Fairbury was home to the Campbell Brothers Circus and at its peak, was the second largest circus in the world. The circus, sometimes referred to as “Campbell Brothers Combined Shows” or “Campbell Brothers United Shows” began each show season in the spring with a circus parade or “wagon show” held in downtown Fairbury, featuring juggling acts, acrobats, exotic circus animals and a daring hot air balloon launch. The Campbell Brothers were rumored to have the best parade and entertainment available. Admission to the circus was 20 cents for adults and 10 cents for children.
From 1885 to 1913, the circus winter-quartered in Fairbury. They purchased lots on the south side of Fourth Street, between A and B streets and erected a barn and an arena. These winter quarters attracted the public who frequented the grounds all winter. Prior to this, the animals had been housed in rented barns on Third Street, between C and D streets. Other winter quarters were located two miles north of Fairbury and later south of Fairbury, just off of Highway 15.
The circus included parade wagons, several trained, exotic animals and equipment. Old Charlie, a big brown bear, was one of the main attractions. He was a wrestling bear who could drink from a bottle with his paws. There were also several beautiful draft horses to pull the parade wagons and steam calliope.
At the height of their success, they had eleven elephants, four camels, two tigers, two lions, a zebra, a water buffalo, ten small cages containing birds and monkeys and six large cages, fancy horses and ponies, three band wagons, a 25-piece concert band and the steam calliope with six white horses and fancy harness. Their tent was 130 to 140 feet in diameter with four to six center poles, contained three rings and two stages. The circus traveled by train throughout the country and grew to as many as 40 railroad cars.
Fires, floods, train wrecks, injuries and bad economic times plagued the show and 1912 marked the end of the Campbell Brothers Circus. A few feeble attempts were made to bring back life to the once-famous circus, but to no avail. The Campbell Brothers Circus, although extinct for nearly 100 years, is still hailed today as the model by which many modern-day circus acts are patterned after.