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Issue Date: September 2007 Issue

Seeing a living unicorn

Twenty-two years ago, television advertisements by Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus promised children an opportunity to see a unicorn at the Richfield Coliseum. How could anyone pass up that opportunity?
Matt Tullis
In 1985, I truly became country. My family moved our trailer out of the trailer park and onto a piece of land just outside the tiny village of Apple Creek, near Wooster. Our new home was about 15 feet away from corn and soybean fields that were, in the spring, sprayed with liquid fertilizer. The smell of manure, not surprisingly, soaked into everything we owned: our curtains, our furniture, our clothes.

Aside from the smell we carried with us throughout the summer, the new land was wonderful. We had a great bike path, and we were also close enough to town to ride our bikes there from time to time; to the Golden Bear Dariette for ice cream or the Apple Creek Town and Country for a candy bar or a pack of baseball cards.

This was also the year I lost faith in promises of the fantastic.

As a member of the school Safety Patrol, I got to stand in the middle of state Route 250 holding an impotent stick with a red flag that pleaded “stop” to the semis that barreled through town. Safety Patrol had two main benefits: We got out of class early, and we were treated to a trip each year.

In 1985, we had all agreed to go to the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. It was a very special year for that circus. At a time when all the girls’ Trapper Keepers were plastered with rainbows and unicorns, the circus promised what we had always been told was imaginary: Ringling Brothers promised to show us the world’s only living unicorn.

As a boy, my desire to see the unicorn did not lie in how pretty the animal might be, or what magical abilities its horn possessed. I didn’t care about how silky soft the tail would be, nor was I excited to see the unicorn’s blinding whiteness. No. What I was interested in seeing was the impossible. I had long given up hope on Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny. I didn’t believe in the Tooth Fairy. And I sure as heck didn’t believe in unicorns, until Ringling Bros. promised me it was possible. They offered a world where the mythical was real, and I believed them.

We filed to our seats when we got to Richfield. We were pretty high up in the arena, but the circus, in all its largeness, had filled the empty space below with purples and reds and oranges, colors that dazzled my eyes. The circus began, and I was riveted to my seat. The clowns were funny. The acrobats were acrobatic. There were elephants and the usual circus fare. I recall guys riding motorcycles in a spherical cage, but that memory could be coming from some other event I attended. Twenty-two-year-old memories tend to blend together.

We all were waiting, it seemed, for the star of the circus’s marketing campaign. Like a television show dragging out the climax until the final minutes, the circus offered no glimpse of the magical creature for what seemed like hours. It tainted the night. I could not focus on the clowns or the trapezes or the cotton candy or the elephants or the music or anything else. But then, the ringmaster announced that we were about to see what we had all come to see.

A unicorn, according to the fairy tales, was a horse with a horn sprouting from its forehead. I trained my eyes on the spot where the unicorn was to appear. The colors hung in the air. The smells, cotton candy, hot dogs, elephant dung, floated to the ceiling. Slowly, an animal rose through the stage. I looked at my friends to see their reaction.

This creature had the long hair, but the face was less than equine. There was a long, single horn protruding from its head, but the animal seemed too small and not at all magnificent.

Something was askew.

And then it clicked. The circus may have been able to fool the kids from Cleveland, the ones who grew up believing cows to be every bit as mythical as a unicorn, but it was clear to those of us from Apple Creek, to those of us whose clothes frequently smelled of manure, that we were not looking at the mythical unicorn at all.

I don’t know if the horn was fake, a prosthetic, perhaps, or if it was some mean genetic engineering project. But I did know I wasn’t looking at something that was elusive, something that was magical, something that I had never seen before.

This animal, the one the circus held up to such high esteem, the one that had buoyed hope in my young heart that there was magic in this world, was nothing more than a goat.
Sunday, November 30, 2008 4:31:02 PM by Anonymous
LOL it fool me too bud, I'm a year older and from baltimore but I was so happy to see a unicorn..ha. It was great being a kid and thinking back to a time when you didn't know any better was good. In the day of reality everything a little make believe is kind of nice.
Monday, August 24, 2009 3:17:54 PM by Anonymous
Ringling owned all four unicorns, made via the same procedure. Goat hornbuds are only on the skin when born. The inside half of each bud was reattached in the center of the forehead, swapped so the curving would grow inward and make a straight horn. The mature unihorns were real. Two unicorns of one breed were quite fat, but had longer horns and long flowing white hair. The other breed was smaller, greyish white, and had stubby horns, but looked much like the Tapestry Unicorn. I always thought they made a huge mistake in using a fat one.
Friday, November 05, 2010 2:36:44 PM by Anonymous
Finally a correct story. Basically I recall they came from either University of Arizona ( or New Mexico ?) as an experiment. R Bros heard about it and the rest of the story was told. The horn was real, just regrown when they young kids. Thru there circus travels they were treated as royalty, with many "protests and investigations....$1,000,000 worth of publicity - for free was a certain managements remark
Wednesday, July 06, 2011 11:26:32 PM by Anonymous
A truly classic circus marketing tale, and what Barnum referred to as a humbug. Long live the unicorn! This way to the egress ->
Thursday, July 28, 2011 8:25:21 PM by melon man
It was that circus that had the motorcycle guys in the metal sphere riding around. I know because my mom took me several years in a row when I was a kid. Interesting to find out it was a goat because I always rememembered it being like a sheep thing with a completely fake horn but I didn't have the best seats either.

Great story!
Wednesday, November 02, 2011 6:36:45 AM by Liz
The owners of the original unicorn in the circus was bred and altered by a couple who were first in the Santa Cruz area and later in the Willits area. In 1983 they brought the son of the Ringling Brothers unicorn to a yearly celebration to Ukiah. My son, about a year old at the time, was photographed holding the horn of the small goat kid as was many other kids. The story they told was that the horn grew after the moonlight was directed through an amethyst ring at the goat's head. The couple word renaissance type of clothing to futher enhance the myth of the unicorn. I still have the button picture of my son holding the horn in 19 83. The next year we went to the circus in San Diego where the Unicorn was shown and he was considerably larger than his son. I also am a farm kid and that was no equine creature I was looking around or handling with my son on my lap the year before.
Sunday, April 07, 2013 6:17:07 PM by Anonymous
The motorcycles you saw are real. There are lots of groups and or families that do this act. This one was the Urias family. I know, I worked that show. The best I have seen to date is the one that is on the RBBB Blue Unit, Dragons. The best barrel riders I have seen was a group of real bikers who did it on old Harley bikes and an antique Indian Motorcycle at a show at the Barbers Museum several years ago. The unicorn WAS treated royally! His name .... Lancelot, we called him Lance. May all your days.... you know the rest! :0)
Saturday, February 21, 2015 11:14:06 PM by Anonymous
I'm more than a little disappointed that the writer hasn't done more research on the subject. But perhaps his only feeble purpose was to regale us with his own childhood disappointments. The horse version of a unicorn is relatively modern. I study folklore and mythologies. The fabled unicorn actually originated from the discovery of a goat with a genetic mutation of only having one horn in the center of its head. Such a mutation was rare and naturally considered magical in the era it was first noticed. In contemporary art, however, people didn't think a goat looked very glamorous and so artists re-did the image of a unicorn as a horse. Remnants of it's original form of the goat often still remain amongst the cloven hooves, beard, and tail associated with goats. You might notice that the farther back in art history you travel, the more goat-like the unicorns are.

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