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The Great Cranbrook Elephant Hunt


History is the closest thing we have to a time machine. Through the stories that have been passed down from generation to generation we can begin to understand what happened in past eras, but we will never really know for sure what took place.

This is true of the period from 1919 to 1929, the age known as the “Roaring 20s”. Bracketed by the disaster of World War I and the Great Depression, this was reputed to be the time to be alive. Jazz was opening the youth of the world to crazy new dances such as the Foxtrot, the Charleston and the Lindy Hop.

Fashion changed from the Victorian to the modern, losing the stiff corsets while rebellious women sported slinky sleeveless knee-length dresses, exposing their arms and legs to the world. What a scandal! Chin length “bobs” were the latest in hairstyles. If you didn’t have a bob you were not up to the times. Makeup was now popular. Women who believed rouge was the thing of prostitutes were now seeing makeup everywhere in ‘polite society.’

After the terrible bleakness of the Great War, people were looking for life. What brings people more to life than entertainment? Besides the dance halls that were blooming all over the continent, people were looking to Broadway to captivate their attention.

One of the most exciting competitors for the entertainment dollar, particularly in rural Canada, was the amazing traveling circus. Huge shows sprang up, seemingly overnight. With their menageries of exotic animals, clowns, jugglers and daredevil acts, circuses easily took centre stage in the world of live entertainment. For weeks before the actual show, circus advance men would travel ahead, stirring up excitement in the quiet towns to be visited by the vast traveling spectacle.

When the circus train arrived, usually in the early hours of the morning, the crew wasted no time. The tents and booths were set up and the town’s folk, in lines stretching to the horizon, waited to be let into this amazing world. Not only locals, but people from all over the area would come by car (an unheard of thing) to watch elephants dance; to see scantily clad beauties do bewildering stunts on horseback and to laugh until their bellies ached at the hilarity of a clown show.

In 1926, the second largest circus in the world, boasting over 1,000 performers and labourers, plus horses, camels, three herds of elephants, a Wild West show, trapeze artists and at least 50 clowns, came to Cranbrook. But, what happened when the show’s dancing elephants decided to go back to their wild roots and, instead of doing a dancing act, stampeded?

Well, if you are the second largest circus in the world, you may want to hide the fact that you have finicky animals. One stampede may be nothing to get worried about. However, after the elephants rioted and caused municipal mayhem twice in as many shows, it might have been time to cancel the act. ‘The show must go on’, however was the reigning motto in the circus business – at least until that third stampede where it took weeks to recapture all the elephants.

Cranbrook residents got the privilege of glimpsing stray elephants roaming around their steadily growing town. Once the terror had subsided and the thought of two-ton grey ghosts travelling in the night became commonplace, Cranbrook began to wonder why the world was so interested in an event that the local newspapers didn’t even cover in the beginning. Now, more than 80 years later, we explore some of the experiences and myths of ‘The Great Cranbrook Elephant Hunt.’

This project is sponsored by:

Cranbrook Dance Group
A posed shot of a Cranbrook Dance Group, 1920. Any information would be appreciated.
Parade on Baker St. Looking West, c. 1915
Looking west on Baker Street, this image shows a parade beginning to circle the Cranbrook Government Building.
Cast of "Nothing But the Truth"
Cast of Nothing But the Truth, Cranbrook, ca. 1930; Named: Mr. Shankland, Mrs. Norgrave, Grace McNeil, Rev. R. Hardy, Sybil…