with ancestors from 17th Century England
Norton Henry Ferris
Born on December 23, 1861 in Millersport, Town of Clarence, Erie County, NY, Norton Ferris was the son of William Ferris and Martha Utley. His father was a canal-man who raised horses and mules for the canal boats. From the towpaths alongside the canal the mules in teams of three pulled on the lines which were attached to the boats. It was a long and hard job to haul boats. With the introduction of steam powered tugs in 1870, and fewer mules and horses needed, the family decided to move to The Rapids, Niagara County, where Norton spent many years on a farm growing produce for sale to the public.
At age 22 he married Miss Clemmie Gassaway, Christmas day in 1883 and lived at the Rapids farm until 1885. They moved to Lockport that year when Clemmie was pregnant with their first child. A daughter, Arlene Ferris was born on July 27, 1885. She would prove to be a great blessing to him in his older years.
Horsecars appeared for the first time on January 1st of that year in Lockport. They were streetcars pulled by horses and the wheels of the cars were on rails. Norton loved the prospects of living in this rising city and so started his livery business that year. He handled a horse-drawn hack or carriage rig for a few years before taking his family back to The Rapids to return to farming.
After saving enough money to buy a house, he returned to Lockport in 1892 to make home at 82 Beattie avenue near Grant. He continued with his horse-drawn rig until sometime around 1918 when he bought an automobile and became one of the first to drive a gasoline powered taxi. During the early years after the turn of the century, Clemmie gave birth to two boys. Franklin was born on January 8th 1903 and Ernest was born on April 7th 1907. For the years leading up to 1929 he continued in the taxi business and only gave that up for a period of about 6 years after 1929 when he operated a circus.
In 1927 the Miller Brothers Carnival Company played at the Niagara County Fair. When they packed up and left the fairground they left four red and gold wagons that they did not care to transport to their winter quarters. Norton bought these wagons with the initial thought of reselling them to make a profit. Instead of selling them they stayed at his home on Beattie avenue in Lockport. The lure of circus life caught him and he began to read books on the subject. It soon occurred to him that he would like to organize a tented show just like the famed Sig Sautelle. Sig Sautelle, well known along the length of the Erie canal, owned a very large circus with many boats and wagons that toured towns on either side of the canal. The only difference between Sig and Norton was that Norton would hook his wagons up to trucks and travel by road. His circus would be smaller because he would not have the customary Wild West show or any other after-show. In the spring of 1929 he started to organize the circus, buying up animals, food, equipment, more wagons and the tent. He hired an advance agent and on July 1st he took to the road. He started with two monkeys, a badger and a wildcat which in his circus was really a cross between a wildcat and a mountain lion. He added other animals and a number of first class circus acts before leaving.
His circus was known by the names “Norton H. Ferris Circus” or “Ferris Motorized Circus”
Lockport was the home for the show and each spring a show was held there before going on the road. Children would often come over to his home to visit the caged animals and play with the monkeys. This was particularly dangerous in those days because the animals weren't always so docile. One monkey reportedly bit off a finger of one of the children. The wildcat was recently captured, was untamed and needed extra supervision by Norton.
His first tour was through towns and villages in Niagara, Orleans and Erie counties from July 1st to July 17th , 1929. A successful tour in 1929 was followed by tours that covered several months in the following years. He disbanded at the close of the carnival season in 1935 because the business was becoming too much to handle in his later years. He returned to his taxi business for a short period of time. He retired in 1938 from poor eyesight, because he did not want to risk the safety of his passengers.
His health continued to decline and at age 80, May 11, 1942, he passed away at the Convalescent Home at 146 Caledonia street due to a long illness. In one of his obituaries it was stated that he was one of the last of the “grand old men of the carnivals”.
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