Some interesting visitors arriving in Athens in 1937 were to appear in a tent show in the courthouse square but they didn’t actually have to come far. For they were part of the Congoland traveling show which had their “winter quarters” just north of Athens. And the visitors weren’t your normal company, but actually a gorilla and other furry, scaled and feathered creatures.
According to the advertisement in the May 13, 1937 Athens Weekly Review, local residents were encouraged to see the show that Saturday, May 15 and if they wanted the “exotic” then they’d certainly find it in the show operated by Ed Roach.
So what would they see? Among the attractions there was the “real gorilla” (as large as a man!), a 50 pound rat (world’s largest!) a 36 foot python (largest alive!) as well as a deadly cobra (world’s most poisonous snake!). Today we can are quite accustomed to seeing primates and other animals on television or even in a local zoo, but in 1937 seeing such “exotic creatures” in person was a rare experience so Mr. and Mrs. Roach drew large crowds around the country with their traveling exhibitions.
We get more details in the other articles in that May 13 issue of the Review as we learn how the couple acquired their exhibits.
The reporter wrote, “Mr. and Mrs. Ed Roach, proprietors of Congoland, arrived home Tuesday night from New York where they have been to purchase new animals and reptiles.” They had reportedly brought several primates and reptiles with them, expecting other acquisitions to arrive by express later.
They had purchased two giant pythons, both weighing over 300 pounds and described as “very colorful and largest of all serpents.” There were also some cobras, snakes that were deadly killers in their home country in India. The Roaches explained that a few of the cobras would be put on display, but the others would be used in research to find a remedy for their deadly bite.
Mr. and Mrs. Roach had traveled to New York to meet the ships that arrived from around the world bringing animals meant for potential exhibition. There had been one acquisition the reporter described: “From South America they purchased a very rare serpent called the Anacondor [sic], which is green of color, is 29 feet long and has a huge head,” wrote the reporter, who added, “This type of snake is hard to handle on account of its enormous head.”
So why the show in Athens? Stated the reporter: “Mr. Roach said today that they had received so many demands locally to exhibit their animals that they decided to exhibit here before starting on their trek north.”
So when the Athens show was finished, the Congoland exhibition was to travel to Minnesota to open a show on May 26 then they were to move on to other locations in the northwest and then Canada, arriving back to the Athens area by November.
The Congoland show was described by the reporter as “one of the most interesting animal shows on the road and Athens and Henderson county people will no doubt turn out in large numbers for the premier performance here Saturday.”
A few years later the Congoland show returned to Athens with another show and a special feature were several “midget cattle.” Show-goers paid a 10c admission and proceeds were to benefit the Red Cross.
The cattle were to be part of what an article in the February 5, 1942 Weekly Review described as “part of the huge Congoland Show.” One cow, 34 ½ inches high was featured in the popular Ripley’s Believe it or Not cartoon series and was supposed to have produced her weight in milk in 11 days.
We get more interesting information about Mr. and Mrs. Roach and their show from a recent South Dakota obituary for their young niece Elizabeth since as a small child she lived with them and toured with the show. Born in 1939, Elisabeth went to live with the Roaches at the death of her mother.
In the obituary a grandchild remembered that Elizabeth performed with a chimp named Suzie who rode a bicycle and smoked cigarettes. Elizabeth and Susie wore matching outfits in the act and on the road they even shared bunk beds. Then when Susie died the show “crumbled” and so Ed Roach sold the show and retired to his profitable ranch. Elizabeth and her family eventually relocated to South Dakota.