Marian Matyn, Clarke Historical Library, Central Michigan UniversityLook10
A circus parade in Kalamazoo. Photo by Schuyler C. Baldwin. (Photo Courtesy of Clarke Historical Library, Central Michigan University)
My interest in circus history began when processing the papers of John C. Pollie, a Grand Rapids man who owned and operated several circuses with his father, 1910s-1930s. Later, they specialized in carnival games. John became a concessionaire. John typed letters to his connections (sometimes several generations of the same family), circus stars and owners, carnival freaks, and relatives and friends. He typed like he talked – a lot and often. His voice is unique in my twenty years as an archivist. His papers (17.5 cubic ft., 1910-1969) eventually came to the Clarke Historical Library at Central Michigan University. They are fascinating and some are typed in code. This led me to a sabbatical, an exhibit, and to interviews with circus and carnival Michiganders. I’m now working on a book on circuses. There is too much history to tell, so here are some tidbits, ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, to entice you.
American circus history began in 1797 with a clown, rope walker and equestrian performance in Philadelphia. The classic definition of a circus contains those three elements: clown, walker, and equestrian. About thirty years later, in 1828, William Blanchard’s troupe gave the first circus performance in Michigan.
Adams Brothers and Seils Brothers Circus poster. From the Rev. James Challacin Circus Collection, Clarke Historical Library, Central Michigan University
Michigan Circus Families
Among the major Michigan families were the Lewis Brothers of Jackson. They owned and operated circuses from 1931 to 1942 and in 1945. The Wixom family of Argentine and Bancroft operated circuses from 1874 to 1907. The Whitney Family of Imlay City began as a musical act and owned circuses from 1852 to 1903. The Silver family of Grand Traverse County also began as a musical act, between 1880 and 1895. They became a one-ring family circus by 1895, continuing for ten years, and then they operated Michigan movie theaters. The Hannefords were a major internationally renowned European equestrian family act that eventually settled in Detroit, where they performed in Shrine Circuses. The Nelson family act began about 1866 in Europe as a risley act. After 1912, Arthur Nelson and his wife, Sarah, and their family performed while they lived in Mount Clemens. The Hannefords and Nelsons are members of the Circus Hall of Fame.
The Flying Melzoras of Saginaw were renowned fliers who performed in a variety of venues beginning in 1897. Jane Thomas was one of the few female business managers and catchers in the business. Her son, Bus, earned a Guinness Book of World Records record for his development and performance of the Majestic Leap, first performed at Latrobe, Pennsylvania in 1935. The Majestic Leap was and is still considered a very dangerous and advanced trick. It has never been performed by another flying trapeze troupe. Another son, Ray, was the only one-legged clown flier in the business. In 1966 the Flying Melzoras were inducted into the Circus Hall of Fame.