Thursday, April 16, 2009

Circus World repairs, prepares

By Brian D. Bridgeford / News Republic

With the beginning of the live performance season May 16, staff and contractors at Circus World Museum are busy repairing damage from last year's flooding while staff gets more than 50 wagons ready for Milwaukee's Great Circus Parade in July.

Museum Executive Director Steve Freese gathered Thursday morning with the executive committee of the Circus World Museum Foundation. It is the non-profit group that runs the museum on behalf of the Historical Society of Wisconsin. He reported on a variety of issues including fundraising efforts, ongoing restoration of circus wagons for the Milwaukee parade and repairs from heavy June flooding on the museum grounds.

Outside, workers from Blum Excavating of Baraboo used a backhoe and shovels to uncover a section of the foundation of the historic Ring Barn. When the area was the winter quarters of the Ringling Brothers Circus in the late 1800s and the early 1900s, the barn was where circus performers such as horse riders practiced their acts.

Freese said pressure from water that flooded the Ring Barn baandsement drained away damaged the foundation on both sides of the building. Officials of the Wisconsin Department of Administration estimate it will cost about $105,000 to repair, he told committee members.

As the Blum employees freed the foundation from the earth, sections could be seen where many of the foundation's large limestone blocks were missing.

Ben Blum, son of company owner Dean Blum, said the foundation would be repaired using the same stones.

Freese said the courtyard between the Feld Exhibit Hall and the Ring Barn also suffered from being soaked and the soil beneath it is settling, causing the asphalt surface to become uneven and break up.

Freese said he plans to have eight-foot-wide sidewalks constructed to connect the exhibit hall and Ring Barn. The rest of the courtyard will be left in grass, as it was when the Ringling Brothers used the site.

Flooding over much of the museum's main parking lot continues to cause settling, including the growth of sink holes "big enough to put a car in," Freese joked.

"They're looking at whether they need to take the asphalt entirely off and re-do the (gravel) base, or if it only needs to be repaired in the spots that are causing the problem," he said. "We don't know that answer yet."

During the flooding, the Baraboo River reached high enough on its south bank to cover parts of two rare and historic circus railroad cars, the Ringling baggage horse car and an advertising rail car used by the Al G. Barnes & Sells Floto Combined Circus, he said. CWM plans to move them further up the bank so they can be displayed in a covered shed with open sides.

"The Al G. Barnes, it was up past the trucks, which is what they roll on, it was inside the car," Freese said. "(Water) was probably up six or seven feet on it."

They must also move two large electrical transformers on the museum grounds away from flood-prone areas, he said.

Freese told the News Republic repairs might cost about $330,000 all in all. Some of that has already been paid by the museum's insurance provider and the Federal Emergency Management Agency officials are promising to spring for much of the other repairs, he said.

In addition to repairs, CWM is continuing the restoration of a house the Ringing Brothers used as an office and the Ringling train shed west of Broadway near Lynn Street.

In the Deppe Wagon Restoration Pavilion, Rock Springs sign artist Joan Stevens was painting golden scroll work on the dark green side of the newly-reconstructed Ken Maynard Air Calliope, a type of musical circus wagon. In January, the same wagon had been stripped to bare wood and the CWM carpenter was working to replace parts destroyed by wood rot or old age.

Stevens said she gets a sense of pride and peace using traditional hand techniques to decorate CWM's historic wagons.

"Now a days, a lot of stuff we do is just cut on the computer, it's canned," she said. "This is actually re-creating something that was originally created by hand. This is much more fulfilling," Stevens said.

CWM Wagon Superintendent Harold "Heavy" Burdick said work has been done on about three-quarters of the museum's wagons as parade day approaches, including repairs to 200 steel-rimmed wooden wagon wheels.

"We'll have about 52 wagons in the parade," he said. "We'll have five wardrobe wagons for our costumes."

Freese expressed pride in the work museum employees and volunteers are doing as they prepare for the Great Circus Parade July 12. He said the colorful circus wagons will be ready for the parade and have been beautifully refurbished for future visitors to see.

"Very nice, he said of the calliope. "They've done a fantastic job restoring that."

The schedule of the CWM 2009 performance season is available on the museum Web site. It lists a clown make up show, interactive children's circus, a tiger adventure, magic show and a classic American circus performance, along with other fun and the year-round museum exhibits.

"We'll have 11 live shows daily beginning May 16," Freese said.

Information about Circus World Museum, its hours of operation, performances and exhibits may be found online —