Tuesday, November 1, 2011
Peru Indiana Circus Hall of Fame
On Saturday, Cathy Day, author of The Circus in Winter, and Peru native, was generous enough to accompany me to her hometown to meet Tom Dunwoody, circus historian at the Circus Hall of Fame. Dunwoody talked with me about the history of circus in Peru and particularly about the incident of wagon-burning in 1941 that informed my Vacant Quarters installation.
From 1884, when Ben Wallace purchased the track of land by the river, until a few years before the wagon-burning incident of 1941, the current grounds of the Hall of Fame served as the winterquarters of the great Hagenbeck-Wallace circus. This riverside lowland suffered a tragic 100-yr flood in 1913 and sustained so much damage that Wallace was forced to sell his circus and his 3,000 acres (including a 200 acre compound with 32 buildings) to Wes Ballard.
Ballard's American Circus Corporation ran five circuses from Peru each season to all corners of the country and nearly had a monopoly on the pop entertainment/Internet of the first half of the 20th century. John Ringling's circus was the only viable competition left and the two sides understood that the war of the great circuses couldn't last. In 1929, Ringling came to Peru to settle the matter. Ringling and two of the men from American Circus Corp entered the Bearss Hotel in Downtown Peru and sequestered themselves for 3 days. What they did in that time to negotiate who would be king of the American circus is unknown. But when they emerged, John Ringling had bought out Ballard and the ACC's 5 circuses for $2 million dollars.
...six weeks later, the stock market crashed and Ringling lost his fortune.
All 5 circuses continued to run out of the winterquarters at Peru, but in 1936, John Ringling died a poor man. John Ringling North, nephew of the first Ringling, took over the estate (even though his uncle tried to remove him from his will, he stayed on as executor and kept his relative in cold storage in NJ until his own death).
As the economic downturn continued, the circus business declined in step. Each year beginning in 1934, one fewer circus left the winterquarters at the start of the season, until 1938, the last circus, Hagenbeck-Wallace, left Peru. That summer, H-W went broke in California and disbanded.
In 1941, there were still 125 elaborately carved and painted wagons in the wagon barn. These vehicles "were built like tanks" as Tom Dunwoody said. They were carved by craftsman (many were German woodcarvers) and the subject matter was not consistent, at the whim of the carver. Two designs Dunwoody pointed out included the Jardenir, with a floral design, and the five graces- Lady Liberty and the four seasons. The "sunburst" wheels had 16 spokes to carry heavy loads. There were tableaux wagons, cage wagons for animals, band wagons for the instrumentalists to ride in, calliope wagons, baggage wagons (the heavy load carriers), pole wagons (for carrying pieces of the tent), and generator wagons (for light/electricity).
These vehicles/parade pieces traveled from city to city on the flat-bed cars of the circus train. When the train arrived in town, the wagons were unloaded, hitched to a team of horses, and driven to the location where the tent would be setup for the circus. They were loaded with trunks, supplies, lions and elephants, driven across rough ground, then emptied and paraded through town the next day to drum up business. My uncle Bill Zaiser, circus enthusiast and founder of the Connecticut Valley Railroad, worked closely with volunteer Robert O. Lyon, who, as a young man, was a wagon driver for the Haggenbeck-Wallace Circus. He remembered driving a team of 6 horses in front of a heavy wagon and the difficulty in maneuvering this cumbersome load. He would also rest under the wagons on the flatbed train cars when there was nowhere else on the train to sleep.
By 1941, the American circus was in decline and John Ringling North needed less equipment to run his business. New designs for circus wagons--with steel frames and rubber wheels-- were more practical and were phasing out the old wood wheel/steel tire designs.
On November 21, 22, and 23, 1941, John Ringling had the 125 wagons pulled from the barn, laid out in the winterquarter fields, soaked with gasoline, and burned.
People in Peru came out to stop the burning of the wagons. Not only were they part of their history, but they could be used! Few were saved.
Why the carts were burned is a complicated matter. Ringling claimed it was for the war effort. But America wasn't involved in the war in November of 1941, a few weeks before Pearl Harbor. What was left of the business of the circus was going to belong to Ringling. And these wagons, these branches on the tree of cultural dissemination in the hey day of the circus, were a liability if they got into the wrong [read: other] hands.