Chudnow Museum of Yesteryear will feature this and
other circus posters in an exhibit opening this
- The circus is coming to town.
not the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.
That operation ended an almost century-long run last
month. We’re talking about the Circus Poster Artwork
exhibit at Milwaukee’s Chudnow Museum of Yesteryear,
839 N. 11th St. The exhibit is expected to be open
Monday and continue until at least January.
visitors will be introduced to Milwaukeean Ephraim
Williams, the original African-American circus owner,
and to the Engford Family, circus gymnasts who also had
Milwaukee ties. Visitors will learn of a circus school
that existed long ago in Manitowoc, and of differences,
as well as similarities, between European and American
to information provided by Steve Daily, the Chudnow
Museum’s executive director:
The aforementioned Williams (1855-1935) was the first
African-American ringmaster, as well as the first
African-American circus owner. Originally a trainer of
dogs and horses (he taught them to perform mathematical
tricks), Williams was operating the Appleton-based
Ferguson & Williams Monster Show by 1885. A decade
or so later he could boast more than 25 employees and
about 100 horses. Racism played a role in curtailing his
circus business in the early 1900s, but Williams
rebounded, ultimately acquiring the rights for “Silas
Green from New Orleans,” one of America’s
longest-running tent shows, which outlived Williams by
more than 15 years.
traveling circus from Milwaukee, the Engford Family
Show, was started by Robert Engford in 1920. He had
trained at Milwaukee Turnverein in his youth and become
a physical fitness enthusiast; Engford also developed
expertise in hand balancing and back bending, leading to
his creating an act and obtaining a circus job in the
Fond du Lac area.
wife, Amanda, and children, Harry and Florence, joined
Robert in one of the first Wisconsin-based troupes to
travel by truck. The Engfords’ touring was mostly in
(and all over) the Badger State. They would regularly
set up a tent for performances and dismantle it the same
day, until World War II and its gas rationing spelled
the end for the Engford Show.
From early in the 20th century the traveling circus was
a popular idea (particularly in Wisconsin), if not
always a successful venture. It was common for U.S.
circus companies to visit several towns wthin a state;
in Wisconsin, most troupes tended to visit a handful of
municipalities within approximately 10 days.
Since the circus was a prime source of entertainment in
the state during the 1930s, it’s not surprising an
institution called the Indoor Circus Vocational School
was founded in Manitowoc by William G. Schultz, a former
circus performer and the scion of a circus family, in
1937. The sole school of its kind in the country, the
ICVS enrolled pupils between the ages of 10 and 30.
Classes included acrobatics, animal training, climbing
... and founder Schultz’s specialty, the flying
trapeze, reportedly the most popular course of all.
alumni of the ICVS, which lasted into the 1950s, went on
to work for Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey.
While acrobats, musicians and clowns are featured in the
circuses of both Europe and America, trained animals -
and freaks - have been more common in American circuses.
Traditionally, European circuses offered pantomime
theater, with the enactment of historical and mythical
the United States, interest in the circus soared in the
aftermath of both World Wars; simultaneously, enthusiasm
waned in Europe.
Chudnow Museum, with a collection exceeding 250,000
artifacts of “early 20th century Americana,”
includes a number of permanent exhibits. For hours of
operation, admission fees and other details, go to firstname.lastname@example.org.