interest in clowning was sparked by a picture of a clown that he saw in a tabloid magazine.“When I was about 9 years old, I saw a clown picture of Felix Adler that really hooked me. Perhaps the reason I was so taken by a picture of a clown is that I was looking for something happy for a little boy as the great depression was playing all over the country.”
Felix was known as the “King of Clowns”, performing for more than 20 years on the Ringling Bros. Barnum and Bailey show. Years later, Bob bought a suitcase full of Adler’s old clown boots clown for $20.00 and wore them whenever he performed!
St. Thomas was a railroad town.
The McNea family lived a short block south of the main line where the New York
Central passed through. Further to the north lay the tracks of the Wabash and on the other side of town to the south was the Chesapeake and Ohio rail lines. On top of all these tracks, the London and Port Stanely (L&PS) electric trains cut across each of the main lines.
During the 30’s strangers were often seated at the McNea family dinner table for a meal; many of these people were “riding the rods” (hitching a ride on a freight train). Often little Bobby’s mother would make up a sandwich or two for anyone else who knocked on the door because they were hungry. For over a century, many of the major circus show trains had been stopping to change crew shifts in the town. During these stop overs, mud shows would set up their big tops and perform for the residents, a common event that everyone looked forward to.
In 1885, during one of these stops, P.T. Barnum’s famous elephant Jumbo
was unceremoniously hit by a train and killed at a busy St. Thomas railway junction. Jumbo was the star attraction of the Ringling Bros. Barnum and Bailey Circus. Folk lore has it that Jumbo’s
demise was the result of him courageously attacking an approaching locomotive because it was about to hit another show elephant named Tom Thumb. A local photographer Thomas Scott took a photo of the carcass as it lay by the tracks. The next day the photo was published in newspapers worldwide.
Townspeople have always been fascinated by this event. Local retailer Edger H. Flach, owner of a popular jewelry store in town, witnessed the train collision with Jumbo when he was a little boy. Every year on the anniversary day he would decorate the store window with black crepe and display one of Jumbo’s toe nails, which he claimed to have retrieved at the scene.
There was also a “Jumbo Ice Cream Parlor” back in the 30’s were folks bought a 2 scoop cone for 5¢.
In 1935, the town was abuzz with the announcement that there would be a 50th anniversary event in honour of Jumbo. Local politician and one time boxer George Lang commissioned the St. Thomas Metal Signs Company to design 125 signs depicting Jumbo. The signs were to be placed on each lamp post along Talbot Street during the summer “old home week” celebrations in mid- July. Town residents were excited to learn that the limited edition signs would be available for the public to purchase for $1.00.
The signs were erected late in the evening a month before the festival started. Unfortunately, by day light the following morning, 22 had been stolen. Then, within the next few days “every pachyderm in the herd vanished!!” with all the signs disappearing from the lamp posts. Bob had the opportunity to touch one of these “hot” green metal signs 50 years later while attending the 100th anniversary of the demise of Jumbo. The vendor was asking $125.00 for it.
To this day, if you enter St. Thomas from the west end of town and drive up the Talbot street hill, look to your right where an enormous cement statue of Jumbo was erected in 1985. The view is reported to be the same sight the freight train engineer saw 100 years before.