Big 5 Ring Circus blew through Santa Fe. It was the final year for the company, thanks in large part to the Great Depression and bad weather, which took their toll on the employees and the business itself.
Top, When the circus comes to Santa Fe, Palace Avenue, circa 1914-1920; photo by Sheldon Parsons; courtesy Palace of the Governors (MNM/DCA), Negative No. 191768
The Elks’ Burlesque Circus Parade, Cobb Memorial Photography Collection, Center for Southwest Research, University Libraries, The University of New Mexico; Negative No. 000-119-0703
A mural painted in 1994 at Alvord Elementary School evokes memories of circuses that visited Santa Fe during the late-19th and early-20th centuries.
Mabel Stark (known as the “Tiger Queen”) and her tigers