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Big-Top Bonanza

Originally Published in Trailer Life Magazine

What could be more fun than driving your RV to a circus? How about driving it to two
circuses in the same community? That’s an easy task if you point your rig toward Peru,
Indiana, this summer. Located at the intersection of U.S. Business Highway 31 and U.S.
Business Highway 24, it is an easy drive from most parts of the country. Due to its rich
history, Peru is loaded with circus memorabilia, performances and fun. Back in the early
1900s, when railroads were king, Peru was a railroad hub. Trains left the town frequently
on the well-connected tracks. That made it a great location to base a circus troupe that
traveled mostly by train. Circus owner Benjamin E. Wallace bought the land near Peru that
is situated between the Wabash and Mississinewa rivers. This fertile farmland became his
winter quarters. Wallace set about building barns to house the elephants, tigers and other
exotic circus animals. He also built housing for the performers. Some of the houses remain
along State Highway 124 leading to the grounds. Today, these buildings are referred to as
Wallace Row. With Wallace’s start, Peru became known as the “Circus City,” a name that
still fits today. The former winter quarters are now home to the International Circus Hall
of Fame. Some of the historic barns are still standing and house circus animals during the
summer. The Hall of Fame boasts a museum with artifacts from a collection of circuses and
performers that reads like a “who’s who” of the circus world. Ringling Brothers and Barnum
and Bailey, Downie Brothers, Seils-Sterling, King Brothers, Russell Brothers,
Hagenbeck-Wallace, Barnes-Sells-Floto and Cole Brothers are just a few of the colorful
circuses providing historical memorabilia displayed in the museum. Individual performers
are also represented with artifacts from actor Tom Mix, wire walker Karl Wallenda and clown Emmett Kelly.

In recent years, professional performers have returned to the grounds to put on dazzling shows for summer visitors. An old-style one-ring arena tent has been erected to house the daily performances. The blue, yellow and red tent lets you know you are in the right place as you drive up to the Hall of Fame along a winding road that follows the Mississinewa River to the grounds. Some days you may even be able to catch the elephant
handlers taking the pachyderm down to the stream for a late-afternoon bath. A small
campground on the winter-quarters property allows visitors the opportunity to spend the
night listening to the trumpeting elephants and roaring tigers. There are only a handful of
sites, so be sure to call ahead. Circus performances will be held daily from July 7 to 27.
Call the Circus Hall of Fame office to confirm performance times. The museum and grounds
are open for visitors from mid-April to October.

The second circus to entertain you is the Peru amateur circus. This separate and quite different circus is made up of local young people. More than 200 performers and several hundred volunteers put on 10 performances during the third week of July. This circus got its roots in the 1960s as retired circus performers Tom Hodgini, the late Betty Hodgini Wahlig and the late W.W. Wilno trained local high-school students to perform traditional acts for a summer show. The early shows were performed in a rented tent, using borrowed bleachers. Today the Circus City Festival (the amateur circus’ official name) owns a brick building with a tentlike roof in the heart of
downtown Peru. The former lumberyard now houses an air-conditioned three-ring arena ideal for circus fun. Volunteer riggers change the equipment, as each act requires something different from the last. The result is a constantly changing scene to delight the audience, young and old. The tradition continues to today with early performers now training children and grandchildren of the original generation in the amazing stunts. Today, performers range in age from 7 to 21. To ensure a hometown flavor, Circus City Festival rules state the performers must be enrolled in the local county school system or be a college student.

The youngest of the performers are the “kiddie clowns.” These little showmen are always a
popular attraction as they fill the arena with their colorful smiles and imaginative
costumes. As the performers age and gain strength, the acts become more complex. The
youngsters learn the basics as beginning tumblers, then progress to the more intricate
juggling, adagio, trampoline, Spanish web and a variety of other acts. The youthful
performers even include high-wire and flying trapeze acts in the show. A ringmaster, decked out in traditional circus garb, provides a narration for the audience. Parents, relatives and other townsfolk provide the bulk of the labor involved in putting on the shows, mainly for the fun of doing it. Only the trainers are paid a small stipend for their efforts.

Several of the youth performers have gone on to star in professional circuses that travel
around the country and even the world. Brian Miser, traveling the world doing a
human-cannonball act, started in the Peru circus as a child. The entire downtown becomes
involved in the circus as Broadway, the main north-south street, is closed to vehicles and
lined with rides and food and activity booths to complete the carnival atmosphere.

The arena provides reserved seating for approximately 2,000 fans, but beware, the shows on the final Friday and Saturday frequently sell out days ahead of time. Call the Circus City
Festival ticket office to purchase tickets in advance for the last two days. Performances
for 2003 start on July 12 and end on July 19. The last day of the festival starts with a
parade of circus performers, historic and rebuilt circus wagons, animals and marching bands bounding down Main Street. Statewide, the parade is second only to the Indianapolis 500 parade in the number of entries. The parade usually lasts almost two hours as crowds line the street for more than a mile. Parking is tight at both circus locations, so it is best
to leave the RV at the campground and drive the tow vehicle to the circus. Campgrounds in
the Peru area are easy to find. One of the closest is the Mississinewa Recreation Area.
This state-owned campground provides nearly 400 sites, ranging from primitive to full
hookups. Reservations can be made through Indiana’s new campground reservation system up to six months in advance.

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