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Step right up and see the new exhibit exploring the history of the circus in Indiana

Circus City
Posted at 7:20 PM, Jan 26, 2024
and last updated 2024-01-29 08:14:49-05

INDIANAPOLIS — The newest exhibit inside the Indiana Historical Society, "Circus City," explores the history of the circus in Indiana, which dates back to the late 1800s.

“Benjamin Wallace started the circus in 1884 in Peru,” Matt Holdzkom said. “The Hagenbeck-Wallace, which was one of the biggest circuses in the country, wintered in Peru for much of the late 19th century into the 20th century.”

BW Peru
Benjamin Wallace started a circus in Peru, Indiana.

The circus would grow to become the biggest employer in Peru.

“It was huge,” Holdzkom said. “Everything that needed to be done to the circus, a lot of times they used local contractors. All of the painting, upholstering, the building of cars and all of the animal keeping, everybody was local.”

But life under the big top was complicated, especially for circus laborers.

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“There's so much that was going on behind the scenes.,” Holdzkom said. “You had everything from labor, immigration [to] corruption.”

Much of that backstory is on display at "Circus City."

“We’re really wanting visitors to learn about the resilience of circus workers,” Emma Donaghy said.

Resiliency built through manual labor, long hours and overcoming disasters like flooding and train wrecks.

Circus disasters

“It’s a fascinating microcosm of what our country was going through at the time,” Holdzkom said. “You look around at all the photos here and think about people's daily lives. It was a spectacle from beginning to end.”

"Circus City" runs through June 8.

The circus through the eyes of WRTV journalists

WRTV journalists often covered the circus when it came to town. In 1979, WRTV reporter Derrik Thomas filed a report from the Peru Circus Center Arena.

1979: Celebrating the circus in Peru

The following year, reporter Ben Morriston introduced viewers to an aspiring circus performer training under the circus legend Antoinette Concello.

1980: Training to join the circus

Thomas returned to Peru in 1984 for a celebration recognizing the city’s 25th year of circus identification.

1984: Circus celebration in Peru

Angela Cain reported on the efforts to construct the Circus Hall of Fame in Peru in 1987.

1987: Peru embraces circus history

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