Our town is steeped in circus history, dating back to 1884 when the local livery owner opened the Wallace and Company’s Great World’s Menagerie and International Circus. It was a huge success and soon grew to be one of the largest and most renowned circuses in American history, using our hometown as headquarters. Many circuses followed suit using the town as their winter quarters because of our convenient location on both a river and a railroad. History continued to be made here for the next sixty years until 1941, when Ringling Brothers bought out the small shows, still struggling to recover from the Depression. Our history is amazing, really. An important piece of Americana… right here in our small Midwestern town.
In 1959, some townsfolk got together and asked the retired circus people who still lived in the community if they would be willing to train a few high-school aged kids to perform acts. They wanted to put on a circus to celebrate our great circus history. The circus people agreed, and that first performance on the courthouse lawn has grown over the past 50 years into an amateur circus with a permanent big top and 200 kids performing annually every third week in July.
So, it’s Circus Week! This is a week when “circus kids” come home. It’s a week when doctors, lawyers, dads, moms and hundreds of other volunteers take off their normal hat and put on the hat of usher, rigger, bandleader, ringmaster, wardrobe mistress, ticket seller, or any of the other countless titles that help make the Greatest Amateur Show on Earth come alive. This is a week when you see everyone you ever knew in your whole life.
Circus Week never fails to awash me in nostalgia. I find my mind’s eye looking fondly upon my tiny 7-year-old self with my hands gripped around an equally tiny trapeze bar. I see a 13-year-old me being tossed between two upside-down boys with big muscles high above a net. I see my 18-year-old self hanging by nothing but my toes 30 feet in the air…and loving every minute of it. I loved hanging upside down and hurriedly searching for the faces of my parents, knowing right where they would be….every single night. I loved nailing a difficult trick, performing it perfectly, my cheeks almost hurting because my smile was so wide, yet quickly slipping out of the role of performer to hurry back into the arena to watch my little sister do her act. I would hold my breath as she flew through the air, only exhaling when her hands connected with the catcher. It wasn’t just my sister I would watch. We all watched each other. This was special…this support of performers. We were all one, everyone wanting everyone else to catch the trick, do their best. We would stand in clusters with our fingers crossed, sending out good circus juju to our brothers and sisters in sequins with nothing being more important than that very moment. We never wanted to see anyone fail, and if someone missed you could hear a hundred kids all groan in sympathy. That collective sense of being a part of something undoubtedly helped shape me into the adult I am today. I also think that is the same thing that keeps everyone coming back year after year.
This is my 30th year of involvement with the Amateur Circus. In some way, every year since that seven year old girl with pigtails put on a pretty costume and styled her first style, I’ve been back. Circus folk say that the sawdust gets in your blood, and I would have to agree. I can’t think of anything better to be infected with.