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The land of Lincoln has deep circus roots

A 1961 circus route book from the Al G. Kelly and Miller Bros. Circus
Illinois State University Milner Library Special Collections
A 1961 circus route book from the Al G. Kelly and Miller Bros. Circus

Steve Gossard will tell you that Illinois is a circus state. The former curator of special collections—including circus collections—at Milner Library at Illinois State University in Normal has made it his business to research the state’s rich circus history.

Starting in the 19th century when the circus was the public’s main form of entertainment, separate circus companies were formed in places like Bloomington as well as other Illinois towns like Galesburg, Quincy, Petersburg and Danville, he said.

“The circus was the main entertainment for people from the 1880s into the first several decades of the 20th century. The circus became huge with the development of the railroad,” said Gossard, who interviewed a number of former circus people in Bloomington. “They were salt of the earth people. Their character was very strong,” he said.

Circus life was not easy, said Gossard, noting that once groups took to the road, they would often do one-nighters in small communities across the Midwest.

Gossard cited Clyde Van Noble as an example of the impact of the circus in central Illinois. captivated trapeze and acrobatics. Van Noble quit his apprenticeship with a Bloomington watcher maker and jeweler, and joined the circus in 1904, following in the footsteps of his older brother Charles. Van Noble performed with his wife for a number of years before returning to Bloomington and the jewelry business in 1918.

Bloomington is where the flying return act was developed, a trapeze maneuver that became a circus standard, said Gossard.

“There’s a feeling that Bloomington has slipped its circus history under the carpet. The circus has always had to fight for legitimacy,” he said.

More Bloomington circus history will be related with the publication of a new book, “In the Shadow of the Big Top: The Life of Ringling’s Unlikely Savior” by Maureen Brunsdale, head of special collections at Milner Library, said Gossard. Brunsdale tells the story of Bloomington’s Art Concello, a great trapeze performer who was the star of the Flying Concellos who later became extremely influential after going into circus management, he said.

The Milner Library maintains a large collection of material on the state’s circus history with thousands of pictures, said Gossard, at work on his own article delving into the role the circus played in Illinois.

Steve Tarter retired from the Peoria Journal Star in 2019 after spending 20 years at the paper as both reporter and business editor.