There are many ways to learn about a place and its past. I have always had the strong suspicion that how people entertain themselves can tell us a lot about who they were and what was important to them.

There are many ways to learn about a place and its past. I have always had the strong suspicion that how people entertain themselves can tell us a lot about who they were and what was important to them.

With that as both an explainer and probably a bit of a warning, let's take a look at how Columbus amused itself in its first few decades.

Isolated from the East and South from where most of its early residents arrived, it appears that the small frontier community of Columbus pretty much entertained itself in the first few years after it was founded in 1812. Carving a village out of a forest was not all that easy and the added diversion of the War of 1812 meant that most people did not have much leisure time.

The time they did have was often occupied with family and visits to close friends nearby. After the Ohio General Assembly began to meet in Columbus in 1816, there was a decided increase in the number of taverns in town and in the number of people frequenting them - much to the chagrin of local ministers and the temperance advocates in their congregations.

To understand early public entertainment in Columbus, it is important to remember that, then as now, there were several different "arts communities" in the capital city. Some of the early residents were quite well-educated and sorely missed the music, drama and literary world they had left behind.

Several of these people formed what later came to be called "the first musical organization in Columbus." The Handel Society apparently performed for the assembled multitude on the occasion of Independence Day in 1821 and 1822, and according to an account from that time, performed with "a superior degree of elegance."

How the singing of Handel's work went over with the frontier folk who had never heard of him or his music was probably summed up with, "Handel was handled quite well" or something similar.

For the rest of the people of Columbus, there were military organizations with their fifes and drums and the occasional entertainment of an itinerant musician. But there was not much else - until 1827.

On April 21, 1827, Tippo Sultan, the Great Hunting Elephant, came to town. Tippo was accompanied, according to a local poster, by "The Mammoth Lion, Tiger, Cat, Lynx, Shetland Pony, Dandy Jack, etc. etc. The above named animals will be seen at Mr. Russell's tavern, on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, the 27th, 28th and 29th inst. The exhibition will be accompanied by good music. Admittance 25 cents - children under 12 years of age half price."

Presumably, Mr. Russell felt his tavern would benefit by the arrival of Tippo and his friends. It did not work out quite that way, as a local history recalls:

"At night, the 'hunting elephant' was locked up in the tavern backyard where, during one of the nights of his sojourn, he broke loose, and for a time amused himself by pumping water at the well. Finally he broke the pump handle and looking around for some new pastime, spied two barrels of flour standing on the back porch. Breaking into these, he, for a while, ate flour and drank water alternately until he converted the residue of the flour into paste.

"Awakened by the noise, Mr. Russell descended and was received by the elephant with a fusillade of dough. Beating a retreat, the discomfited host aroused the keeper of the frolicsome beast, who, after some effort, succeeded in getting him tied again."

As a counterpoint to the arrival of Tippo Sultan and his friends, the more elevated culture group in town welcomed a "Mr. and Mrs. Harper" who, with a few friends and associates , were happy to perform Oliver Goldsmith's classic play, "She Stoops to Conquer" for any who cared to come and pay to see it.

Apparently, a number of people did, since the play was performed in the only place big enough to hold them - the public market building at State and High streets. Presumably, the live chickens, pigs and cows who occupied various stalls in the market were removed for the evening.

The clash between "high culture" and, shall we say, "not-so-high culture" continued apace. In 1833, one Rufus Beach organized the Franklin Harmonic Society, looking to improve "the vocal and instrumental music" of the city. Shortly thereafter, S. Butler and Company came to Columbus with a menagerie that included "the great hunting or war elephant, Hannibal."

Apparently Columbus really liked elephants in those days.

By 1835, Columbus had seen the arrival of the Ohio Canal and the National Road and had become a city of more than 5,000 people. The rapid growth in size and influence of Columbus evidently convinced enough investors to permit the construction of the first real theatre in the city.

Built of wood, the Columbus Theatre stood on the west side of High Street just a few hundred feet north of Long Street, where the Brunson Building is today. Over the next several years, the theatre saw performances of classic plays, including Shakespeare and such titles as "St. George and the Dragon," "Mazeppa" and "The Cataract of the Ganges."

For the less refined, the Columbus Theatre was also the home of Miss Honey, a "danseuse."

Of Miss Honey, a local paper reported, "Her most piquant dances were frequently followed by a shower of silver quarters." It was also reported that "Miss Honey had considerable talent as an actress, and in whatever part she took evoked applause."

In later years, it was noted that "towards the end of 1841, the Columbus Theatre seems to have degenerated both financially and morally, and its evil influence upon the young people of the city, resulting particularly from its 'bar' for the sale of intoxicants, was loudly complained of."

The clash of culture between "legitimate" and not-so-legitimate entertainment would continue for much of the rest of the history of the city - and for that matter, down to our own time as well.

Tippo Sultan would likely be amused.