Source: NMHS Newsletter, August 1989

Call Me Madame by Dr. L.Z. Bunker

Mary E. Travelbee was born in the North Manchester area in 1852, the daughter of John and Mary Travelbee.  We first hear of her when she ran off with a traveling circus at the age of 16.  Imagine this in 1868!

She married the owner of the circus, William Colgrove, and was a part of show business for half a century, becoming a prominent lady rider and giving equestrian exhibitions for which she received many awards.

Late in her career in the 1900’s she gave one or more performances at the North Manchester fair, appearing on a beautiful black horse and wearing a black broadcloth, side saddle, riding habit. 

Tales of her earlier days abounded.  She was a friend of Annie Oakley and invented the divided riding skirt for her.  The circus went to Europe, and she was decorated by the crowned  heads there.  She was presented at court to Queen Victoria, and she well might have been, for the queen had a fancy for show people.  Mr. Tom Thumb and his wife, the Great Boldini and Buffalo Bill were among those whom Madame Colgrove claimed as her friends.

The Colgrove Circus, with Madame as its equestrian star, traveled over the United States and Canada for many years.  But by 1910 or so the circus was gone, Mr. Colgrove was dead, and Madame was so reduced in circumstances that she took a hair dressing course in Chicago and came back to her hometown as hair dresser and wig maker, the first in this community.  She had a shop at 105 East Main Street which was furnished with faded grandeur of her earlier days---a colossal mirror, several Belter chairs and a beautiful Belter table---priceless antiques today!

She had somehow retained the old Travelbee homestead on South Sycamore Street in North Manchester, where she lived with numerous pets and James Wilson, an Oklahoma Indian who was a horse trainer at the stables at the North Manchester fairgrounds.  It is not known if she had any horses, but she apparently did not ride, having become somewhat afflicted with arthritis.

She continued her beauty shop a number of years and eventually sold out to Mrs. Myra Rick who came here from Chicago.

Madame was an ardent spiritualist.  Mediums would come to her house for séances, which were popular entertainment in town for several seasons.  She thought she was in daily communication with her deceased husband.

As time passed she became increasingly crippled and was helped by kindly neighbors.  One of these told of wondering about Madame’s tales about her life in Chicago high society, when Madame produced a number of gorgeous gowns, sewn up in muslin bags, that she had worn in happier days.

Eventually she went to live at the Wabash County Poor Farm, but this is really not as bad as it sounds as the Poor Farm served as a low cost nursing home at that time and was the only alternative to the hospital.  One can imagine her sitting on the broad veranda, regaling her fellow patients with tales of Annie Oakley and Buffalo Bill and the happy days of the circus. 

She died in 1923 and is buried beside her parents in the family plot in Oaklawn Cemetery, North Manchester.