Circus exhibit set to step off at Chudnow

By TOM JOZWIK - Special to TimeOut

June 1, 2017


The Chudnow Museum of Yesteryear will feature this and other circus posters in an exhibit opening this month.

Submitted photo

MILWAUKEE - The circus is coming to town.

No, 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.

Exhibit 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 circuses.

According to information provided by Steve Daily, the Chudnow Museum’s executive director:

n 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.

n A 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.

Engford’s 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.

n 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.

n 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.

Many alumni of the ICVS, which lasted into the 1950s, went on to work for Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey.

n 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 tales.

In the United States, interest in the circus soared in the aftermath of both World Wars; simultaneously, enthusiasm waned in Europe.

The 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