Peru, Indiana: Circus Capital of the World

Every summer since 1960, an unassuming small midwestern town celebrates its past and promotes its future in spectacular fashion. Peru, Indiana, is home to the Peru Amateur Circus. Children and youth ages 7 to 21, brimming with vibrant energy and decked out in bedazzling outfits, perform traditional circus acts adeptly with noticeable joy, delighting the thousands crammed into the Circus City Center, an arena with a candy-striped top that would look mightily out of context if one wasn’t familiar with the town’s history. After a week of shows, the town has a parade featuring wagons, horses, clowns, musical acts, unicyclists, and other elements of the traditional circus.

Many of the amateurs carry on a legacy started by their ancestors. The generational thread has kept the community holding tight to its roots, and the circus can be recognized year-round in Peru thanks to the International Circus Hall of Fame and to the Miami County Museum, which has a large section devoted to the subject.

Peru’s history with the circus dates back to the mid-1880s, when a Civil War veteran and livery owner named Benjamin Wallace started his own show. He built a village by the Mississinewa River and invited other circuses to establish their winter headquarters there. Each fall, the shows rolled into town as “Back Home Again in Indiana” blared from the calliope. Equipment sheds, wagon shops, and a hospital amongst other conveniences were welcome sights. By the 1920s Peru earned the moniker “Circus City.”

In the decades to follow, shows began docking for the winter in Florida instead. But Peru was determined not to see its legacy fade. Some circus folk established roots in town and a local resident pushed for the formation of the annual festival, leading to the Amateur Circus.

I arrive in Peru, which about 11,500 residents call home, in 2016 while on vacation in the Hoosier State for the Automobile License Plate Collectors Association’s 62nd annual International Convention. The meet takes place in Fort Wayne, 60 miles northeast of Peru. The timing happens to coincide with that year’s Amateur Circus, and being a fan of the Big Top, I’m excited to attend.

The buzz and the community feeling are strong as I file into the arena. The production does not feel amateur at all. The array of tightrope walkers, the flying trapeze, balancing acts, jugglers, clowns, and more are on display in the three rings before an enthusiastic crowd. The performance is remarkable for any age, never mind that most of them aren’t old enough to vote.

After the show I head out into the street which has been blocked off for a carnival, highlighted by a lit up Ferris wheel, a smorgasbord of confectionery treats, game booths, and a small circus train for tots.

Earlier, I didn’t have time to visit either the International Circus Hall of Fame or the Miami County Museum. But in 2017, while on my cross-country trip, I have the opportunity to set that right.

The ICHOF, as it is abbreviated, came from Sarasota, Florida, in the 1980s. It is situated in a large warehouse in the middle of farmland. I pull up to a trailer home which serves as the office. The lady there leads me to the warehouse, where I am the only visitor for the next couple of hours. While not a formally designed museum by any stretch, the ICHOF does get the information across. The signs and artifacts are displayed on panels and walls filling up the warehouse. The center of the building, as well as areas outside of it, shows circus train cars and wagons.

The Hall of Fame honors a wide range of individuals, families, and groups from around the world. The Cristiani Family Troupe, an act from Italy that specialized in bareback riding; clown rider Edwin “Poodles” Hanneford (1891-1967); Lillian Leitzel (1891-1931), a famous aerial performer who fell to her death when a swivel rope crystallized and broke; Roy James McDonald (1898-1959), a.k.a. “Mickey the Clown,” known for telling great stories; and Rudi and Suzette Lenz (1933- and 1940-), headliners of a chimpanzee act, are just a tiny sampling of the inductees.

The bottom floor of the Miami County Museum features exhibits on local culture and history, models of a Woolworth’s Toy Department and other storefronts, and a large section devoted to native son Cole Porter. Upstairs it’s all about the circus. Pieces include posters and paintings, Circus Festival programs available for purchase, statues, and the overalls from the world’s tallest man Robert Wadlow.

Today the circus feels like a long-ago bit of fun that will never come back. We live in an age where we can be taken anywhere in the world with a swipe of a finger and when one does not need to leave the couch to see an outstanding display of skill, beauty, and precision. But once upon a time, it was a huge deal to have the circus come to town, especially small, rural towns. Peru, Indiana, is committed to keeping the history and spirit of the circus alive, and it does so through the Amateur Circus, Circus Festival, International Circus Hall of Fame, and Miami County Museum.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s