From circus life to the quiet life

Diana Hammell/The Caledonia Argus  James O’Gorman with his canine companion Dusty.
Diana Hammell/The Caledonia Argus
James O’Gorman with his canine companion Dusty.

By Diana Hammell

Caledonia Argus


We know a great deal about our  friends and acquaintances, just as they know a good portion about our lives. Those persons we see regularly on the street, but don’t know personally, are more of a mystery to us. With our lack of information, we might picture their lives as very mundane and narrow. Who would imagine, for example, that the older gentleman we see regularly walking  Dusty, his plump dachshund, down the sidewalk was once regularly shot from a cannon?

So it is with James O’Gorman, of Caledonia, known to most who are acquainted with him as Jimmy Gorman.


Irish tinkers

“My parents were married in 1929, and my mother sang in nightclubs,” O’Gorman said. “My dad was a salesman who sold merchandise to the resorts up north in Wisconsin and Minnesota. My father was Irish; his people came from Ireland. My mother was half Cherokee from Oklahoma. My mother’s grandfather was a Cherokee Indian chief, and we called him Charlie. His Indian name was White Eagle.”

O’Gorman said that with all the driving his father did, he always liked to drive a big Cadillac. O’Gorman was born in Mississippi in 1933 and it seems that his family moved around a great deal. The Depression was on, and with all the moving his family did, O’Gorman’s education was interrupted.

“We were what they called Irish tinkers, traveling around all the time. We traveled in a little trailer. I never did go much to school,” he said. “I went to about the third grade. I took adult education here in town with Mrs. Lois Davy. She taught me to spell and stuff. We were in
San Francisco for 10 years because when we got there the second world war began and we were stuck there.”


The circus life

O’Gorman and his brother began traveling with the circus in his early teens and stayed in that sort of business for 10 years or so. “I was a trapeze artist, then I just did anything I could,” he said. “It wasn’t very long after the Depression and there was no social security. I sang a little while in Vaudeville. I sang a cappella, not needing any music. I also tap danced and played the piano.

“The circus had an old lion with hardly any teeth; you could put your head in his mouth and he wouldn’t bite you. They also had a monkey, but that would bite you; you can’t mess around with monkeys. And they had a fat lady who must have weighed at least 600 pounds. They had a sword swallower, a fire eater, a tightrope walker and a guy who threw knives at a lady. He would throw knives that would come up right by her cheek. Then they had stands where you could throw balls and win prizes and stuff like that.

“They had a bear, but the bear got out and went down to a farmer’s place and ate a bunch of his corn. The farmer came down to the circus with a gun and said, ‘You guys are stealing my corn; I’m going to put some buckshot in your butt!’ They said no, it was the bear who ate the corn, and the farmer said you’re lying, bears don’t eat corn. They threw the bear some corn and the bear ate the corn right up, and the farmer said that the bear could have the corn, but he wouldn’t give anything to the circus people.” The bear knew where ‘home’ was; he would raid the corn fields and would return to the circus.

“You had to pretty well do whatever needed to be done,” O’Gorman added. “You had to roll the tents up and pack them. It wasn’t all play. They would move about every week or two, and we would go through all that again just for another couple of days.” O’Gorman also had a dog that did tricks for him in the circus, a dachshund, like the dog he has now.

“Everybody was a clown at one time or another,” he said. “They would dress me up and I would parade around on a horse or on the one elephant. They never had any tigers. We traveled from Florida to Canada, San Francisco, Illinois, Iowa, Missouri. They were nice up in Canada. The big shows like Wringling Bros. and the other big circuses got all the business and drove all the little ones out.”


A quiet place

“I came to Caledonia about 20 years ago,” O’Gorman said. “My older brother, Bart, and I were just working up this way and we couldn’t find anything in La Crosse, and Bart said he wanted to be in a quiet place so we found a place in Caledonia.

“Me and my brother traveled a lot even after we settled down. We rode up to Winnepeg, Ontario, to a rock and roll concert up in the woods. We jumped the train; there were a lot of hobos on it anyway. The people at that rock concert went nuts up there. There were a lot of young kids up there who ran away from home to go there. Bart loved to go different places.

O’Gorman’s brother, Bart, has since passed away, but he still has a sister who also lives in her own place in Caledonia. He gets assistance from Houston County Public Health and Marcia Bauer is a name he brings up with much affection. People tend to come and go at O’Gorman’s modest home, checking on him now and then, such as Doug Rusert, who will bring cookies made by his wife, Laurel.

“I like to write now,” O’Gorman said. “I write all kinds of poetry, Christmas songs and lots of other songs.”


Emerald Isle

There’s a magical mystic place of wild sea and foam,

Where leprechauns and fairies make their home,

With a lovely emerald coat over her golden sand,

And they call her Ireland.

Where tinkers and thinkers and poets abide,

With tales as high as the veining tide,

With fields of shamrock where little houses sit all made of sod,

Surely this place was blessed by God.

And if you come and stay awhile,

You’re sure to see her smile,

This lovely emerald isle.


– By James Patrick O’Gorman