In Houston, Texas on the I-45 access road and North Main outside Historic Hollywood Cemetery is a roadside marker dedicated to Mollie Arline Kirkland Bailey who has to be one of the most colorful Texas women who ever lived.
Mollie Bailey was the daughter of William and Mary Kirkland of Alabama, and was born on a plantation there. Her actual date of birth is unknown, but is thought to between about 1841 and 1844. Against her parents’ wishes, she and James Augustus Bailey were married in 1858 and Mollie was told by her parents never to return to the plantation. The son of a circus owner and grand master of the family circus company, “Gus” Bailey formed the Bailey Family Troupe with Mollie, Gus’ brother Alfred, and Mollie’s sister Fanny, making a circuit through the south until the outbreak of the Civil War. Gus and Alfred Bailey joined the Confederate Army in 1861, enlisting in Hood’s Texas Brigade. Gus led the regimental band, and in an unusual turn of events, Mollie traveled with them as a nurse and as a member of Hood’s minstrels, entertaining the troops. At the same time, she is known to have crossed into Union territory to obtain and carry back medicine (in her hair) and messages in support of the Confederate troops. She also served as a scout when not entertaining or serving in other capacities.
Husband Gus, it is claimed, wrote words to familiar folk song “The Old Gray Mare” for Mollie. The lyrics we now know, “She ain’t what she used to be…” were apparently not part of the original lyrics that were based on the tale of a horse which almost died after eating green corn but revived when given medicine. Following the end of the war, Gus and Mollie Bailey and their children continued to travel as entertainers. In 1879 they bought a small circus and moved to Texas. Billed as “A Texas Show for Texas People,” it became the Mollie A. Bailey Show following Gus’ retirement, having headquarters in Dallas, Houston and Blum in the Hill Country.
The circus had become a welcome addition to the Texas scene, as far back as the earliest days of Texas independence, although it was commonplace by then in other parts of the country. As early as 1850, John Robinson’s Great Southern Show made its first appearance in the Lone Star State, and attendees often traveled by wagon, horseback, or by foot to see the performances. Later groups included the Ortonn and Olders Circus and the United States Circus owned by Haight and Chambers.
At its peak, the Bailey Circus included camels and elephants, added in 1902. They traveled in as many as 31 wagons before rail cars were added in 1906. Mollie had purchased a very fine Pullman combination to transport the people, animals and apparatus. The company endured good times and bad times, even surviving a tornado in Lamesa, Texas in 1907. The Bailey Circus was generally quite active in Texas but also traveled throughout the south. At one point it owned as many as 100 lots in Texas towns that were used for the annual appearances and allowed the communities to use them for camp meetings, ball games and the like when the circus was not in town. The troupe eventually added motion pictures to the traveling attractions. Confederate and Union veterans were allowed free attendance, and others who were unable to buy tickets were given passes to the shows.
After Gus’ death in 1896, Mollie (often referred to as Aunt Mollie) continued to operate the circus, a popular annual event in many towns. She was known as the “Circus Queen of the Southwest.” In 1906 Mollie married A. H. “Blackie” Hardesty, a circus employee, but continued to use her former name. She personally ran the circus until around 1914-1917. After falling and breaking her hip a few months before, Mollie died at St. Joseph’s Infirmary in Houston on October 2, 1918 at the age of 79.
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