Elephants, hippos and bears, oh my!

Peru Circus winter quarters were established by Ben Wallace in 1892. Elephants and bears moved into the buildings on this property that year. For the next 50 years, these buildings, new buildings, and properties would house up to 40 elephants, polar bears, brown bears, Himalayan bears, and Nile River hippos. This was home to America’s largest Corporation of Circuses, where each Five major circuses around the United States were repaired, hired, and routed this year.

The elephants walked from their winter quarters, three miles outside the city to central Peru every day for a healthy little exercise trip. Polar bears were playing in a puddle of water. The colder the better. The hippos had their own pool inside the elephant stable where they could stay submerged as they pleased. The elephants enjoyed a leisurely swim in the adjacent Mississinewa River, weather permitting.

The elephant stable was also home to all the non-performing show animals that needed to be caged. The west wing of the barn had a long row of cages to house the many non-performing animals.

The center of the barn remained open as a training area for working with the elephants. This also gave the trainers a place to perform the pedicures the elephants needed to keep their feet in good condition, as well as being able to physically tend to any ailments that might develop.

The circus menagerie was a traveling zoo. People across the United States had very little opportunity to see an animal that wasn’t on their farm. As the circus traveled from town to town and then moved on rails, more and more animals were transported to amaze the local people with wonders from around the world.

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

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

The hippo can be a vicious animal to be around and then some are very manageable. Weighing almost a ton when fully grown, they need to be in the water to keep their skin in a supple condition. They can stay underwater, showing only their eyes, but they are not very good swimmers. For a very large animal, they are very fast 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 canine tooth.

Being the third largest mammal on the face of the earth, this was quite an attraction for Americans who were only familiar with a boar or cow.

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

The elephant is only one of the three hundred fifty-two species of proboscideans. In other words, they have a long nose or trunk. The elephant’s truck contains forty thousand sinews and muscles. This allows the elephant to literally pick up a dime. They feed, water, spray, shovel dirt and hay over their backs to keep ticklish flies away, can lift a person on their trunk or push and pull as needed.

The elephant has a set of teeth that grind its fodder into digestible foodstuffs. Living for 60 to 80 years in captivity, with no concern for comfort, food, or shelter, the elephant will acquire six sets of teeth in its lifetime. Using their own trunk to pull out a loose tooth, they pass many of them through the intestines, when found, these teeth are almost the size of a human hand.

The most noticeable thing on any elephant is the tusks. The tusks of a male are always larger than those of a female. Males can reach three to four feet on pure ivory. This becomes another tool that the elephant can use to move things around and can also be turned into a weapon. African elephants tend to develop tusks more easily than Asian elephants, and the forest elephant’s tusk is almost always pointing downward. The tusk is actually another tooth of the elephant.

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

Nearly 100 years later, The Circus Hall of Fame now rests within five of these original buildings, known as the American Circus Corporation winter quarters. The polar bear pool is still there, but it’s full of dirt and grass. The hippo pool is gone and replaced with a concrete floor for the machine shop. The elephant stable is still there, but the wall has been removed leaving the building open.

The rich history of the circus in Indiana is a highlight of every visitor’s trip to the Circus Hall of Fame. We’re telling the stories of the all-time circus greats, the little anonymous workers, the management, the press agents, and the animals everyone loved to see.

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

With the 17 days at the Indiana State Fair over and all of us volunteering returning to our actual jobs, this structural assessment will occur in October. This will provide plenty of details, CAD drawings, and a basic list of priorities to repair first. We are going to need to do a lot of work to keep these old buildings preserved. You can help us by visiting our Go Fund Me page.

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

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