New Richland could have turned into a real circus town

Published 12:00 am Friday, October 11, 2002

There are several towns in the Midwest which have the circus as a firm part of their historical heritage.

One of these towns is Peru, Ind. This community is located about 70 miles straight north of Indianapolis. One travel guide book says Peru was once considered to be the &uot;largest circus winter quarters in the world.&uot; Part of this claim was based on the famous Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus. Today, Peru has a Circus Museum and an annual event called the Circus Day Festival.

Closer to this area is the town of Delavan, Wis., located about 25 miles east of Janesville and Beloit. The guide book I used says, &uot;Between 1846-94 Delavan was the headquarters of 28 different circuses. The original P. T. Barnum Circus was organized here during the winter of 1870-71.&uot;

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Even closer to this area is Baraboo, Wis., This town, about 10 to 12 miles south of Wisconsin Dells, was the original home and winter quarters of both the Ringling Brothers and Gollmar Circuses. Today, the Circus World Museum is based on the former winter quarters buildings of the Ringling Brothers Circus which moved to its present base in Sarasota, Fla., about 1919.

There are other localities which are legitimate parts of the nation’s history based on circuses and what were once called railroad shows. And one of those localities happens to be New Richland.

I recently became aware of the New Richland connection to this once-popular phase of American entertainment while doing research in the Freeborn County Historical Museum Library. Here’s the basic information I found in the 1962 booklet, &uot;History of New Richland and Wilton Villages.&uot;

“Some time during the winter of 1893-1894 Frank Blakeslee, a grain buyer and all around speculator, together with George Stearns, who had been in the hardware business at New Richland, concocted the idea of starting a gigantic railroad show. In the winter of 1894 every seamstress was busy making gowns, costumes and uniforms for the forthcoming spectacle. The (New Richland) Star of March 1, 1894, said that the venture was well under way. Contracts had been made for nearly all the people. The big tent was made in Chicago at a cost of $3,000. Other tents were ordered. The main tent was 277 feet long; horse tent 90 feet, round; side show tent 50 x 80 feet; ladies’ dressing tent 20 feet, round; and one for the men’s dressing room of the same size. There would be twelve sleeping tents 12 x 14 feet besides cook and mess (eating) tents. The company claimed that including all the tents they would have the largest spread of canvas on the road.

&uot;The company had decided that the show would travel on the railroad. The following cars were ordered. Three 60-foot flat cars, three 50-foot stock cars, one baggage car and two sleeping cars. These were to be hauled by a special engine. Two bill cars were to be used. One out one week in advance of the show, the other two weeks in advance.&uot;

Bill cars were for the advance teams who went ahead of the circus or show to arrange for newspaper publicity, confirm the site for the show to set up, schedule for local supplies like hay for the horses and food for the show people, and put up the posters wherever possible,

What evolved as the Frank Blakeslee and Stearns World’s Fair and Wild West Show presented its very first performance in New Richland on the afternoon of May 17, 1894, before a crowd of 1,500 people. An evening performance was rained out.

That night the show’s employees and performers loaded the tents and equipment on the flatcars and stabled the horses in the stock cars. Then the new circus or show left New Richland on the Minneapolis and St. Louis Railroad and went south for their second and third shows in Albert Lea.

In the next column we’ll have specific information as to what was supposed to be a part of this show and where Blakeslee and Stearns Show

went after the Albert Lea appearances.

Tribune feature writer Ed Shannon’s column appears Fridays.