Remembering West Point history through old tales

Published 8:00 am Thursday, October 4, 2018

My good friend Robin Brown, the archivist at Cobb Memorial Archives, showed me something she’d come across recently. I found it most interesting, and I’d like to share it with our readers.

It’s the remembrances of a man named George P. Oslin, who grew up in West Point in the latter half of the nineteenth century and went on to great success with the Western Union Company. He’s credited with being the inventor of the singing telegram. When reading his book, one can’t help but feel that Oslin was the kind of guy who saw that life was an adventure, and he wanted to live it to the fullest. The singing telegram is an example of that. To Oslin, most people who were receiving a telegram braced themselves for bad news. He wanted to change that. The singing telegram was a means of cheering up people and brightening their days with good news and joy.

That happy outlook on life is something he learned as a lad growing up in West Point, Ga. He loved going to the Nickelodeons that were shown in downtown theaters for an admission price of five cents. Youngsters could marvel at the still pictures being shown on a screen along with the words to a song. While a man played the piano, another man would lead the crowd in singing. In the warm weather months, large tents would be erected down by the river and crowds would gather to hear lectures and Chautauqua shows.

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His most vivid memories were of seeing the legendary showman Buffalo Bill Cody and the famed escape artist Houdini down by the river in West Point. “I was excited when Pony Express rider Buffalo Bill Cody came to town with his outdoor show,” Oslin wrote. “Dressed in a fringed tan buckskin outfit, sporting a mustache, goatee and hair to his shoulders, he told the audience of how he’d killed thousands of buffalo,” he wrote.

Oslin was amazed at the skill of trick-shot artist Annie Oakley who would hit every glass ball that Buffalo Bill tossed in the air for her to shoot. “There was never a miss,” he wrote, adding that Indians in native dress added much to the show.

“The great escape artist, Houdini, held everyone awestruck,” added Oslin. “Tied in a strait jacket and chained inside a trunk, he was lowered ever so slowly into the river. Everyone watched in breathless horror, thinking he had drowned, and all were greatly relieved when he finally emerged from the water safely.”

West Point was a major stopping place on the railroad during this day. There were four major hotels in the downtown area offering places to stay for those who traveled on the A&WP. It was the I-85 of its day. With the downtown area being a congregating place, the Opera House on the corner of West 3rd and West 8th attracted top-flight performances from such noted singers as Jenny Lind and Lilly Langtry.

In our DAYS GONE BY section last Saturday, we ran a photo of downtown West Point on Circus Day. An unbelievable crowd of people had gathered to see the procession rumble through town. The big attraction, of course, were the elephants leading the parade.

There’s an old story of a farmer living in a remote region getting word that a circus was coming to town. He made plans to go there and see it just to see the elephants. Unfortunately, he was a day late on getting into town on his buckboard. The circus was leaving town and passing him in the opposite direction. The sight of  the big elephants frightened the man’s horses. They kicked and bolted off the side of the road, smashing the buckboard and injuring the farmer.

As he was recovering from his injuries, someone asked the farmer was it worth it to go to town that day. “Of course it was,” he said. “I’ve seen the elephant.”

The phrase stuck. Seeing the elephant now means an exciting adventure, the thrill of a lifetime and something that was well worth it even if it came at great cost.

It’s good to know now that West Point was at one time a place where people could see the elephant.