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Elephants, Hippos and Bears, Oh My!

The Peru Circus Winter grounds were established by Ben Wallace in 1892. The elephants and bears moved into buildings on this property that year. For the next 50 years, these buildings, newer buildings and properties would house up to 40 elephants, polar bears, brown bears, Himalayan bears and Nile hippos. This was the home of the largest Circus Corporation in America, where five major circuses were repaired, contracted and launched across America each year.

The elephants walked from the winter quarters, three miles outside the city to the central Peru area each day for a healthy little exercise trip. Polar bears played in a pool of water. The colder the better. The Hippos had their own pool inside the elephant barn where they could stay submerged at their leisure. The elephants enjoyed a leisurely swim in the adjacent Mississinewa River as the weather permitted.

The elephant barn was also home to all the exhibit animals that didn’t make it that had to be caged. The west wing of the barn had a long row of cages to house the many animals that weren’t performing well.

The center of the barn remained open as a training area to work with the elephants. This also gave the trainers a place to provide the pedicures the elephants needed to keep their feet in good condition as well as being able to physically treat any ailments that might arise.

The circus menagerie was a traveling zoo. People across America had very few opportunities to see an animal outside of their farm. As the circus traveled from town to town and then moved by rail, more and more animals were brought in to amaze the locals with wonders from around the world.

While many people may have seen a common black bear, it was almost impossible to believe a white polar bear that stood nearly eleven feet tall on its hind legs. Polar bears naturally climb on things, whether it’s an ice flow, a fallen tree, or a foreign object. The circus used all these features when he pushed a carousel full of other bears, climbed and slid down a slide or sat on their podium.

Many circus acts included many bear presentations. Maybe it was a cage full of polar bears or a ring full of brown bears. Some acts even featured a combination of bears using polar bears, European brown bears, Himalayan bears, Syrian bears and native black bears.

The hippopotamus can be a vicious animal and then some are very flexible. Weighing nearly a ton when fully grown, they must be in the water to keep their skin in a pliable state. They can stay underwater, with their eyes visible, however they are not very good swimmers. For a very large animal, they are very quick in their movements. Running a short distance, they can reach a speed of almost 19 miles per hour. Being a herbivore or herbivore, the hippopotamus can develop a foot-long fang.

Being the third largest mammal on the face of the earth, this was quite attractive to the American people who were only familiar with a wild boar or a cow.

There are two different types of elephants, the Asian elephant and the African elephant. The Asiatic elephant has always been the most commonly used elephant in circuses and zoos. Asian or Indian elephants are easily recognized by their smaller ears. African elephants are divided into two subspecies – the Forest, or technically speaking, Loxodonta Africana Cyclotis and the Savanna, or Loxodonta Africana. The Asian is known by its scientific name Elephas Maximus.

The elephant is but one of three hundred and fifty-two species of proboscis. In other words, they have a long nose or trunk. The elephant’s trunk contains forty thousand tendons and muscles. This allows the elephant to literally take a dime. They are fed, watered, sprayed, throw dirt and hay on their backs to keep tickling flies away, can lift a person with their trunk or push and pull as needed.

The elephant has a series of teeth that mashes their food into easily digestible edibles. Living 60 to 80 years in captivity, without worrying about comfort, food or shelter, an elephant will grow six sets of teeth in its lifetime. Using their own trunk to pull out a loose tooth, they pass several of them through the intestines, when found, these teeth are about the size of a human hand.

Most noticeable on any elephant are the tusks. A male’s tusks are always larger than a female’s. Males can achieve three and four feet of pure ivory. This becomes another tool that the elephant can use to move things and can also become a weapon. African elephants tend to grow tusks more easily than Asian elephants with the forest elephant’s tusk almost always being straight. The tusk is actually another elephant tooth.

The leg is the main part of any elephant. Growing from twelve to fourteen inches in an adult elephant, the elephant actually walks on its toes. These are the white nails we see. There is a large pad behind the toes that supports the enormous weight of an elephant. This works like an elastic cushion of a tennis shoe. Despite the weight, an elephant can be graceful enough to walk without making a sound or even leaving a trace.

Nearly 100 years later, The Circus Hall of Fame is now housed within five of these original buildings, known as the winter quarters of the American Circus Corporation. The Polar Bears pool is still there, but it’s filled with dirt and grass. The Hippopotamuses pool is gone and replaced with a concrete floor for the mechanics shop. The elephant barn is still there but the wall has been removed leaving the building open.

Indiana’s rich circus history is a highlight of every visitor’s trip to the Circus Hall of Fame. We tell the stories of the circus’ greatest of all time, the little invisible worker, the management, the press agents and the animals that everyone loved to see.

We are working on several major developments to repair and restore these grand old barns. Indiana Landmarks awarded us a matching capital grant to do a structural assessment.

Having just completed 17 days at the Indiana State Fair and all of us volunteers returning to our real jobs, this structural assessment will take place in October. This will provide lots of details, CAD drawings and a basic priority list to repair first. We will need to do a lot of work to preserve these old buildings. You can help us by going to our Go Fund Me page.

We are open Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday from 10 am to 4 pm and by special arrangement. Call us at 800-771-0241 to make any special arrangements to see part of Indiana’s great circus heritage.

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