Quirks, circus history in endearing Delavan

The history is rich and unusual. What other Wisconsin city has an elephant at the bottom of its lake, or a piece of state highway that is paved with brick?

An animal statue downtown is of a big-as-life … no, not another Holstein, but a giraffe. In the largest cemeteries are clowns, and I mean no disrespect by pointing out this fact. At least 26 circuses – including the original P.T. Barnum – called Delavan its winter home in the mid to late 1800s.

This city of 8,000 – on Highway 11 in Walworth County, less than one hour from Madison and Milwaukee – has an incredible past. It was the nation’s circus capital, but the stories are in danger of fading away.

As many as 250 members of the old-time circus colony are buried here, but it’s hard to find somebody who knows where, or how the graves are identified. (Some of the ornamental markers, with a circus motif, are weathered, admits Jackie Baar, who heads the chamber of commerce.)

A booklet about Delavan circus history, printed in the 1970s, no longer is distributed. Instead, the past is summed up in signage along Walworth Avenue.

Town historian Gordon Yadon, a Delavan native who has studied local circus history for decades, is 83 and says he has no obvious successor. His free walking tours are rarely scheduled for the public; they occasionally are done by appointment.

“Every one of those 26 circuses had its stories,” Gordon observes. “Delavan has something pretty special.”

That elephant in the lake? It is Juliet, and she died in the winter of 1864, when the ground was frozen, so circus workers dragged her to the middle of Delavan Lake.

The city has long been in the shadow of Baraboo, whose Circus World Museum is a state historic site but operating on a budget so lean that its annual Great Circus Parade won’t be held this year. The colorful assemblage of antique circus cars had long been a marquee event for downtown Milwaukee, drawing thousands of spectators every summer.

For 10 years, Delavan was home to the International Clown Hall of Fame, whose inductees include Red Skelton and Emmett Kelly, Willard Scott and Meadowlark Lemon. It was an attraction that Delavan couldn’t sustain.

In 2005, the clowns moved to Wisconsin State Fair Park, West Allis (www.theclownmuseum.org, 414-290-0105), where the museum is open on weekdays.

Although there likely are enough artifacts for a circus museum in Delavan, Gordon says “it would be foolhardy to ever establish” one, “especially if Baraboo can’t support what it has.”

Jackie Baar says “there’s always talk of a museum, but nothing has happened.” Delavan has developed multiple interests for visitors, she contends; the budget and staff don’t exist to play favorites with just one component.

There is a self-guided walking tour of downtown that is about architecture and business longevity (Bradley’s department store has been around since 1852) as well as circus history. Delavan’s ethnicity has diversified, too, Jackie notes, and the Hispanic flair has become a newer drawing card.

What else is endearing about Delavan? Among the mix of friendly people, well-appointed antique shops, cheery Hispanic restaurants and bakeries are a quartet of one-of-a-kind gems, all on the main drag downtown.

Cat lovers will love Bibliomaniacs, a used bookstore whose owner stocks rare and out-of-print titles. The reading materials are handled with care, and the most precious are gathered into a limited access part of the store.

The hostesses are Xena, Yum Yum and Zoey, three approachable but aloof, declawed felines. “They have been spayed, so don’t even ask about kittens” a sign advises. “And if you bring up their weight, don’t be surprised if we comment about yours.” 324 E. Walworth Ave., 262-728-9933.

Remember When Antiques & Collectibles is not merely a well-appointed shop of vintage merchandise. It also is home to the undisputed National Cookie Jar Museum. The three-level store contains 2,000-plus cookie jars, and the museum contains the most valuable (some are worth thousands of dollars).

The museum entrance fee is nominal, but customers also can get an eyeful for free, just by browsing. Dozens of cookie jars are for sale, and designs are far-reaching, Betty Boop to Spiderman, pigs to genies. 313 E. Walworth Ave., 262-728-8670.

The Latimer House is a former sanitarium and convalescent hospital that since 1996 has served wonderful from-scratch meals. Don’t the let the setting sound like a turn-off: This 1900 Victorian mansion was built for a grain magnate and banker; it is a classy setting for a romantic dinner or leisurely ladies’ lunch.

Extraordinary experiences include “Roarin’ in the Twenties” murder mystery dinners, from 4-7 p.m. July 9 and 23. (Cost is $36.50, including tax and tip, but not alcohol.) Wannabe restaurateurs can get a taste of what it’s like to run the place, during The Latimer House Restaurant Stay, a hands-on opportunity that includes one room and board for two people, Friday to Monday (Cost is $450.) 523 E. Walworth Ave. 262-728-7674.

Lodging options are plentiful, from basic chain motel to expansive lake resort, but nothing is as elegant as The Allyn Mansion, a grand Victorian of Cream City brick with 13 gables, unusual windows and eight guest rooms (five with a fireplace).

Don’t let the “for sale” sign fool you. This place, which has earned national historic preservation awards, remains in business (but you can have it for $1.8 million). Besides breakfast, guests are treated to wine and cheese from 6-7 p.m. in the main parlor. 511 E. Walworth Ave., 262-728-9090.

For more about the area: www.delavanwi.org, 800-624-0052. Upcoming community events include Independence Day celebrations on July 1 and 4, a free bluegrass festival all day on July 8, and a vintage/muscle car rally on July 9.

The best side trip (especially for families with youngsters) is to the East Troy Electric Railroad, for a sweet 10-mile ride to Mukwonago and back. Expect retired railroad employees, like conductor Terrence Bullock, to explain local railroad history and announce each crossroad as it’s passed.

All of this nostalgia on the restored electric trolley continues because of the work of volunteers. At the ride’s halfway point, there’s time to stretch, shop and sample at The Elegant Farmer, a food specialty market (www.elegantfarmer.com, 262-363-6770) with abundant produce, deli cheeses/meats and irresistible bakery. One specialty is apple pie baked in a brown paper bag; dozens are produced daily during this time of year.

For more: 2002 Church Street, East Troy; 262-642-3263, www.easttroyrr.org. Four-course meals ($55 per person) are served during two-hour train rides on July 8, Aug. 19, Sept. 9 and 23, Oct. 7, 14 and 21; call 262-642-3077.