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Lancaster, Missouri, population 728, rests on the peaceful prairie of Schuyler County, Missouri. It would be easy to drive through the city on Highway 136, without ever thinking out about its surprising past.
More than 100 years ago, Lancaster was the home of the “Horse King of the World”, and midwest’s epicenter for circus and exotic animals, thanks to Diamond Billy Hall.
William Preston Hall was born February 19, 1864, east of Lancaster, in the Fabius neighborhood. He was one of eight children. His mother died when he was 10, and his father died when he was only 14.
Billy lived with relatives, and then worked on the Josiah Beasley farm for one dollar per week, plus room, food and clothes. He managed to save $50 in a year, and bought his first horse. Hall moved into Lancaster, and worked in Mr. Stretch’s livery stable. Billy developed a keen eye for horses.
When he was about 18 years old, Billy made his first large deal, selling a railroad car of heavy draft horses to a buyer in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He delivered the order personally. Upon his return to Lancaster, Billy had several more orders to fill. He bought horses from local farmers, and was known to purchase up to $50,000 in horses in a single day.
Hall’s growing reputation opened markets in Europe, and he sold many horses during his 30 trips to the continent, including visits to Germany, France and Italy. In 1899, he opened a sale barn in Cape Town, South Africa, to supply horses for the British Army in Boer War. Hall also provided horses for the New York City Police Department. Now a rich man, he became known as Diamond Billy Hall after purchasing $20,000 in diamonds to wear.
The St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904 asked Hall to provide hundreds of horses for their Boer War reenactment. There, Hall became fascinated with circus animal, which he had first seen on his European trips. He purchased a pair of elephants and returned to Lancaster.
Soon after, Hall purchased two small failing circuses. Huge heated barns, spanning more than a city block, were built for Hall’s exotic animals. Local farmers were hired to tend the animals. So big were his barns and stables, the railroad extended a spur line to his barns.
His lifelong love for the circus inspired him to start the W. P Hall Circus, but he closed it after one year of touring. He stayed in the business, however, providing animals to a variety of other circus. When his circus was in Lancaster, between 6000 and 10,000 people attended, coming by train for Bloomfield, Centerville, Kirksville, Unionville and across the area.
Hall’s business empire crumbled with the onset of the Great Depression. The advent of automobiles had depressed the horse market, and the economic collapse meant families couldn’t afford the admission price.
Hall passed away from cancer in June, 1932, at the age of 68.
Hall’s home in Lancaster, the William P. Hall House, is now the home of the Schuyler County Historical Society, and is maintained as a museum. The 15-room house is packed with area history, and many original pieces of furniture. It was originally built by Judge Nate Shelton in the late 1800’s, and sold to Hall in 1902.
The museum has a huge genealogy collection in the original library. The music room features quilts from some of Schuyler County’s early communities. A veteran’s room features artifacts dating from the Civil War through Iraq, and the parlor features a Rotary Club memorabilia donated by H. Middleton, who was originally from Downing.
In addition to Hall, the museum has information several other local notables, including Jesse James, K.I. Miller, who had large chicken hatcheries in both Memphis and Ottumwa, and Howard Hughes, Sr., who was born in Lancaster and made his fortune in the oilfields of Texas.
In addition to the museum house, the grounds also feature an original summer kitchen, a restored 1870’s cabin, and the one-room Green Valley School, relocated from Queen City.
In conjunction with Missouri’s bicentennial, the Schuyler County Historical Society his having a Circus Elephant Art Contest on August 10, and will host a county-wide historical tour on September 18.
The William P. Hall House Museum and Schuyler County Historical Society is located on Highway 136 in Lancaster. The museum is open Wednesday through Friday from 1 p.m to 5 p.m. or by appointment. For more information follow Schuyler County Historical Society on Facebook or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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