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Indiana was once the circus capital of the world

The Kosciusko County Historical Society has opened a new exhibit in the Old Jail Museum featuring the history of the circus in Indiana. The collection contains circus memorabilia such as posters, photos, and tickets.

“It’s hard to believe that Indiana at one time was the headquarters of virtually every major circus in the United States with the exception of Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus,” said Greg Steffe, Co-Director of the Kosciusko County Historical Society.

The history of the circus in Indiana began back in 1882 with a man by the name of Ben Wallace who started a small traveling circus by the town of Peru, Indiana. It started as an overland circus, meaning the show traveled from town to town by wagons over the rough country roads. Over just a couple of years the show had grown to the point that it was converted into a railroad operation, traveling by train across the country. This marked it as a truly large and progressive circus.

About the same time this was going on in 1892, during the Chicago World’s Fair, there was a very famous wild animal dealer and trainer by the name of Carl Hagenbeck from Germany whose performance was incredibly successful. So successful in fact that he decided to build a small traveling circus in the United States called the Carl Hagenbeck Animal Circus.

Around 1908, he decided to return to Germany and dispatched an agent to this country to liquidate his holdings here in America. The agent soon found a potential buyer in the form of five young upstart brothers from the town of Baraboo, Wisconsin, the Ringling brothers. When word got back to Hagenbeck about the Ringling Brothers he was delighted. The Ringling Brothers had an excellent reputation since their circus wasn’t infiltrated with the pickpockets, petty thieves, and shortchange con artists that were common on many of the other circuses. For some unknown reason, this business deal fell through, and the agent scrambled to find another buyer.

He found an alternative buyer, a man named Ben Wallace who was ready, willing, and able with cash in hand. The agent, thinking his employer would be delighted with his resourcefulness, quickly signed the deal with Wallace without ever getting approval from his employer, Hagenbeck.

“However, Hagenbeck wasn’t delighted and it turned out the Wallace’s show was pretty much everything the Ringling Brothers show was not. They did have petty thieves and thrived on trouble. This so upset Hagenbeck that he actually initiated a lawsuit in an attempt to block Wallace from using the Hagenbeck name, but again for reasons that aren’t quite clear today, the lawsuit was eventually dropped, and the names of Hagenbeck and Wallace forever linked in circus history,” said Steffe.

From that point on, Wallace operated the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus out of Peru, Indiana.


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