Wisconsin’s rich circus history: a vanishing act?

circuscoupleI wonder if anybody still dreams about running away with the circus or knows just what that would involve.

Consider the consequences of such high-stakes work and fleeting fame, the glamorous perceptions and gritty realities of shilling for survival, owning only what you carry and having no ties to any town.

To live a transient circus life means knowing about risk, spunk and the pressures to hoodwink or entertain. No wonder the historical novel “Water for Elephants” turned into such a popular movie a couple of years ago.

Wisconsin – birthplace of two major circuses, Ringling Bros. (1884, in Baraboo) and P.T. Barnum (1871, in Delavan) – must be rich with these stories, but we don’t make it easy to learn them.

The International Clown Hall of Fame, with 77 inductees, is open only by appointment in Baraboo. The all-volunteer effort was set up in 1986, moved to Baraboo in 2010 and proclaims to care for the world’s biggest collection of clown artifacts.

In Delavan Lake are remains of an elephant named Juliet, and her long-ago wintertime demise is one of the few Wisconsin circus tales to make the rounds with tourists. At least 26 circus colonies made the area their winter home from the mid to late 1800s, which makes you wonder what else went on.

In two Delavan cemeteries – Spring Grove and St. Andrews – are at least 150 oldtime circus performers, but there is no map or walking tour. The city, online, sums up its decades of circus history in four paragraphs.

And in the center ring is the state’s most popular Big Top attraction, the 64-acre Circus World Museum, Baraboo. Although the state owns the Circus World grounds, structures and contents, an independent foundation since the 1950s has handled operations and funding. Gov. Scott Walker wants this to change.

I’ll let others debate whether Circus World, a National Historic Landmark, should continue operating independently or as a part of the State Historical Society. Circus World is the most visited of Wisconsin’s 10 official historic sites; declining revenue is the concern.

The attraction has world-class potential but doesn’t have the money or strategy to aim that high, regardless of who operates it a year from now. What a shame, because no one owns a larger collection of American circus artifacts, which include 210 antique wagons to 850 vintage circus posters.

In the museum’s library and research center are manuscripts, business records, photos and more – some dating back to 1793. What already has worked as fodder for circus books also could become a springboard for circus trails and tours.

Revenue challenges at Circus World grew after the demise of a longstanding summer tradition, the Great Circus Parade, whose colorful, ornate wagons carried exotic animals and performers while brass bands, clowns and calliope music moved from train cars, through downtown Milwaukee and onto performance grounds.

Replacing the parade as Circus World’s top fundraiser is a summer gala, which is June 23 and has a goal to raise $165,000.

During its heyday, the circus train stopped in towns between Baraboo and Milwaukee, so parents could introduce kids to the beauty and mystery of circus travel. Circus buffs would pay to ride the train and witness the awe of crowds along the way. This higher visibility of circus history boosted visits to Baraboo’s museum and its seasonal circus performances.

The last parade, in 2009, was a $1.5 million project that drew crowds but a lackluster return on investment. Wisconsin’s governor, who was raised in Delavan, says he’d like to see the parade return – “we have a proud circus tradition here” – but offers no budget for it.

Dave Fantle, deputy director of state tourism, says “someone would need to reinvent the model” for the parade because it’s not sustainable as is. Jack McKeithan and Bill Fox, former co-chairs of the parade, want to see the event return but say it’s time for the next generation to take the lead.

Revival of the Great Circus Parade might be a good step, but more important is a long-term plan to prevent a rich part of Wisconsin history from becoming misplaced or forgotten.

For more:

Circus World Museum, 550 Water St., Baraboo: circusworld.wisconsinhistory.org, 866-693-1500. The museum is open weekdays, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; hours expand May 18.

International Clown Hall of Fame and Research Center, 102 Fourth Ave., Baraboo: theclownmuseum.com, 608-355-0321.

Delavan Historical Society, 635 E. Wisconsin St., Delavan: delavanhistory.org, 262-740-7410.

Antique circus wagons come out of storage for the Circus Celebration Festival, July 27 in downtown Baraboo. downtownbaraboo.com, 800-227-2266

To read more about Wisconsin’s circus history, consider:

“Ringlingville USA” by Jerry Apps and Fred Dahlinger (Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 2005).

“Badger State Showmen: a History of Wisconsin’s Circus Heritage” by Fred Dahlinger (Grote Pub, 1998).

Is Circus World Museum an at-risk Wisconsin tourist site? What state attractions do you consider forever lost or endangered? Let me know what you think.

At the top of my list is Al Capone’s Hideout, a 400-acre estate near Couderay that overlooks Blueberry Lake. Tours and dining were possible at this lavish but remote Sawyer County property until it closed abruptly in 2009 and contents were auctioned.

The Lac Courte Oreilles tribe bought the bankrupt property in 2010, and researcher Cindy Aherns of Hayward says the owners do not intend to reopen the Northwoods retreat to the public. She says the LCO prefers to develop an assisted living or alcohol-drug rehab facility there.

Highly at risk is The Postilion, a longtime Fond du Lac gourmet cooking school run by Madame Liane Kuony, a native of France and pioneer in organic cooking who died in 2005. The mid-1800s estate includes a four-bedroom mansion (the cooking school was in the basement).

Listing price is $425,000, and Lynda Bacon Lawlis of First Weber Realtors says it’s in good shape but unlikely to turn into a restaurant because of a lack of handicapped access, the basement kitchen and narrow stairways.

The property returned to the market one month ago and is owned by the Fond du Lac Historical Society. For more: thepostilion.com, 920-322-8877.

Endangered is the best-known outdoor art of 74-year-old Tom “Dr. Evermor” Every. His Forevertron weighs 300 tons, stretches 50 feet tall and was built with industrial scraps in the 1980s. The massive sculpture, described as the world’s largest made with recycled materials, sits on land owned by a salvage yard near Baraboo.

Although the Kohler Foundation comes to the rescue of outsider art such as this, when necessary, Forevertron relocation and foundation acquisition seem unlikely. For more: worldofevermor.com, 608-219-7830.