CityDig: Barnes City and L.A.’s Long Lost Circus

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Most seasoned Angelenos are aware that the Thomas Brothers were this city’s original Google Maps. Before smartphones we all had Thomas guides tucked under the passenger side seat or in the glove box to deliver us from road evil. The map sheets connected all the dots of L.A.

Way before their guides, however, the Thomas Brothers made wall maps and worked out of Oakland (!). Like any good commercial mapmakers they always tried to conceal the date of the maps they published. (After all, who wants to buy an old map?) This one, part of the John Feathers collection, is rather mysterious in terms of what is included and what is not. Everything about the map suggests it was made circa 1936: Exposition Park and the Coliseum, University of California (Southern Branch), Gilmore Stadium (but no Gilmore Park). That said, Union Station is clearly in place, but the rail hub would not open until 1939. It’s likely that the station was in the throes of construction at the time this map was rendered and is represented as a cartographic hope of a glorious opening day a few years later.

Even more mysteries lay in the inclusion of the terrific little place called Barnes City, where Al G. Barnes of the Al G. Barnes Wild Animal Circus and Zoo once created an enclave for his animals and circus folks just a whisker away from Venice and Mar Vista. Originally, Barnes was invited out to Venice by Abbot Kinney way back in 1911 to provide entertainment for those not interested in the Chautauquas and lectures that were popular at the time.

Barnes came, saw, and conquered the hearts of the hoi polloi, building his show into a touring circus that was thirty elaborate railroad cars in length. Not only did he make the area his base camp, but he put down roots there as a winter home. The hitch? Locals did not cotton to the noise of the animals and ribaldry of the circus people when they quartered there, so Barnes bought himself a nearby ranch that he named Barnes City. There is so much to say about Barnes and his more-than-colorful life, but at Barnes City he gave a home to the nomads that worked for him, including the legendary lion-tamer Mabel Stark. When the show went into cold weather hibernation, the critters and the carnies lived in harmony.

Despite his best efforts, the masses did not like sharing their neighborhoods with Barnes and what was sometimes referred to as “Monkeyville.” They managed to finally force the circus to pull up its stakes and re-locate to Baldwin Park. During their time in Barnes City however, the residents included some 4,000 animals including Tusko the seven-ton elephant, polar bears, Russian Grizzlies, a hippo named Lotus, an orangutan named Sally, and a charming giraffe named Mary. After plenty of political shenanigans and chicanery, Al G. Barnes sold the land to a developer in 1927 and the entire circus to the American Circus Corporation in 1929.

Even so, on this map, at least seven years later, his name is still emblazoned on the landscape of what is today Mar Vista.

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Los Angeles Public Library map librarian Glen Creason shares a map from the Central Library’s collection at CityThink each week.

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