As a created capital city in 1812, Columbus was an isolated frontier village for much of its early history.
By the time the Ohio General Assembly met in Columbus for the first time in 1816, the village consisted of about 700 residents.
Some of the new people were settlers looking for a new life, among them doctors, lawyers and sellers of goods and services. But the primary businesses in the new town seem to have been inns and taverns.
An earlier history of the city described the drinking habits of the town.
“The use of distilled liquors was very common, and every tavern had its licensed bar. The guest was usually invited by his host to one gratuitous dram in the evening and one in the morning; whatever additional fluid refreshments he consumed, he paid for. ‘Tanzy Bitters’ were freely imbibed as a supposed preventive of prevailing fevers. The habit of treating was common, and at the Russell Tavern, it was a rule with the loungers who used to sit on the sidewalk benches in front, that the first one to rise should treat the rest.”
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That history noted that coffeehouses had become popular, as well.
“The coffeehouse of the period was a place for gossip, refreshment and gaming. Among the exhilarating drinks dispensed there, coffee was one of the least called for, or thought of. The borough and early city life of the capital developed many of these establishments, by far the most popular and important of which was that of John Young. … Originally in 1826, it took the humble title of ‘bakehouse and grocery,’ but in a few years it became known far and wide as the Eagle Coffeehouse.
“People loved a little recreation then, as they do now, and John Young’s was the place to find it.”
Occasionally, things got a little out of hand.
“The establishment had a public bathhouse attached to it – probably the only one in town – the water for which was pumped by a big, black bear, chained to a treadmill in the backyard … one of the bystanders remarked to a comrade that he would like to see ‘just for the fun of it’ what would happen if the bear should break loose. A few minutes later the bear did break loose, and a general scatterment followed. … The bear was soon secured by his keeper, and the loungers resumed their juleps and jollity.”
For a time, it was assumed that nothing could top the story of “The Day the Bear Broke Loose.”
Then Tippo came to town.
The early history of the city reported: “Of theatrical entertainments the borough was entirely destitute, but we hear of its visitation by certain vagrant exhibitions for village entertainment at quite an early period. Under date of April 21, 1827, the arrival in Columbus of ‘Tippo Sultan, the Great Hunting Elephant’ was thus advertised:
“The performance of Tippo Sultan, together with the dexterity and intrepidity of his keeper, produces a spectacle not only curious and diverting, but in some instances interesting to the spectator and dangerous to the keeper … the Mammoth Lion, Tiger, Cat, Lynx, Shetland Pony, Dandy Jack, etc. etc. The above-named animals will be seen at Mr. Russell’s Tavern, Columbus, on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, the 27th, 28th and 29th inst. The exhibition will be accompanied with good music. Admittance 25 cents – children under 12 years of age half price.”
And once again, as the early history reported, things got a bit out of hand.
“This is one of the first attempts at public entertainment made at the capital of Ohio. At night, the ‘hunting elephant’ was locked up in the tavern backyard where, during one of the nights of his sojourn, he broke loose, and for awhile amused himself by pumping water at the well. Finally, he broke the pump handle, and looking around for some new pastime spied two barrels of flour standing on the back porch. Breaking into these, he, for a while, ate flour and drank water alternately until he converted the residue of the flour into paste.”
“Awakened by the noise, Mr. Russell descended and was received by the elephant with a fusillade of dough. Beating a retreat, the discomfited host aroused the keeper of the frolicsome beast, who, after some effort, succeeded in getting him tied again.”
No further mention is made of problems, so it seems that Tippo and his animal associates were well-received. Other traveling menageries, musical groups and theatrical companies would visit Columbus in the next few years, with the first circus an English one called “Pippins” arriving in 1834 or 1835.
An early history reported: “The first building in Columbus intended especially for a theatre, was erected by a joint stock company in 1835. … The establishment took the name of Columbus Theatre. … Among the most popular plays at the old Columbus Theatre were ‘St. George and the Dragon,’ ‘Mazeppa’ and ‘Cataract of the Ganges.’”
And apparently a good time was had by all.
Local historian and author Ed Lentz writes the As It Were column for ThisWeek Community News and The Columbus Dispatch.