The P.T. Barnum of the
Barnum and Bailey Circus
by Joel Benton
THE FIGHT FOR THE ESTABLISHMENT OF SEASIDE PARK--LAYING OUT
CITY STREETS IMPATIENCE WITH "OLD FOGIES"--BUILDING A SEASIDE HOME--WALDEMERE--A
HOME IN NEW YORK CITY.
A remarkable feature of Mr. Barnum's life was his loyalty to
the place he had chosen as his home, and his devotion to its interests. He had great faith
in Bridgeport, and worked unceasingly to justify it. He looked far ahead, saw the
prospective growth of the place, and laid broad plans of preparation for the future.
Apart from his great services in laying out East Bridgeport,
he was the author of the improvements on the water-front known as Seaside Park. The idea
of such a thing occurred to him first in 1863, when he rode over the ground and observed
its fitness for the purpose. He then began agitating the matter, and urging the immediate
acquirement by the city of land for a park and public drive-way along the margin of the
Sound. It was necessary, he represented, to do it at once, before the natural increase in
the value of the land made such an undertaking too expensive. That it would be a
profitable venture he felt certain; for such an improvement would make every bit of real
estate in the city more valuable, and would attract many new residents to the place.
There were, however, many conservatives, "old
fogies" he called them, who opposed him. He then approached the farmers who owned the
land lying immediately upon the shore, and tried to convince them that, if they would give
the city, free, a deep slip next to the water, to be used as a public park, it would
increase in value the rest of their land so much as to make it a profitable operation for
them. But it was like beating against the wind. They were "not so stupid as to think
that they could become gainers by giving away their property."
He succeeded, however, in getting the active aid and
co-operation of Messrs. Nathaniel Wheeler, James Loomis, Francis Ives, Frederick Wood, and
some others, who went with him to the landowners and added their persuasions to his. After
much urging, they finally got the terms upon which the proprietors would give a portion
and sell another portion of their land, which fronted on the water, provided the land thus
disposed of should forever be appropriated to the purposes of a public park. But,
unfortunately, a part of the land it was desirable to include was a farm, of some thirty
acres, then belonging to an unsettled estate, and neither the administrator nor the heirs
could or would give away a rod of it. But the whole farm was for sale--and, to overcome
the difficulty in the way of its transfer for the public benefit, Barnum bought it for
about $12,000, and then presented the required front to the park. He did not want this
land or any portion of it, for his own purposes or profit, and he offered a thousand
dollars to any one who would take his place in the transaction; but no one accepted, and
he was quite willing to contribute so much of the land as was needed for so noble an
object. Besides this, he gave $1,400 toward purchasing other land and improving the park,
and, after months of persistent personal effort, he succeeded in raising, by private
subscription, the sum necessary to secure the land needed. This was duly paid for, deeded
to, and accepted by the city, and Barnum had the pleasure of naming this new and great
public improvement, "Seaside Park."
When Mr. Barnum first selected Bridgeport as his home, as
already stated in a preceding chapter, the place was commended to him by its nearness to
New York, its convenience of access, and the beauty of its situation. "Nowhere,"
said he, "in all my travels in America and abroad had I seen a city whose very
position presented so many and varied attractions. Situated on Long Island Sound, with
that vast water-view in front, and on every other side a beautiful and fertile country
with every variety of inland scenery, and charming drives which led through valleys rich
with well-cultivated farms, and over hills thick-wooded with far-stretching forests of
primeval growth--all these natural attractions appeared to me only so many aids to the
advancement the beautiful and busy city might attain, if public spirit, enterprise, and
money grasped and improved the opportunities the locality itself extended. I saw that what
Nature had so freely lavished must be supplemented by yet more liberal Art."
It was in pursuance of this object that he built the famous
Iranistan; and when he did so he felt confident that this superb place would so increase
the value of surrounding property that none but first-class residences would be erected in
the vicinity. He, however, went on to improve the surrounding property as much as
possible. He opened numerous fine avenues through land purchased by himself, and freely
gave them to the city. In this way he opened miles of new streets and planted them with
thousands of shade trees. The planting of trees was almost a mania with him, in pursuit of
the doctrine laid down in Scott's "Heart of Mid-Lothian": "When ye hae
naething else to do, ye may be aye sticking in a tree; it will be growing when ye're
Barnum was always for enterprise and progress.
"Conservatism," he said, "may be a good thing in the State, or in the
Church, but it is fatal to the growth of cities, and the conservative notions of old
fogies make them indifferent to the requirements which a very few years in the future will
compel, and blind to their own best interests. Such men never look beyond the length of
their noses, and consider every investment a dead loss unless they can get the sixpence
profit into their pockets before they go to bed. My own long training and experience as a
manager impelled me to carry into such private enterprises as the purchase of real estate
that best and most essential managerial quality of instantly deciding, not only whether a
venture was worth undertaking, but what, all things considered, that venture would result
in. Almost any man can see how a thing will begin, but not every man is gifted with the
foresight to see how it will end, or how, with the proper effort, it may be made to end.
In East Bridgeport where we had no 'conservatives' to contend with, we were only a few
years in turning almost tenantless farms into a populous and prosperous city. On the other
side of the river, while the opening of new avenues, the planting of shade trees, and the
building of many houses, have afforded me the highest pleasures of my life, I confess that
not a few of my greatest annoyance's have been occasioned by the opposition of those who
seem to be content to simply vegetate through their existence, and who looked upon me as a
restless, reckless innovator, because I was trying to remove the moss from everything
around them, and even from their own eyes."
Mrs. Barnum's health continued to decline, and in the summer
of 1867 her doctor commended her to live on the seashore. Accordingly her husband sold
Lindencroft, and they removed for the summer to a small farm-house adjoining Seaside Park.
So delighted were they with life by the water during the hot days of the summer that they
determined thereafter to spend every summer on the very shore of Long Island Sound.
Finding it impossible to prepare a house of their own in time for the next season, they
spent the summer of 1868 in a new and handsome house which Mr. Barnum owned but which he
had built for sale. In the fall of 1868, however, he purchased a large and beautiful grove
of hickory trees adjoining Seaside Park, and decided to build a permanent residence there.
But there was a vast deal to do in grading and preparing the
ground, in opening new streets and avenues as approaches to the property, and in setting
out trees near the proposed site of the house; so that ground was not broken for the
foundation till October. He planned a house which should combine the greatest convenience
with the highest comfort, keeping in mind always that houses were made to live in as well
as to look at, and to be "homes" rather than mere residences. So the house was
made to include abundant room for guests, with dressing-rooms and baths to every chamber;
water from the city throughout the premises; gas manufactured on the ground; and that
greatest of all comforts, a semi-detached kitchen, so that the smell as well as the
secrets of the cuisine might be confined to its own locality. The stables and gardens were
located far from the mansion, on the opposite side of one of the newly-opened avenues, so
that in the immediate vicinity of the house, on either side and before both fronts,
stretched large lawns, broken only by the grove, single shade-trees, rock-work, walks,
flower-beds, and drives. The whole scheme as planned was faithfully carried out in less
than eight months The first foundation stone was laid in October, 1868; and they moved
into the completed house in June following, in 1869.
On taking possession of this new residence, Barnum formally
named it "Waldemere." Literally this name was "Wald-am-Meer," or
"Woods-by-the Sea," but Barnum preferred the more euphonious form. On the same
estate he built at the same time two beautiful cottages, called "Petrel's Nest,"
and "Wavewood," the homes of his two daughters, Mrs. Thompson and Mrs.
Seeley--the latter his youngest. Here Barnum decided to speed five months of every year,
and for his home during the other seven months he purchased a splendid mansion on Murray
Hill, in New York City, at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 38th Street.
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