It All Began in Peru when Ben Wallace Bought a Circus
Nancy Newman (Peru Daily Tribune Circus Edition, Tuesday, July 15, 1986)
Col. Ben Wallace was a prominent Peru businessman. For 18 years he operated a livery business in town, before setting out on an amazing new venture. In 1882, Wallace, who had been interested in circuses for several years, attended a sale of equipment of the W.C. Coup show. The large railroad show had passed through Peru on its way to Detroit. Heavily mortgaged, it could not meet its financial obligations and was declared bankrupt.
Wallace returned from the sale with six or seven rail cars full of tents, poles, costuming and other equipment. He attended a sale of another show in Texas, returning with several rail cars of horses. He purchased other animals in Chicago, and in December he contracted with a local firm, Sullivan & Eagle, for construction of some ornate wagons.
During those days in America, traveling shows were often the main source of entertainment in small towns, and circuses were a common sight. Wallace determined to make his show, though, something to remember. No flea-bitten animals and sloppy performers for him. He chose performers from many entertainment troupes, promising them decent pay, good food, adventure and excitement. He called his show Wallace and Co.’s Great World Menagerie, Grand International Mardi Gras, Highway Holiday Hidalgo and Alliance of Novelties.
Before his circus ever made its debut, it was ravaged by a fire. On Jan. 25, 1884, his circus menagerie burned, killing a variety of animals, including lions, tigers, deer, kangaroos and monkeys. The animals were being kept in temporary cages in the old chair factory on West Second Street.
The fire was caused by an overheated stove. But Wallace went ahead and began again, saying he would be ready to open his season here. And he was.
He set out on April 26, 1884. The first performance was in Peru.
Much advertised beforehand, the day began with a large parade, led by Peru’s own brass band. An estimated 5,000 people viewed the parade, and attendance at the matinee and evening performance was packed. About 300 people were turned away.
During that first season, his one-ring show played in southern Indiana and Ohio, Kentucky and Virginia. To that time, circuses, as any entertainment, had been almost non-existent in some areas the show visited, and the circus was received with enthusiasm.
Aware of his limited knowledge of circuses, Wallace chose as his first partners experienced circus men, Al Fields and James Anderson. And although new to the profession, he quickly built a reputation for excellence. The famous Bandwagon magazine had this to say about his circus: “This is no little mud show. It’s excellent, has a long list of performers and good equipment.”
Being well-liked by local citizens, and bringing his circus back to Peru to winter, residents began an infatuation with the circus that has never ended. Begun as a wagon show, in just two years his circus was traveling by train, using 26 cars and several railroads with routes through Peru. It traveled throughout the country. The name was changed to a simpler The Great Wallace Show.
By 1890, the circus included a big top, menagerie tent, sideshow, two horse tents and a cook house.
Advertised as “high-class” shows, his circus was known for its exquisite horses, excellent performers and beautifully carved wagons, which were still constructed by the Sullivan & Eagle company. Wallace maintained his circus winter quarters in Peru, which encouraged other local industrial and business enterprises. He had purchased hundreds of acres of land southeast of Peru, between the Mississinewa and Wabash rivers, which became the famous winterquarters. The land was once owned by Miami Indians.
When the show returned for the winter, many performers came with it. Local carpenters, painters, wood carvers and seamstresses were employed at the winter quarters to keep the equipment in first-class condition. Wallace built a row of houses along the Wabash River, just east of Benton Street, for his working men. The houses were identical and were painted yellow. Today, that area goes by the address Wallace Row. By that time, Peruvians had become used to that unusual group called “circus people” and the sight of exotic animals being marched down Broadway.
Events that in other towns were undreamed of were almost commonplace in Peru – for example, the occasional wanderlust of elephants at the winterquarters. The opportunity usually came when the animals were bathing in the river. Word spread quickly and children were kept inside until the wanderer was located, which usually was not too hard to do. The animals usually caused little more damaged than a trampled flower bed, and gave occasion to some humorous stories.
In 1907 Wallace purchased the Carl Hagenbeck Circus and renamed it Hagenbeck-Wallace. It was advertised as the “world’s highest class circus,” and was one of the top two or three circuses in the world. The only other shows equal in magnitude were Ringling Bros. And Barnum & Bailey.
It was a grand sight for Peruvians when the Hagenbeck shows, which had been wintering in old Mexico, arrived in Peru in January 1907. The shows came in two sections each of 28 cars. The animals were removed at once on account of the raw, damp weather.
The 16 elephants and camels were led through Broadway around 9 a.m. Before starting they were fed many gallons of whisky in bran to prevent them from taking cold. At the Mississinewa River bridge some of the elephants that did not want to cross ran south on the country road until finally being caught by their keepers.
According to a Peru newspaper article on Nov. 29, 1907, the Hagenbeck-Wallace shows were owned by Ben Wallace and John Talbot, with Wallace buying out the interests of three other owners a total of $125,000 for their holdings. The paper reported, “Their show belongs to the class of the greatest tent enterprises in the world and now since Mr. Wallace owns most of the stock his holdings are greater than those of any other showman in the country and probably the world.”
Tragedy struck the circus in 1913, when Peru was a victim of the great flood. Wallace suffered tremendous losses. In July of that same year, Wallace sold out to a corporation which included some area men.
Wallace didn’t limit his business to circuses, however. He was also president of the Wabash Valley Trust Company and was a stockholder in numerous other ventures. When he died in 1921, he was the owner of nearly 2,700 acres of land and was one of the largest farmers and stock feeders in northern Indiana.
When the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus left Peru for the 1914 season, it didn’t return for 10 years. The winterquarters, however, remained busy, used by many circuses, including Sells-Floto, Howes Great London Shows and the John Robinson Famous Shows.
Jerry Mugivan, who had been with Wallace, and Bert Bowers rented the winterquarters for Howes Great London and Robinson’s Famous Shows in 1914-15. No circuses wintered in Peru in 1915-17, but Mugivan and Bowers purchased the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus in 1918, sending it to West Baden to winter, but their third circus, Howes Great London Shows, left on its spring tour from the Peru winterquarters.
In 1919 the Indiana corporation was sold at West Baden adn Edward M. Ballard, together with Mugivan and Bowers, incorporated the American Circus Corp., which was purchased by Ringlings in 1929. At one time the corporation had five circuses on the road. When they returned to Peru late each fall to prepare for the next season, thousands of people from miles around came to watch the performers and animals train.
With the Great Depression came the demise of many, many circuses. During the 1930s, Ringling used the Peru winterquarters for two of his shows and also raised grain for shipment to the main circus quarters in Sarasota, Fla.
The winterquarters began to be phased out in the late 1930s. Some properties, including wagons, were sold. Others were shipped to Florida. Those left were burned.
In November 1941 more than 150 wagons of all types, in all conditions, were burned. The scrap metal was picked out of the ashes and sold to benefit the war effort.
The evacuation was complete in 1944 and the 500-acre farm sold. Today, a few of the original winterquarter buildings still stand.