The Journal of San Diego History
July 1961, Volume 7, Number 3
Jerry MacMullen, Editor

By Earle H. Bowersock

San Diego probably never had a more unique animal act show than the one put on by Frank Sessions, down by the old La Jolla railroad station; the photos  show two of his trained steers in action.

Frank S. Sessions, brother of the famous Miss Kate Sessions, grew the first poinsettias commercially in San Diego. He also had an enterprise which today is almost forgotten—he successfully trained steers to perform, much as seals and other animals have been trained for years.

Frank’s nursery and processing-shed were at Lark Street and Montecito Way, and we lived at Montecito, and Ingalls. As early as 1898 I worked part-time for Frank and for his sister, first at her nursery in Balboa Park and later in Mission Hills.

About 1907 Frank decided to do the unusual—to train and show young steers. He started with them as calves, for as far as we knew this had never been done successfully. They were the Jersey type, very gentle and with sweet dispositions, entering into the routine and enjoying it all, and even at times putting on an impromptu little dance of their own.

After many months of intense training (during which I was a daily observer) the steers were ready for the “show”. He constructed a ring and arena in a corner of the West Coast Lumber Company’s yard on the north side of D Street (now Broadway) just west of India. With the small admission charge of 10 cents and up, the show was not a money-maker, but it did demonstrate that bovines could be trained to dance, jump hurdles, march in cadence and, above all, understand and obey directions.

Frank was very kind to the animals, and praised and petted them when they did well. He used a large ringmaster’s whip, which he snapped with his commands; he never struck them, the snapping of the whip being merely to supplement the shouted commands of “March right, march left, halt, reverse, lie down, kneel, up!” and the rest, which took them through such exercises as walking, running, bowing, and jumping through a hoop. They also were trained to perform on a teeter-totter. The lessons never were too long or tiresome, and after each lesson there was the reward of a good meal of grain and hay. During the lesson, a carrot or an apple or some other tidbit was given for a good performance.

At this time I was employed as a conductor on the Los Angeles & San Diego Beach Railway—”La Jolla Line”—steam trains and also, part-time, on the San Diego, Cuyamace & Eastern. The La Jolla depot was at Arctic (now Kettner) and D, parallel to the present Santa Fe parking-lot. During the steer shows there was, as is usual, the customary group of “free-loaders”. I had the task, with the help of Ed Thompson, of keeping the “free-lookers” off of the tops of the La Jolla Line coaches and box-cars on Arctic Street, near the show arena. This was even more fun than the show, and best of all, we were being paid for it.

It is fortunate that photographs of the performing steers were retained by Frank’s son, Milton P. Sessions, who himself became an outstanding horticulturist, landscape gardener and nurseryman in San Diego, Pacific Beach and La Jolla, and who was active in the development of Balboa Park.