PERU – Last year, two historic circus barns near Peru that once housed tigers, elephants and lions were listed by Indiana Landmarks among the most endangered sites in the state that were in jeopardy of being lost.
But thanks to state funding, a large grant and on-the-ground fundraising, one of the barns is getting a new roof that will go a long way in ensuring the historic building survives.
Today, the nearly 100-year-old barns serve as the home of the International Circus Hall of Fame and house a valuable collection of circus artifacts, including vintage posters, photos, costumes, wagons and a miniature replica of a 1934 circus. The property is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
But for around a decade, a crumbling roof has jeopardized those artifacts and the structural integrity of the building. John Wright, president of the International Circus Hall of Fame, said shingles have been blowing off for well over a year, and it’s been leaking even longer than that.
“It was in real bad shape,” he said. “You could see daylight through some of it. We’ve been picking up shingles for over a year that have blown off.”
The situation got even worse last year when a storm tore off parts of the buildings and blew out nine windows.
That led the organization to make a full-on push to get enough funding to replace the roof and make other repairs to the barn. Funding finally fell into place this year when the hall of fame received a $50,000 grant from the Indiana Historical Society.
That grant was supplemented by another $40,000 awarded to the group by the Indiana Department of Transportation due to the state demolishing another historic, but dilapidated, circus barn along U.S. 31, in preparation for making the highway a limited-access freeway.
When the state uses taxpayer money to significantly alter or demolish a historic property, the move triggers a “mitigation process” to make up for the loss of that history. The process led to the money being allocated to the International Circus Hall of Fame.
The organization also pulled in $7,500 from donors to help pay for the roof project, which cost about $70,000.
Bob Cline, treasurer of the International Circus Hall of Fame, said the leftover money will go toward replacing the windows in the barn.
Work on the roof is set to get underway soon, and organization officials say it marks a bright spot in what has otherwise been a tough year for the organization. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, donations and memberships have dropped off 75% from last year, leaving the group scrambling to raise enough money to keep the lights on.
“Right now, we’re trying to scrape and scrounge to keep things going and still trying to improve the grounds at the same time,” Cline said.
Those improvements include placing new signage around the property, raising funds to paint and renovate an historic gatehouse, and garnering donations to restore three antique circus wagons.
Cline said the projects mark the biggest push the organization has made in at least 10 years to spruce up and improve the property. Now, the hope is that the roof project will raise awareness about the work being done to preserve the barns and other artifacts, and the need for more funding to keep those efforts going, he said.
That’s especially true for the second circus barn, which today houses the organization’s antique circus wagons and is also in dire need of a new roof.
“It still needs to be done, and we’re hoping we can find some way to get it done soon, but it’s not the big priority that the museum barn is,” Cline said. “We’re hoping and praying that this new roof will actually open people’s eyes so that other people would step up to help as well.”
In the end, he said, the goal of all the fundraising and work is to preserve one of the most unique circus properties in the nation.
The barns were built in 1922 to serve as the winter quarters for Ben Wallace and his circus. The structures housed elephants, cats, tents and ornately carved wagons.
The property eventually ended up as the winter quarters for five major circuses. The site was home to a small city that included 30 buildings housing horse stables, training facilities, wagon building and repair shops, a hospital, commissary, restaurant, bunkhouses and barns to house the menagerie. The last owner of the property was Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey.
“This is really the heyday of the American circus, and Peru was establishing itself as the circus capitol of the world,” Cline said. “There was no other place in the United States that had five circuses moving in and out, every day, trying to make a living on the road.”
Today, the barns and a few outbuildings are all that remain at the site. And that’s why efforts to restore and maintain the buildings are so important, Wright said.
“If we don’t preserve it and we lose it, this is gone forever,” he said.