Traveling circuses flourished in the years between the Civil War and the Great Depression. Few people may realize that Peru, Indiana, served as the winter headquarters from 1892-1938 for what would become the second largest circus in the country. Peru native Benjamin Wallace returned from the Civil War and operated a successful livery stable. As his business grew, he also began attending auctions to purchase portions of defunct circuses. In the spring of 1884 he took “Wallace and Company’s Great World Menagerie, Grand International Mardi Gras, Holiday Highway Hidalgo, and Alliance of Novelties” on the road. They traveled by train and toured the Midwest. He returned the profits back into the circus and lengthened the tours and enlarged the shows. In 1885 the circus required nine railroad cars but it grew to fifteen cars the following year. By 1893, the Wallace circus needed 30 cars to transport the performers, animals, trainers, costumes, and equipment from site to site.
During the winter months, Wallace needed someplace to house the performers and animals while they trained for the next circus season. He chose a farmstead southeast of Peru. There was an existing house on the property but Wallace added a wagon shop; a wood elephant, hippo, and cat barn; a concrete tiger, lion and bear barn, and an office building. Wallace Row, housing for the workers, was located on the road leading from the winter quarters to town.
In 1907, Wallace purchased the Wild Animal Show of Carl Hagenbeck and changed the name to the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus. At that time his only competition was Ringling Brothers-Barnum and Bailey. By 1913, Wallace had had enough of the travel associated with circus life and he sold the circus to the American Circus Corporation. He kept the winter quarters and rented it to a variety of circuses until 1921 when he sold that property to the American Circus Corporation. Ringling Brothers purchased the winter quarters in 1929 and barely managed to survive the Depression. However the glory days of the winter quarters were over. In 1938, Ringling Brothers moved the circus to a warmer climate and never came back but they didn’t sell the property until 1941. At that time, all of the circus-related items were sold or destroyed and there was a great wagon burning. Since 1944, the former winter quarters have served as part of a traditional Indiana farm.
This National Historic Landmark is now the site of the International Circus Hall of Fame.