What might sound like a Wheeling joke (Wheeling having been West Virginia’s first capital), it’s true that a circus clown did help relocate West Virginia’s capital to Charleston, its present location.
Finding a location for the capital had been a bit of a circus anyway. At the end of the Civil War, when the state was created, Wheeling was West Virginia’s largest city, but it was far from the new state’s geographic and population center.
Martinsburg, like Wheeling, was far from convenient to the center of the state, while Clarksburg, like Charleston, was more central.
But Romeo Freer and John Kenna, who had been engaged to help rally enthusiasm for Charleston, were having little success inspiring voters. Only ten days remained before the May vote, and Freer and Kenna had not even been able to attract listeners for their speeches.
Then along came Lolo.
According to “West Virginia: A Guide to the Mountain State,” compiled in 1941 by writers for the Works Progress association, the story unfolds as such stories often do: Kenna and Freer walked into a bar —
“Kenna and Freer arrived in Huntington, fatigued and discouraged, but determined to make one last effort. They were attracted by the shrill whistling of a steam calliope. A circus parade was approaching, ‘and,’ said Kenna, `this is to be our competition for today!’
“Their last hope had faded, and they returned to the hotel bar, where a stranger invited them to have a drink. In the conversation that followed, they complained of their dilemma and lamented their failure to attract audiences. Their host said he was connected with the circus and added, ‘There ought to be some way to help you fellows. Come to the entrance of the show today, and ask for John Lowlow.’ ”
And so Lolo, the clown, took up his task of helping Charleston in its fight for the capitol.
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“He arranged for the two to travel with the circus and they were allotted five minutes during each performance to speak for their cause. For a week they traveled the territory they had failed to arouse, speaking to as many as 5,000 circus fans at one time.”
Charleston was selected by a vote greater than the total vote cast for its rivals.
Years later, when Kenna, now a U.S. Senator, had attained high standing among his associates in Washington, D.C., and had become a trusted adviser of President Grover Cleveland, John Robinson’s Circus appeared in the nation’s capital.
Recalling olden days, Kenna organized a senatorial party and all went as his guests to the circus.
“During the evening’s performance, a white-faced clown stood on a barrel-head and waved for silence. ‘Is there in the audience a man by the name of Kenna—Senator John E. Kenna of West Virginia?
“He used to travel with this circus,’ the clown announced with great solemnity.
That night John Lowlow (supposedly the clown’s real name) was the guest of a party given by Senator Kenna, and the clown’s part in locating West Virginia’s Capital was made known to the group.
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