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Circus museum in Peru needs repairs

circus barn photo

(Devan Ridgway, WFIU/WTIU)

Intricately carved wagons, vibrant costumes and decades-old circus posters are just a few of the artifacts at the International Circus Hall of Fame in Peru, Indiana. But one of its main buildings is in need of major repairs.

According to collections manager Shirley Griffin, many Peru locals find their family history is often inextricably tied to the circus.

“I think most every family that's lived here for a while has some kind of connection to the circus, that they have good memories of it,” Griffin said.

The Hall of Fame is housed in an old barn that was once used as winter quarters to store and repair circus wagons. But as Peru prepares to celebrate its 100th anniversary in June, it’s the barn that now needs fixing.

The main beam is rotting, water leaks through the roof, and multiple windows may need to be replaced. Griffin said the main beam would cost upwards of $4,000 to replace. She expects the costs for other repairs to be extensive. 

“Last fall, as we received some very heavy rains and very strong winds all along the same weekend, we began to notice a lot of rain coming in along a major beam … that supports the whole of the barn,” Griffin said.

The circus’s history on this property dates back to the 1890s, when Peru businessman Benjamin Wallace bought the property for construction of a winter quarters.

In 1922, the American Circus Corporation bought the property and constructed the two barns that still stand today. Seven years later, the Ringling Bros. took it over. But when the Great Depression hit, they burned many of the wagons and sold the property to a farmer in the 1940s.

poster from the circus
This poster, which advertises the champions of the high wire, is just one of many decades-old posters in the Circus Hall of Fame. (Devan Ridgway, WFIU/WTIU)

Griffin says many of the people in Peru were employed by the circus, whether it was farming feed for the animals, taking buckets of water to the elephants, performing, or fixing up the equipment.

“But it still continued to be considered the circus winter quarters just because the barns were here … The local people have always been happy to have the circus heritage to share with people,” she said.

The barns are National Historic Landmarks, among the few remainders of the days when the circus industry in Peru was booming. Their precarious status, however, landed them on Indiana Landmarks’ 10 Most Endangered list in 2019.

Within the walls of the peeling yellow and white barn is a rich visual history of the circus with models of the elephants and lion rings that once existed, costumes decorated with ostrich feathers, and posters of different performers.

Peru hosts the Circus City Festival every summer, which keeps alive the circus tradition in the community.

"That love of the circus, I think, made many young people want to become performers," Griffin said. "Many of the ones that now have an opportunity to become part of the amateur circus will say, 'My grandparents were in the circus.'"

The Hall of Fame is raising funds via PayPal or GoFundMe. More information can be found on its Facebook page.

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