Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

On storied battlefields and at thousands of heroes’ graves and historic monuments, Pennsylvanians gather to commemorate the bravery and valor of the indi­viduals who made – and kept – this a free country. In the northwestern corner of the state, in a little town called Girard, Erie countians gather around a tall stone monument which claims special distinc­tion. The monument was the first erected to the memory of our courageous Civil War soldiers. And its erection was paid for entirely by one man, a friend of presidents and renowned as the most important clown of the nineteenth cen­tury: the colorful and contro­versial “Colonel” Dan Rice.

When Dan Rice first visited Girard in 1852, he was already acclaimed as one of the na­tion’s greatest entertainers and showmen. His importance resulted from his unparalleled ability to successfully train his menagerie of horses, mules, elephants, a rhinoceros, and a pig named Lord Byron.

Dan Rice began working as a jockey at nine years old. While racing horses, he met Abraham Lincoln and established a friendship which continued until the president’s assassination at Washington, D.C., in 1865.

He next worked as a circus strong man for the great P.T. Barnum and later toured Eu­rope, delighting royalty and heads of state, including King Wilhelm of Prussia and Queen Isabella of Spain. On this side of the Atlantic, his ardent admirers included Jefferson Davis, Ulysses S. Grant and Zachary Taylor. President Taylor conferred the title of “Colonel” to Rice during his administration.

Dan Rice ,vas nineteen years old when he married Margaret Ann Curran of Pitts­burgh in 18J2. The following year he appeared as a clown and minstrel for the first time. By 1850 he owned – and lost – ­his first circus. He rebounded quickly wiLh a second attempt he titled the “One Horse Show” which toured the Mis­sissippi and Ohio rivers by steamboat and adjacent canals on barges.

In 1852 he discovered Girard. Animal trainer Agrippa Martin invited Dan Rice to visit Girard. Rice ac­cepted Martin’s invitation, primarily because he had been looking for an off-season loca­tion in the north because draught horses adapted better to harness after wintering there.

Dan Rice immediately liked the pretty little village. Incor­porated as a borough in 1846 with only four hundred residents, Girard had prospered with the nearby canal. The only railroad was the east-west Lake Shore line that lay almost two miles to the north at Miles Grove. Located sixteen miles west of Erie, the county seat, Girard was inhabited by mer­chants, bankers and manufac­turers characterized by Erie’s first historian, Laura Sanford, as “cultivated.”

Rice purchased property on the north side of the village’s public square and demolished the existing structures to erect his mansion. While his resi­dence was under construction, he wintered in Conneautville, a few miles to the south and along the canal. He purchased a newspaper, The Conneautville Crisis and named Charles Stow editor. Stow, also an entrepre­neur, wrote advertisements and printed showbills.

Rice, his wife and two daughters, Elizabeth and Catherine, spent their first winter in Girard in 1854 upon completion of their palatial residence. Their circus animals and stable hands also were lodged in the area and it was not long until Girard became known as a “show town.” Nearly a century later, in a 1944 assessment of Dan Rice and his relationship with the townspeople, The Erie Times noted that at the time, “Show business … was on a par with the sinful dance hall and gam­bling dens” and that Rice was “a little too worldly for the quiet, puritanical citizens of Girard.”

During the years Dan Rice wintered in Girard, he enjoyed the peak of his career. His name on a circus bill nearly always guaranteed success. One biographer, who hailed that Rice was the “toast of the nation,” contended that the showman made a thousand dollars weekly. Audiences reveled in his caustic humor and spontaneous, irreverent wit. At the close of each tour­ing season, Rice, his family and his vast entourage swarmed upon Girard to pre­pare for the following spring.

Life in Girard was peaceful and tranquil and Rice, accord­ing to biographer John C. Kunzog. author of The One-­Horse Show, “never missed an opportunity to enliven the tempo.” He played pranks on the local merchants, which today might be considered rather mischievous. With phosphorescent lighting. he furthered the legend of the Ghost of Girard which only appeared when the circus people were in town. Many of Rice’s fellow townfolk were not, to say the least, amused. They harbored opinions about him similar to those which appeared in Philadelphia’s Sunday Dispatch. The newspa­per of March 9, 1862, labeled him “an itinerant buffoon … be­ing made up of equal parts of bad grammar, vulgarity and buncombe.”

By the end of the decade, Dan Rice had expanded his real estate holding in the Erie County community to two and a half acres, with a training barn and related buildings scattered throughout the area. The handsomely landscaped grounds surrounding his man­sion were studded with cast iron Grecian- and Roman-type statues, fountains and life­-sized figures of animals. But his life was not easy.

In 1860, after eighteen years of marriage, he and Margaret divorced. His professional life was severely marred when Lalla Rookh, an elephant he himself had trained to walk a tightrope, died of lung fever. The next year a cage contain­ing his prized rhinoceros, General Putnam, was knocked off the deck of his “aquamuseum,” the Floating Palace, and the trained animal drowned.

Even the divisive national strife affected him.

During the early years of the Civil War, both of his fa­mous showboats were cap­tured. The Floating Palace became a hospital for the Con­federates and the James Ray­mond was outfitted by the Union Army for patrols on the Ohio River.

But Dan Rice, ever the showman, was quick to seize the public’s attention!

He was rapidly becoming a patriotic symbol in the distinc­tive “stars and stripes” cos­tumed he had adopted as early as 1858. He grew a.goatee and ultimately became popular as the accepted image of Uncle Sam. Noted Harper’s Weekly cartoonist Thomas Nast sketched Rice in his costume about 1868 and dubbed him “Father Jonathan,” a term dating to the Revolutionary War which indicated a keenly patriotic individual.

Mere mention of Dan Rice in their columns was bound to sell newspapers. The Erie Weekly Gazette frequently – and unabashedly – reported his activities. Under the headline, “Dan Rice Called to Washing­ton,” the Gazette reported:

Dan Rice is one of the most uncompromising advocates of the war in the country. During his southern tour last winter and spring he saw “that secession feller” in his most disagreeable form and believes he should be exterminated. Not long since, Mr. Rice made a proposition to the government to train horses for cavalry service, also to raise a regiment of cavalry of 1,000 men from among circus riders and vaulters, pledging them to do more effective service than 5,000 ordinary cavalry. He has been requested by the war department to visit Washington and is now on his way thither.

Two weeks later according to the newspaper Dan Rice attended a war meeting in Girard to recruit volunteers for the regiment lead by Gen. John McLane. Claiming to intimately know the spirit of the southerners, he warned his compatriots that the war would be long and bitter – an unpopular theory in the north.

Not long after, another issue of the Erie Weekly Gazette carried a curious news item inspired of course, by none other than Dan Rice.

At a meeting held in the “Dan Rice House,” Girard Depot on the 20th last, it was resolved that the Depot should be called “Dan Rice” and that Miles Grove should be called “Dan Rice.” The news has been delayed and we get it through the Girard Union of the 9th. From another source we learn that all the boys born in Girard after this are to be called “Dan Rice.” What will be done if the boys are girls, we leave the Union to explain.

In November 1861, the Gazette carried an announce­ment taken from the Cleveland Plain Dealer. On November 4 Dan Rice married his second wife, Charlotte Rebecca Mc­Connell of Girard. His stately residence had been extensively remodeled and, according to the press, “fitted up in a style of peculiar but admirable taste. A wild and romantic tract of land, sufficiently ample on one section of the farm, has been enclosed as a park, in which are a number of elk, deer, buffalo, etc. In the centre, a fish pond is dug.”

The bride was eloquently described as “a beautiful and accomplished lady, but eight­een years of age and the only child of one of the wealthiest families in Girard. It is em­phatically a ‘love match,’ both being most devoted.” Their wedding trip was combined with a tour of Rice’s “Great Show.”

The McConnell family was well-connected with the best and leading families in Girard. The McConnells – and their intimates, for that matter­ – were not pleased with Char­lotte’s marriage to Rice and loathed her touring the country with him and his circus. Not only was Rice twenty years her senior, but he was divorced and the father of two grown daughters. And worse.he was a circus man – and the word “circus” was not uttered in polite society.

If Dan Rice’s profession was questionable, his political leanings were suspect. Be­cause he traveled so easily between the divided North and South, his patriotism was sometimes criticized, particu­larly by newspaper writers that did not approve of his fractious brand of humor. Horace Greeley, editor of the New York Tribune, especially disliked him after 1859 when Rice jokingly announced his candidacy for the presidency.

In 1864 the circus showman inaugurated a serious cam­paign for state senator repre­senting Erie and Crawford counties. His opponent was the Republican incumbent, Morrow B. Lowry. The Erie Weekly Observer, which es­poused the Democrat’s cause, stated in its September 15 edition that “Rice would, if elected, enter the senate with a practical experience of the world and a broad comprehen­sive knowledge of the wants and duties of the people, pos­sessed by few members of that body.”

The Girard Union, Republi­can in its leaning, bitterly opposed Dan Rice. The news­paper printed a cynical story which angered Rice. In retalia­tion, he purchased the Union, changed its name to the Specta­tor and instructed its editor to promote his candidacy for state senator. The Republican Party in Erie County, however, clearly won the election.

Early the following year, many Americans believed that the Civil War’s end loomed imminent. While in Chicago in March, Rice saw a bust of Abraham Lincoln which had been sculpted by Leonard W. Volk (1828-1895). Rice, im­pressed by the artist’s work, asked Volk – known for his numerous busts and statues of prominent Americans – to create a monument honoring the Civil War dead which would be placed in Girard’s public square. Dan Rice wanted to erect the first Civil War monument in the country. And, as always, he succeeded.

Rice dispatched an emis­sary to Girard’s borough coun­cil with a request for permission to erect the monu­ment on village property. The council minutes, as recorded by secretary Henry Ball, noted that on June 2, 1865, “All present on motion of D. W. Hutchinson resolved that the Boro accept the monument tendered by Dan Rice, Esq., to be placed in the center of Main Street between the public square.”

But James Webster, Homer Hart and other prominent citizens objected to Rice’s plan. They petitioned to halt the monument’s erection which would alter the public square. Borough council members responded, gave them a full hearing but determined that, “because a large majority of the taxable voters of said Boro voted for it … said street was ordered widened and further­more it is ordered that the proposed monument be erected on the piece of parcel of ground so vacated.”

Not satisfied, James Web­ster pursued the issue, taking his complaint to the Erie County Court of Common Pleas, of which he asked for an injunction against Dan Rice’s monument. The court ordered the borough council to review its motion and on Saturday, October 21, 1865, council mem­bers unanimously reaffirmed their original decision.

Dan Rice immediately se­lected Wednesday, November 1, for the grand dedication of America’s first Civil War mon­ument. Nothing marred his extravaganza. “The sky was clear and the atmosphere cool and bracing … the streets were in excellent looking order,” the Erie Morning Dispatch reported the following day. “Never was there anything which passed off with greater success or satisfaction.”

Pennsylvania’s war gover­nor, Andrew G. Curtin, and Ohio’s ex-governor David Todd, joined by numerous dignitaries, traveled from Erie to Miles Grove on one of thir­teen special excursion trains. Rice’s carriages awaited the special guests at the Dan Rice Hotel near the depot. The mile-long procession from Miles Grove to Girard “pre­sented a very fine and varie­gated appearance,” the Girard Union remarked in the follow­ing day’s edition.

In addition to the special excursion coaches, a large number of regular trains trav­eled to the village of Girard from Erie. Other spectators arrived from towns and cities in Ohio. Patriotic fervor ran rampant. An estimated ten thousand individuals swarmed the Erie County borough to attend the dedication of the first memorial to Gvil War soldiers in the country. Re­porters flocked to the cere­mony from newspapers representing Cleveland, Cin­cinnati and Columbus, Ohio; and Erie, Harrisburg, Oil City, Pithole and Warren, Pennsylvania.

Pluckish Dan Rice­ – foremost entrepreneur, then patriot – had arranged for his circus to give three perform­ances that day, and each played to a full house. At two o’clock that afternoon, he pressed his circus animals into service, with one wagon pulled by a trained elephant, Monica. The wagon carried “a coterie of beautiful damsels dressed in black, each wearing a black hat and plume with the name of the state they repre­sented,” remarked the Dispatch reporter. The “damsels” were arranged in pyramid fashion and a young woman repre­senting the Goddess of Liberty capped the living structure.

The public square buzzed and moved with frenzied activ­ity. Rousing marching bands were followed by deafening gun salutes which, in tum, were followed by spirited orations. A bevy of beautiful young girls laid wreaths at the base of the monument. Several Union generals unable to at­tend sent congratulatory mes­sages. In addition to the fifty Civil War veterans who at­tended, fourteen local veterans of the War of “1812 mingled in and about the throngs.

Gen. Alfred B. McCalmont dedicated Dan Rice’s monu­ment, after which the tall, white corinthian marble shaft, surmounted by a laurel wreath and the symbolic American eagle, was ceremoniously unveiled to the clamoring crowd. Etched into the panel of the northern side of the monument was the inscrip­tion: “In Memory of the Offi­cers and Soldiers from Erie County, Penn: Who have died in defence of their country.” For his monument, Dan Rice paid six thousand dollars – ­plus another four thousand dollars to underwrite the dedi­cation day’s festivities.

Governor Curtin addressed the assembled spectators. “Fellow citizens,” he began, “this occasion is a glorious evidence of the patriotic spirit of the citizens of this village.” He later assured newspaper reporters that “the crowd was larger and the enthusiasm greater than attended the monumental celebration in Gettysburg.”

One week after its dedica­tion, the monument became the object of bitter public controversy.

“We understand that the Girard monument was last seen defaced by some addi­tional and unauthorized sculp­ture,” the Gazette reported. “We would like to be informed whether that monument is a memorial to the dead, or an advertisement of the living.”

A response, printed as an anonymous letter to the editor, appeared in the paper the following week. The unknown writer agreed that the citizens had accepted the monument, even though they did not approve of benefactor Dan Rice. They hoped the monu­ment would be a tribute “solely to our loved sons and brothers who have fallen in defense of the country,” Dan Rice was characterized as a “noble hearted, generous giver.”

But the writer continued.

“It was with a feeling of disappointment that we, the next day, saw the artist, Mr. Volk, cutting on the northern side of the die, in large and conspicuous letters, the name ‘Dan Rice,’ and saying to one of the borough council who in the name of the boro council remonstrated, that he had his orders from Dan Rice.”

Even Rice’s opponent, James Webster, did not go unscathed. The writer believed that Webster had acted hastily and without considering the interests of the borough. “He acted chiefly in view of his estimate of the character of the donor. Mr. Webster should have reflected that hundreds of his neighbors – men and women of moral and religious worth – and who entertain the same opinion of the donor as he does, were strongly in favor of the erection of the monu­ment, no matter what source it might come.”

The anonymous correspon­dent disclosed an agreement with Dan Rice concerning the soldiers’ monument. Until it was erected, the monument belonged to the circus man and could be embellished with any inscription whatsoever. Upon the monument’s erec­tion, however, Dan Rice was trespassing. The letter con­cluded: “Mr. Webster has expended four times as much for the real interests of Girard . .. and never had a newspaper puff, nor his name in capitals or on a handbill, much less his life-size likeness in a colored handbill, covering the entire rear of a horse barn.”

The controversial words etched in the monument’s south side by the artist following the dedication were simply: “Erected by Dan Rice. Inaugurated Nov. 1, 1865.”

The public debacle sur­rounding the circus man’s memorial, even though Girard’s residents silently resentful, was soon overshadowed by a multitude of misfortunes which befell Rice. His fortunes changed drastically during the following decade. He conducted a semi-serious campaign for the presidency in 1867 and garnered the support of seventeen newspapers around the nation, but ten years after the monument’s dedication, Dan Rice went bankrupt. Although he had given away more than four million dollars to various churches, causes and charities, he was unable, following the collapse of his circus empire in 1875, to raise enough money in Girard and Erie to assemble even a small circus. He lost his Girard property and left the village, never to return. Rebecca divorced him six years later.

For nearly a century, Dan Rice had captured the fascination, but never the respect or admiration, of generations of Girard citizens. On the centennial of the monument’s erection, civic-minded residents decided the time had come to honor the man who brought fame to the bucolic little village. Dan Rice’s monument was re-dedicated, with much fanfare, in 1965.

“It took us one hundred years to absorb the shimmering glitter of his greatness and now we want to give him a small ovation in gratitude for a great performance, and so shall give him our greatest gift – a gift of ourselves,” the Cosmopolite Herald editorialized. Ironically, the newspaper had taken its name from Dan Rice when, in 1867, he combined his Conneaut Crisis with the Girard Spectator and called it the Cosmopolite, meaning “citizen of the world.” Every year since 1965, residents gather in the town square – the one made nationally famous a century before by Dan Rice – to honor the circus showman. All is forgiven, but not forgotten. With a heritage so rich, and a character so colorful, it would be impossible to vanquish Girard’s golden days, a brief shimmering moment made memorable by the town’s most famous – or, at the time, infamous – resident.


For Further Reading

Gillette, Don Carle. He Made Lincoln Laugh: The Story of Dan Rice. New York: Exposition Press, 1967.

Kunzog, John C. The One-Horse Show: The Life and Times of Dan Rice, Circus Jester and Philanthropist. Jamestown, N.W.: John C. Kunzog, 1962.

Miller, John. A Twentieth Century History of Erie County, Pennsylvania. Chicago: The Lewis Publishing Co., 1909.

Plowden, Gene. Those Amazing Ringlings and Their Circus. Caldwell, Id.: The Caxton Printers, Ltd., 1968.

Reed, John Elmer. History of Erie County, Pennsylvania. Indianapolis: Historical Publishing Company, 1925.

Sanford, Laura G. History of Erie County, Pennsylvania. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Co., 1894.

Sanders, Toby. How to Be a Compleat Clown. New York: Stein & Day Publishers, 1978.


Sabina Shields Freeman, involved in local history projects in Fairview, Erie County, where she resides, has co-authored three books dealing with the county’s history. She is a member of numerous historical organizations, including the Erie County Historical Society, the Fairview Area Historical Society and Erie Yesterday, a consortium of county historical societies, museums and associated groups. She currently writes a bi-monthly column for Girard’s Cosmopolite Herald, a newspaper founded in 1867 by Dan Rice, colorful subject of this article. Her article describing Abraham Lincoln’s visit to Erie County, “The President Meets the Press,” appeaerd in the fall 1985 edition of Pennsylvania Heritage.