George Satterlee always had a flair for the dramatic. Too young to serve as a soldier during the Civil War, he joined the Union Army as a drummer boy. In army camp surroundings, young George learned ventriloquism and magic tricks. When the conflict ended, he took his first show on the road, a Punch-and-Judy affair. The surname “Satterlee” didn’t have quite the requisite theatrical ring to satisfy George, so he adopted a more exotic name, Signor Sautelle. The public soon dubbed him “Sig.”
For the next five decades Sautelle, an inveterate circus showman, plied his trade with the able aid of his wife, Ida Belle, through a series of wagon, boat and train shows throughout New York and the northeast. Sig Sautelle became a well-known personality here, his name splashed across billboards and posters to promote his colorful extravaganzas. His collection of bareback riders, trapeze artists, tumblers, clowns, high-wire performers and animals thrilled young and old alike. Yet today, Sig’s name is barely remembered.
Sig’s fame grew with the Erie Canal
During Sautelle’s era, the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Erie Canal had become a critical commercial artery through upstate New York. Crossroads hamlets and tiny villages along its route rapidly grew and transformed into booming towns and cities. It was only natural that along with their usual cargo – produce, grain, lumber, machinery – canallers would bring a dose of show business dazzle to entertain country folk in the thriving communities up and down the “Old Erie.”
In the early 1880s, impresario Sautelle saw this opportunity and took it. Sig reorganized his original small rolling wagon circus and planned a new itinerary using the canal as his route. After all, floating the show along smooth Erie waters offered certain advantages over endless wagon rides over bumpy, rugged country roads.
Sig and Ida chose Syracuse as their base of operations. Their troupe loaded necessary equipment and animals aboard several canal boats and set out to entertain and delight the local citizenry in burgs along the Erie. The circus wagons were redesigned with smaller than normal wheels and spokes, to enable their passing under the canal’s renowned “low bridges.” Large letters painted on the side of each boat proudly proclaimed, “SIG SAUTELLE’S BIG SHOWS.”
Before long, his performances, described as “always first-class and conducted upon purely honorable principles,” established Sig as one of the most highly respected showmen in the circus business. Genial and generous, he had a personality that connected with audiences. Besides, boasted Sautelle of the modest admission price, “It is a splendid fifty-cent show reduced to only ten and twenty cents admission.”
Entertainment on the canal in those legendary days was later memorialized in novels by noted New York authors Samuel Hopkins Adams and Walter D. Edmonds. Adams tells of a traveling theater company in Banner by the Wayside. In Chad Hanna, Edmonds scripts the tale of a youth from the village of Canastota who ties on with the traveling Huguenine’s Circus as it makes its way through upstate canal country, a story perhaps inspired by Sautelle’s fabled shows.
Sautelle’s show delighted the multitudes with its colorful array of characters. Heading the list were William Irwin (“the most marvelous equilibrist that lives”) and his wife, Mademoiselle Irwin (“the strongest lady in the world”). Conora Berato (“The Sylph of the Floating Wire”), Sam Alix (“The Wonderful Human Spider on the Swinging Perch”) and John Blendinger (“The Champion Egyptian Fire Juggler”) were other crowd favorites.
Homer becomes home base
When the canal closed down for cold weather, Sautelle anchored his boats at Syracuse’s Clinton Square. He stored his equipment, and found shelter for his animals and a winter home for himself and Ida Belle. Then, the entrepreneurial Sig turned his boats into lager saloons. Ever the entertainer, he ran small shows and a dog circus to amuse the locals during those long, chill months.
A number of years passed. In 1887, with the advent of improved roadways, Sautelle pulled his show off the canal and went back “on the hoof” with rolling wagons that used wide wheels designed for additional comfort, stability, and support. His route was no longer limited to the canal towpath, so Sig could lengthen his season, traveling far and wide to visit communities that guaranteed his business further prosperity. Indeed, the show thrived. By 1891, according to John C. Kunzog’s book Tan Bark and Tinsel, “(Sautelle) had 225 people on the payroll, boasted two elephants, 14 cages of animals and 150 head of horses and ponies.”
Leaving Syracuse, and after a brief sojourn in the village of DeRuyter, Sautelle moved his base of operations to Homer, New York, in 1900. Homer welcomed Sig, who immediately purchased a hotel to house his circus folk. He went on to construct three peculiar buildings in town, each painted brick red and octagon-shaped to resemble a circus tent. One was used as an animal barn, another as a training barn and the third as the Sautelle’s personal residence. He acquired other nearby buildings for additional storage, and wagon painting and repair.
Sautelle’s flamboyant character, and the establishment of the village as show headquarters, gave Homer a proud presence. Sig became a popular personality, often walking the streets while puffing a cigar, a diamond pin in his lapel. Stories persist that Sig used his ventriloquism skills to tantalize the local youths. In Homer’s confectionary store, to give the impression of a man trapped in the basement, he would carry on a conversation through a hot-air register in the floor with a helpless voice below howling, “Let me out, let me out!” As the children gazed through the grate bewildered, Sig stood by with a twinkle in his eye.
The opening of each new season brought a lively parade. Music blared as wagons rumbled past high-spirited adults and excited children who lined Homer’s Main Street. As banners fluttered, performers waved to spectators and animals paced behind the bars of rolling cages to the delight of the crowd.
These were good times for Sig Sautelle and his show. He had become a wealthy man. The business, forever built on a foundation of wholesome entertainment, experienced continued growth and success.
Another new era began when Sig, using his increased revenues, put his show “on the rails” in 1902. Traveling in large railroad cars, the show continued to expand as it reached larger and more profitable markets farther away from home base.
Hitting the skids
In 1904, Sig’s beloved Ida Belle suffered a stroke. While Sig was always the spirited and clever showman, it was Ida who possessed the critical business sense. She handled the money, paid the bills and made sensible financial decisions. With Ida unable to carry on the rigors of circus life, fortunes began to change for Sig and his show.
Sautelle sold the circus and started anew. At various times, he partnered with the likes of Barnum & Bailey, The Welch Brothers and Rollins & Lowande. Ida Belle’s health problems continued and with her passing in 1916, the rest of Sig’s life was filled with ups and downs, intermittent shows and even farming. Without Ida’s reliable partnership, Sig’s old enthusiasm for show business waned. Yet, to the end of his life, he performed small shows for schools and other community groups, events he jokingly referred to as “Great Sig Sautelle’s Suitcase Circus.” As Sig’s career had risen gradually, it wound down in much the same way. He was near 80 when he died in 1928.
Very little remains today indicating that a circus legend was once a fixture in Homer. Only one of the famous octagon buildings has survived, a three-story house on South Main Street. The weathered structure has seen many uses since Sid walked its hallways, but still it stands, a cupola-ed connection to the past. In the archives of local historical societies are collections of yellowed newspaper clippings and articles recalling those memorable days. Long faded into the past are the sounds of clip-clopping horses and the riff of drums and horns as Sautelle’s circus proudly paraded through Homer’s streets, hitting the road for another spirited season.
by James P. Hughes
James P. Hughes, a retired teacher living in Syracuse, enjoys the history and beauty of the Finger Lakes and regularly roams the region. He has contributed several articles to Life in the Finger Lakes.