Circus Capitol of the World; how did this small town lay claim to such a grand title?
It all started well over a century ago, and the origins are the subject of debate. One version of the story has local stable owner Ben Wallace accepting a menagerie as payment for a feed bill. The second more romantic version has Ben Wallace tracking a circus to Kansas after it skipped town owing him a bill, seizing assets of the circus and returning Horne to Peru, where the seized property became the nucleus of the first Great Wallace Circus.
Regardless of its beginnings, the Wallace shows gave Peru its place in history. In 1884, Wallace staged a parade in the streets of Peru where over 5,000 people are said to have watched his menagerie strut through town, joined by exquisitely carved wagons from the Sullivan and Eagle Wagon Works, located at 21 West Canal Street. One Sullivan and Eagle wagon, a band wagon, is now owned by the International Circus Hall of Fame and parades during Circus City Festival each year. Sullivan and Eagle also constructed two calliopes, one of which remains and is owned by Circus City Festival. It is known as the Gentry Bros. Twin Number One, a steam calliope, and it also parades each year in Peru. Wallace called his show "Wallace and Company's Great World Menagerie, Grand International Mardi-Gras, Highway Holiday Hidalgo, and Alliance of Novelties."
Wallace took the show on the road as a railroad circus in 1886, made possible by his foreclosure on 26 railroad cars owned by the Hummel and Hamilton Circus. Wallace had by then shortened the name of his show to "The Great Wallace Shows." (Oral history indicates that circuses often changed name between seasons to avoid creditors).
Wallace purchased the Hagenbeck Circus in 1907 when it was stranded and broke in Mexico (the country, not the Miami County town). The Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus continued under the direction of Wallace until he sold it in 1913. In 1921, local circus owners Jerry Mugivan, Bert Bowers and Ed Ballard formed the American Circus Corporation and claimed the largest menagerie (animal show) in the entire world. All were housed at the winter quarters east of Peru along the Mississinewa River, now home to the International Circus Hall of Fame.
The American Circus Corporation grew to five circuses when, in 1929, it was sold to Ringling Brothers-Barnum and Bailey. Ed Ballard and Jerry Mugivan planned to organized a new circus, but the unexpected death of Mugivan and the Great Depression derailed their plans. Ringling now had no major competitors. They continued to winter in Peru until 1944, when Ringling moved to Naples, Florida, for the winter.
Circus was but a memory in Peru from 1944 until the Chamber of Commerce started Circus City Days as a downtown promotional in the mid-1950's. In 1959, Tom and Betty Hodgini were recruited by local artist and teacher, Bob Weaver, to train high school students to perform a few acts on the courthouse lawn. The performances were so popular that a tent was rented for 1960 and The Peru Amateur Circus was born. Performances were under canvas at the site of the present Thrush Tennis Courts from 1960 through 1967. Trainers included Tom and Betty Hodgini (retired bareback riders), Willie Wilno (a former human cannonball), Harry Parkhurst, Karl "Snowy" Hartisch, Lina and Marvin Johnson, Maria McCloskey and Carl Solt. James Noble was the bandmaster and Walter J. Bixler was the ringmaster. Anyone who wanted to perform was welcome.
In 1967, the former Peru Lumber Company property was purchased at 7th Street and North Broadway and in 1968 performances took place there for the first time, under the canopy of the sky. A tent-shaped roof was erected before the 1969 performances, and the show continues to perform in that venue. Through the years, with the generosity of many local people, improvements have been ongoing.
By the early 1970's, performing had become so popular locally that the board of directors limited participation to Miami County students between the ages of 7 and 27. Today, some 225 young people perform each year, trained by people who learned their circus skills in this great show. Bill Anderson has served as head trainer for more than a quarter of a century. Through the years the Peru Amateur Circus has been featured on televisions show Real People, and P.M. Magazine and dozens of shows originating in Indiana- Articles have appeared in People Magazine, The Wall Street Journal and National Geographic as well as many travel magazines and newspapers all over the country. Performers have traveled to Italy once and Monte Carlo five times to compete in various youth circus competitions. They have never failed to bring home trophies. In 1999, the world record-holding Young Americans High Wire Troupe took their 8-person pyramid to Monte Carlo and won a gold medal, presented to them by Prince Rainier.
And the history goes on. It is our sincere hope that the Peru Amateur Circus, now in its 57th year, will indeed last well into the next century. Nowhere in the world do young people have the opportunity for a more unique experience than here in Peru, Indiana. It takes about 2,000 people to stage Circus City Festival each year, but the only truly indispensable ones are the young people you see in our arena. They give Peru, Indiana, its identity and assure that we are in fact the Circus Capitol of the World.