- [S106] The Mountain Press, 29 Aug 2010.
Upland Chronicles: Pickel really did run away to join the circus
by CARROLL McMAHAN The Mountain Press
Ann Pickel is lifted by the trunk of circus elephant Modac.
“I’m going to run away and join the circus” has been proclaimed by millions of disgruntled children.
For most youngsters the threat was idle chatter; however, Ann Pickel of Pigeon Forge surprised everyone by slipping off from her comfortable home to pursue a career under the big top. Born August 19, 1901, Anna Lee Pickel grew up on a farm located at the junction of Highway 441 (Parkway) and Wears Valley Road in a two-story white house that had been built in 1871 by Andrew Henderson. Her parents, Charlie McGee Pickel and Minnie Ann Davis Pickel, raised fine horses which provided many opportunities for Ann to become a skilled equestrian.
Standing less than 5 feet tall and weighing only 90 pounds, Ann auditioned for John Ringling in 1929 on a horse so tall the animal had to kneel for her to mount. Once the reins were in her hands, she took control, pacing the horse around the ring, even putting him through a few stunts.
“Go get fitted for a costume,” Ringling told her after observing her poise on horseback. That was the beginning of her stint with Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey Circus.
During her first year she rode a small horse round and around a circus ring. As for her second year, she became a part of Ménage, a troupe of 20 young ladies who formed a chorus line on horseback, prancing and performing stunts the entire length of the arena.
Ann’s skill with horses attracted the attention of the circus’ elephant trainer, who asked her if she would like to assist him. She accepted and began developing an act with an elephant named Modac.
The climax of Ann’s act with Modac was when the colossal beast would pick the tiny woman up in her trunk and carry her around the arena. This feat required Ann coaxing Modac to do it because the elephant didn’t like to lift anything over 50 pounds. Eventually, Ann would command the entire herd.
While performing in the Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey Circus act, Ann was a contemporary of such circus legends as tightrope artist Karl Wallenda, lion tamer Clyde Beatty and aerialist Lillian Leitzel (who plunged to her death in 1931).
She always described herself as being “too independent to get married.”
After seven years traveling with the circus, Ann attended classes to become a registered nurse and began practicing in Miami, before returning to her native Sevier County. She continued her colorful career at Shilling’s Clinic in Gatlinburg and often accomplished demanding duties such as stitching up wounds and delivering babies when Dr. Ralph Shilling was not available.
She fascinated patients — especially children — telling circus stories. Ann would tell about visiting the circus five years after she left and when she began talking to the elephant trainer, Murdoc heard her voice and began moving toward her as though to reprise a lost relationship with a friend who had suddenly returned.
She did not retire until Dr. Schilling unexpectedly died in 1972.
Ann lived the remaining years of her life in her old family home. The house had been encroached by Ogle’s Water Park before she died in 1985. Today, the stately old home is gone and the property contains Walden’s Landing and several surrounding businesses.
— Carroll McMahan is the special projects facilitator for the Sevierville Chamber of Commerce. The Upland Chronicles series celebrates the heritage and past of Sevier County. If you suggestions for future topics, would like to submit a column or have comments, contact McMahan at 453-6411 or e-mail to email@example.com; or Ron Rader at 604-9161 or e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
- [S76] Atchley Funeral Home Records, Volume III, 1974-1986, Larry D. Fox, (Smoky Mountain Historical Society), 12 Feb 1985.
Pickel, Miss Ann Lee 83 b. 8-19-01 TN d. 2-12-85 SCH res R7 Sev nurse f. Charlie McGee Pickel m. Minnie Davis Asbury Cem Knox Survivors: 1 sis Mrs Harold (Ruby) Gazlay R7 Sev 1 bro Charles Edward Pickel P-Forge 6 nephews Charles Lee Gazlay Tom Gazlay Frank Gazlay Bill Morris Arthur Pickel Rick Pickel 3 nieces Mary Frances Owens Martha Ann Yoro Peggy Sue Pickel..