PERU – For the last three years, the International Circus Hall of Fame has been at a standstill.
The hall of fame is housed inside two barns located about 3 miles east of Peru that for decades served as the winter quarters for some of the most popular circuses in the country. Today, it’s only one of two circus winter quarters in existence, and was named a National Historic Landmark in 1987.
The barns now hold exhibits, colorful posters and century-old circus wagons, including the Two-Hemisphere Bandwagon – the largest bandwagon ever built in America, weighing in at over 13,000 pounds. The museum also enshrines the giants of the big top who left a lasting mark on the world’s circuses.
But all that history has been sitting stagnant since 2014, when the hall of fame lost its major funding source – putting on shows and giving elephant rides at the Indiana State Fair.
Mary Kay Dunwoody, who serves on the board of directors of the hall of fame, said without any money, the barns and other buildings on the property that were built in the 1920s as part of the original winter quarters have fallen into disrepair.
She said without a significant source of income, the board had considered selling the museum and the hall of fame to an organization in French Lick. Dunwoody said it was a tough and controversial idea, but it was one they had to look at seriously.
“With Ringling Bros. closing down, I thought it was so important we not lose the Circus Hall of Fame,” she said. “I told the board, ‘I think we need to take a hard look at this.’ This hall of fame can’t languish. It can’t disappear – especially now that we’re losing the American circus.”
But now, board members and volunteers are working harder than ever to make sure that doesn’t happen – while making sure the museum stays right where it’s at in Peru.
This year, hall of fame officials launched a full-on campaign to rejuvenate the failing museum and turn the area into a tourism hotspot highlighting the nation’s circus history.
Work got underway this summer with volunteers sprucing up the property and cleaning up all the old trailers and other debris that had sat on the grounds for years.
“The grounds for the first time look like they did 10 years ago,” Dunwoody said.
The next major push is to secure funding to begin repairs on the two barns, which were originally built to house circus wagons and exotic animals. Today, both structures are in dire need of a new roof, windows and other upgrades to ensure their preservation, Dunwoody said.
She said the cost of restoring the buildings will ring up to around $450,000, and the board is considering hiring an Amish construction crew to make the repairs.
“These barns are almost 100 years old,” she said. “Who is going to know better than the Amish about old barns? That’s why we went to the Amish.”
Kathleen Plothow, who recently became involved in the restoration efforts at the hall of fame, said she plans to help the group go after grant money to pay for the repairs.
“Those barns are like a human being,” she said. “They reach a certain age and then all of sudden everything falls apart. But now, it’s almost like there’s a pulmonologist on the grounds, breathing the lifeblood back into this. These wonderful people have been doing CPR for so many years, and now it’s time to bring it back to life.”
Dunwoody said the board is also planning a major marketing push to get the word out about the museum and grounds. The hall of fame opened in Peru in 1993 after a group of local die-hard circus aficionados worked to bring it from Sarasota, Florida. But its existence still remains largely unknown to the general public, she said.
That was proven true when two representatives from the Indiana State Museum came to Peru in preparation for the state’s bicentennial last year. Dunwoody said the two historians were flabbergasted when they learned the town was home to the International Circus Hall of Fame.
“They had no idea about this museum. None,” she said. “When they saw it, they were dumbfounded.”
The museum recently received some national exposure when the Two Hemisphere’s Bandwagon was shipped out to Washington, D.C., where it was put on display in front of the Capitol Building as part of the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. The wagon was also featured in the July 4 parade through downtown Washington.
Megan Montgomery, secretary for the hall of fame board, said word has already started to spread about the organization’s efforts due to a stronger social-media presence. She said the group has been posting regular updates on the cleanup and renovation projects.
“More and more people are aware of what we’re doing out here,” Montgomery said. “It’s piqued everybody’s interest. Also, with the fear of the hall of fame possibly leaving, we’ve gotten more support.”
Dunwoody said the board hopes to take that support and turn it into a powerful tool to restore the barns and museum and turn the area into the world-class destination that she knows it is.
“Most communities would kill for the kind of tourist attractions we have here,” she said.
Plothow said her goal is to secure enough funding over the next 12 months to pay for building renovations. She said that may be difficult, but she and the board will work their hardest to get the hall of fame up and running as soon as possible.
“This is an exciting time, in my opinion,” Plothow said. “There’s so much that can be done. We’re starting to dream again of possibilities and getting a new life. We want to watch this place rise. I’m naïve enough to believe there is no limit. We can bring the big top back.”