PERU – Last year, two historic circus barns near Peru that were once home to tigers, elephants and lions were classified by Indiana Landmarks as one of the state’s most vulnerable sites, at risk of loss.
Thanks to government funds, a large grant and a donation campaign on site, one of the barns is getting a new roof, which makes a major contribution to the survival of the historic building.
Today, the nearly 100-year-old barns are home to the International Circus Hall of Fame and are home to a priceless collection of circus artifacts, including vintage posters, photos, costumes, floats, and a miniature replica of a 1934 circus. The property is listed on the National Register of Historic Places .
For about a decade, a crumbling roof has threatened these artifacts and the structural integrity of the building. John Wright, president of the International Circus Hall of Fame, said the shingles have been blown for more than a year and have been leaking for even longer.
“It was in really bad shape,” he said. “You could see daylight through some of the things. We’ve been picking up shingles that have blown away for over a year. “
The situation got worse last year when a storm demolished parts of the buildings and blew out nine windows.
This prompted the organization to go out of their way to raise enough money to replace the roof and make other repairs to the barn. Funding finally came that year when the Hall of Fame received a $ 50,000 scholarship from the Indiana Historical Society.
That grant was matched by an additional $ 40,000 granted to the group by the Indiana Department of Transportation for the state demolishing another historic but derelict circus barn along US 31 to turn the freeway into a restricted-access freeway.
When the state uses taxpayers’ money to significantly alter or demolish historical property, the move triggers a “mitigation process” to make up for the loss of that history. The process resulted in the money being allocated to the International Circus Hall of Fame.
The organization also raised $ 7,500 from donors to fund the umbrella project, which cost approximately $ 70,000.
Bob Cline, Treasurer of the International Circus Hall of Fame, said the leftover money will be used to replace the windows in the barn.
Work on the roof is slated to begin soon, and organizers say this is a bright spot in an otherwise difficult year for the organization. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, donations and memberships have decreased 75% year over year, so the group has made an effort to raise enough money to keep the lights on.
“Right now we’re trying to scrape and scrape to keep things going while trying to improve the terrain,” Cline said.
These improvements include placing new signage on the property, raising funds to paint and renovate a historic gatehouse, and raise funds to restore three antique circus wagons.
Cline said the projects represent the biggest push the organization has taken in at least 10 years to upgrade and improve the property. The hope now is that the umbrella project will raise awareness of the work being done to preserve the barns and other artifacts and the need for additional funding to sustain those efforts, he said.
This applies in particular to the second circus barn, which today houses the organization’s antique circus wagons and which urgently needs a new roof.
“It still has to be done and we hope we can find a way to do it soon, but it’s not the high priority that the museum’s barn has,” Cline said. “We hope and pray that this new roof will actually open people’s eyes so that other people can help too.”
In the end, he said, the goal of all fundraising and work is to preserve one of the most unique circus properties in the nation.
The barns were built in 1922 to provide winter quarters for Ben Wallace and his circus. The buildings contained elephants, cats, tents, and intricately carved wagons.
The property eventually became winter quarters for five large circuses. On the site was a small town with 30 buildings that housed horse stables, training facilities, wagon building and repair workshops, a hospital, a commissioner, a restaurant, bunkhouses and barns that housed the menagerie. The last owners of the property were Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey.
“This is really the heyday of the American circus, and Peru was establishing itself as the circus capital of the world,” said Cline. “There was no other place in the United States with five circuses moving in and out every day to make a living on the streets.”
Today only the barns and a few outbuildings are on the site. That’s why efforts to restore and maintain the buildings are so important, Wright said.
“If we don’t keep it and lose it, it’s gone forever,” he said.