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Born Mollie Arline Kirkland
"Circus Queen of the Southwest"

by John Troesser
They shoe horse
Known as the "Circus Queen of the Southwest," Mollie is said to have been born on a plantation near Mobile, Alabama November 2, 1844.

While in her early teens she eloped with Gus Bailey, a redheaded cornet player in his father's circus band. This once-popular escape for young women actually worked out for Mollie and Gus and they were married in 1858. What young woman in that day and age could resist a redheaded cornet player?

Mollie's sister Fanny and Gus' brother Alfred, joined the two and together they became the Bailey Family Troupe, singing, dancing, and acting their way across small town Alabama, Mississippi, and Arkansas. It was a definite improvement over plantation life.

With the outbreak of the Civil War Gus became bandmaster for a company in Hood's Texas Brigade. Mollie traveled as a nurse and, was for a time, a spy for Gen. Hood. Disguised as a cookie-selling crone, she easily passed through Union lines. After nursing and spying, she returned to performing in Hood's Minstrels in 1864 - performing again with Gus and Alfred.

Gus’ claim to fame was writing "The Old Gray Mare," a marching song that became a popular period piece. The song was so popular that by 1928 it was used as a theme song for the Democratic convention of 1928. After the war ended, the Baileys toured southern river towns with a showboat as the Bailey Concert Company. In 1879 they traded the slight inconvenience of showboating for the bone-jarring rigors of a traveling circus.

The circus was billed as "A Texas Show for Texas People." Since Gus was forced into early retirement by poor health, the circus became known as the Mollie A. Bailey Show.

Mollie had a policy of free admission for veterans – be they Confederate or Union. Her generosity with free passes extended to include poor children. For a one-ring circus, The Mollie Bailey Show’s fame was widespread - in no small part due to a grueling schedule. After reading existing handbills that show the circus striking tents in Hempstead one day, putting them up in Navasota the next and Brenham the day after, it’s easy to understand Gus’ poor health.

Gus Bailey died in 1896 at Blum, Texas and Mollie became even more devoted to the circus. To avoid paying locally levied entertainment taxes, Mollie bought lots in towns she frequently visited. In this way she would be performing on her property – and she’d owe no tax. She allowed the towns to use the lots for picnics and ball games when she didn’t need them – which was about 363 days per year. These properties were eventually deeded over to the towns and many are small parks to this day.

The circus started traveling by train in 1906, the same year she married A. H. “Blackie” Hardesty, the circus’ (gas) lighting manager. Mollie and Blackie lived in an opulent observation car frequently entertaining distinguished guests like governors, state senators and even Comanche chief Quanah Parker. Former members of Hood's Brigade were, of course, always welcome.

After their marriage, Blackie’s surname of Hardesty was soon forgotten. He became, for all intents and purposes (other than legal), Blackie Bailey.

As a footnote to movies in Texas, Mollie Bailey has been credited with introducing the first motion picture in Texas. Shown in a separate tent, it was reportedly a film portraying the sinking of the Battleship Maine in Havana Harbor. You were expecting maybe Birth of a Nation?

After “Birda,” the youngest of her nine children (her first child was named “Dixie”) died in 1917, Mollie stopped touring and directed the circus by telegraph. She died the next year on October 2, 1918, in Houston. The circus soon dissolved without her hands-on management.

“Blackie” Bailey became a jitney driver between Houston and Goose Creek (Baytown). Much younger than Mollie, Blackie lived another 19 years, and undoubtedly had some great circus stories to share with his passengers.

Although there is no tombstone that is marked Mollie Bailey or even Mollie Arline Kirkland, The Texas Historical Commission has a marker erected at the Bailey plot – at the rear of Houston’s Hollywood Cemetery (North Main at I-45). Sponsors listed on the back of the marker show that Mollie’s descendants are keeping her name alive.
© John Troesser
"They shoe horses, don't they?" - December 1, 2004 Column
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