From the 1800’s through the 1930’s, one of Riverside’s most famous farmers was Fred “Lil” Kerslake. Lil, along with his wife Mary (and eventually his son Fred, Jr.) built one of the premier performing animal acts of the turn of the twentieth century.
One of the many “stories” Lil told on how he got his start was when he found 21 small piglets near a deceased mama pig on their farm and raised them by spoon-feeding each one. They quickly learned that Lil was their source of food and would follow him around like puppies. He soon realized they would jump up on a box to be fed, and alas the training began. (see Gill History Vol. 2 1943-1993.)
However, most likely the real version, according to Riverside- Life Along the Connecticut River, is this. Born in 1866, Lil’s family emigrated from Devonshire, England to Salem N.Y. and raised pigs. Raising pigs wasn’t exciting enough and young Lil decided to run away to join the circus as a wire-walker. In the late 1880’s, the circus passed through Turners Falls, MA where he met and fell in love with a Gill farmer’s daughter, Mary Jamison. Lil soon quit the circus, married Mary in 1889 and settled down to work on his father-in-law’s farm in the Riverside area of Gill.
Never losing his fascination with the circus, one day he and Mary attended a Barnum & Bailey circus show in Greenfield where they saw a clown performing with a trained monkey and pig. Lil told his wife that he could train a pig just as well, so Mary convinced her father to give him three piglets to work with. It took just several short months of training before a booking agent came knocking on his door and booked his first performing pigs act in Boston where the audiences went wild. His first local act was performed at the dedication of the new Riverside Home Aid Society in 1891.
Kerslake’s Pigs rolled barrels, climbed ladders, walked a tight-rope, played “leap-frog”, played see saw, and pulled carriages. Or as promoted, “this porcine troupe did everything but talk”. Many young Riverside children remember watching the Kerslakes train their pigs as they walked home from school each day.
News and popularity spread quickly delighting audiences throughout the United States including the St. Louis 1904 World Fair. They even performed in Mexico and Europe.
By 1913, their son Fred Jr. joined the family business adding donkeys and other animals to the act. With their increasing popularity, they created a second troupe where one would tour with major circuses while the other would travel to state fairs and vaudeville acts.
Kerslake Performing Pigs 3
Over the years, the Kerslakes had a very successful business earning them hundreds of dollars a week (thousands per week by today’s standards). In 1930, Lil retired at the age of 64 living just east of the Red House on French King Highway leaving the show in Fred Jr.’s very capable hands. Fred Jr. toured for a few more years but tired of the constant travel. He and his wife settled down in Riverside to operate a dog kennel business that he and his father built.
We are fortunate to house several items from this unique act at the Gill Historic Museum located at the Riverside Municipal Building (RMB) in the Riverside area of Gill. Of the items on exhibit are two chairs and a pail used in Fred Jr.’s act and were donated by the Charles Shebell family, two wheels from a carriage that were donated by the Annear family and several people, including Mrs. Ada Simonds who lived in the former Kerslake house, donated various advertising brochures.