He was the son of a preacher who adopted Wauseon as his home and left a legacy of showmanship that captivated audiences across the nation.
His exploits have been captured in “The Amazing Showman of Clinton Street: The World of Wood Campbell, P.T. Barnum and Wild Bill Cody,” a special Museum of Fulton County exhibit premiering June 1. The interactive exhibit follows Woodson T. Campbell as he made himself a name as a performer, entrepreneur, and friend to some of history’s more colorful characters.
The exhibit will include historical photos, authentic Native American costumes from Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, and show items used by Woodson and Cody including a 19th century circus tent and a Fiji mermaid.
Held in the museum’s 1,000 square foot middle gallery, “The Amazing Showman” exhibit will run through April 20, 2020.
Swearingen said the exhibit was conceived through stories of Woodson told by the late Ruth Zimmerman. She lived at the showman’s old residence, the well-known Hollister House, located at the corner of Clinton and Elm streets, across from the Wauseon fire station.
Campbell was born in Fairview, Ind., in 1851, to Rev. George and Sarah Campbell, who eventually moved the family to Wauseon. The young Campbell held jobs in a printing office and as a sewing machine agent and a hotel clerk prior to his parents’ deaths in the early 1870s. Afterward, he joined the Cooper and Bailey Circus, selling tickets and performing in sideshows.
Over the next 20 years, Campbell joined other circuses including Forepaugh and W.C. Coup, traveling the U.S. Along the way, he hooked up with the Barnum Circus in New York City, performing a trick in a sideshow act. Later, he partnered with William Hagar to open a “dime” museum of exhibits and curiosities – nicknamed for the dime admission price – in Philadelphia, which he operated while still occasionally traveling with P.T. Barnum’s circus.
After the partners sold the museum a couple years later, Hagar used his profits to start a race horse farm in Fulton County at the current location of County Roads B and 13. Campbell paid a visit and met his future wife, Lura Hollister of Wauseon. Following their nuptials, his new bride made it clear to Campbell that his circus days were over.
“She said, no more of this circus stuff,” according to Swearingen. “She said, ‘It is not socially acceptable for you to be a circus man. That is unseemly.’”
So Campbell founded his own short-lived thoroughbred breeding farm, helped operate an opera hall in Cleveland, and bred circus ponies with Hagar.
In the 1890s, the couple moved to Cleveland, where Campbell partnered with a friend, Frank Drew, to open a burlesque theater showcasing family entertainment. However, “He can’t get the circus out of his bloodstream,” Swearingen said.
He teamed up again with Hagar and bred trick ponies for circuses. At some point, Campbell met Buffalo Bill Cody, a legendary army scout traveling with his own wild west show. He joined Cody’s show in the early 1900s, and traveled with it during summers, along with Lura, their friend, Annie Oakley, and Campbell’s nephew, Donald Van Buren, who later became a Fulton County judge.
By the 1920s, Campbell wealth allowed him to own several homes. They included a summer house near Orlando, Fla., and the permanent Hollister residence at Clinton and Elm streets in Wauseon, which he and Lura inherited from her father after his death. It was at the Hollister house in the show’s off months that the Campbells hosted Cody, Oakley, and others from the traveling show.
While in Florida during the winter, they hosted “snowbirds” from Wauseon seeking warmer weather. On one occasion, the Campbells threw a potluck party for 354 guests from the north.
When Wood Campbell died in 1929, a train carrying employees and equipment for the Barnum and Bailey Circus stopped in Wauseon. The performers then paraded through Wauseon Union Cemetery, ending at Campbell’s gravesite to pay their respects.
Swearingen said “The Amazing Showman exhibit will allow guests to be interactive. They can sell tickets at a circus barker’s station, and be transformed into a bearded woman, a clown or a circus showman. Children can make and take home Annie Oakley and Buffalo Bill puppets.
“You can be part of the show,” Swearingen said. “Come one, come all.”
“The Amazing Showman” exhibit will be included in the museum’s regular admission price: adults, $8; senior citizens, $7; and children, $3. The museum is located at 8848 State Highway 108, in Wauseon.
Reach David J. Coehrs at 419-335-2010.