After years of planning and weeks of work, Penn Yan’s beloved art teacher Robert Gillespie is completing his mural, “Main Street Circus Parade” this week on the front of Water Street Wines and Spirits. Depicting a parade of elephants photographed on Main Street Penn Yan in 1897, Bob believes this is his 10th mural in the Finger Lakes region, and the one that shows the greatest activity. “It’s certainly the most detailed only because it on a grander level,” he says, speaking of the crowds lining the street and buildings. “One measure of a painting’s success is how long it holds the viewer’s eye,” he says. The richness of this one will most assuredly accomplish that.
Inspired by a photograph provided by the Oliver House Museum, that was taken from the top floor of Birkett Mills looking north, Bob admits he has taken some liberties with the image in the interest of art. The utility poles with telephone and electric lines that littered downtown Penn Yan in those years have been left out for the sake of aesthetics and focus, and since it was a black and white photo, the colors of the buildings and people’s clothes are all of his imagination.
Bob expressed his admiration for that unknown 1897 photographer who had the foresight to carry what may have been a large bellows or box land camera and tripod all the way up the stairs of the mill in anticipation of this morning parade to lure people to the circus that evening, probably under a big top tent at the old fairgrounds where the Lake Street Plaza now stands. The tracks seen in the painting caused some confusion, as there was never a trolley on Main Street (only on Elm), until it was noted they were tracks made in the unpaved street from the heavy bandwagon or calliope that had passed just out of frame.
Traveling circuses like this were what inspired a young Jimmy Cole to establish his own. “The Great James M. Cole Circus” poster from 1946 that Gillespie is painting beside the mural is to reference the circus that called Penn Yan home for decades. Born in 1906, Cole founded his circus in 1938, and led it until 1987 at the age of 81. Many can remember the farm near Mays Mills where the circus with its own five elephants would spend winters. Cole’s indoor circus, known for performing in schools as fundraisers for sports and music boosters, continues today as the Cole All-Star Circus, presented by Billy Martin.