Circus wagon restored through a group effort

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The circus wagon at the corner of A and Ann Streets was recently restored with the help of community volunteers. Pictured (left to right) are Beth Regan and Maureen Wild, with the McGregor-Marquette Center for the Arts; circus wagon owners Shelly and Randy Weeks; and Anne Kruse, also with the art center. (Photos by Audrey Posten)

The finishing touch—the clown—was placed atop the wagon last week.

Maureen Wild, a local artist and art center board member, restored the tigers, creating lifelike interpretations of the well-known circus act.

By Audrey Posten, North Iowa Times Editor

Although the Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus dazzled crowds for the final time May 21, closing the book on 146 years of “The Greatest Show on Earth,” the history of the Ringling Brothers—and their circus roots—is still very much alive in McGregor.

The boys performed their first circus in the community, at what’s now the corner of A and Ann Streets, in 1871. For roughly four decades, a “circus wagon”—complete with caged tigers and a clown driver—has marked that special location. 

The idea came to Mary Frater in the 1970s. Mary and her husband, Milton, owned the property at that time, constructing the current building where a blacksmith shop once stood. The wagon’s concrete base originally served as an enclosure for the building’s fuel tanks, she noted.

“We didn’t need it anymore when we put electric heat in the building,” she said. “But then, we had all these trash cans, and I thought it would be nice to hide them.”

When the iron gates, which came directly from the old jail in Prairie du Chien, were put on the structure, a picture began to form in Mary’s mind.

“I thought, ‘It looks like a circus wagon now. We should do something,’” she shared. “The Ringlings had their first show on that property.”

Mary painted the tigers on plywood cutouts and designed the clown. The concrete head, she said, was purchased at a garage sale.

“We had it dressed as a full figure up there,” Mary remarked, sheepishly adding, “but the local kids kept taking the clothes off.”

Over the years, though, age and the elements had taken a toll on Mary’s project, prompting community efforts this spring to restore the wagon to its former glory.

“It was a project the art center board determined we wanted to do,” said McGregor-Marquette Center for the Arts board member Beth Regan.

In May, with help from members of the McGregor Clan Lions Club (now the McGregor Community Betterment Committee), art center board members got most of the wagon painted in one day. 

The body received coats of rich red, while the trim popped with a coat of yellow. The paint was all donated by Randy Weeks, who now owns the property on which the circus wagon sits.

The work didn’t end there. The area inside and around the wagon was cleaned up, while Weeks replaced some parts that had deteriorated over time.

Maureen Wild, a local artist and art center board member, re-painted the sign that sat atop the wagon, recognizing McGregor as the birthplace of the Ringling Bros. Circus. She also restored the tigers, creating lifelike interpretations of the well-known circus act.

“To me, that’s the artwork in this,” said Regan of the tigers.

“It was a lot of fun,” said Wild of the project. “I’ve never done a tiger before, so it was a challenge. I enjoyed doing the faces especially. They’re interesting.”

Wild said one tiger, the one on the left, is a male, with more of a mane and a menacing snarl. The female, on the right, has a more placid expression.

The circus wagon received its finishing touch last week, when the clown, which was restored by Regan and her husband Zip, was again placed atop it. Just as Mary originally designed it, the clown has a whole body, with shirt, pants, boots and gloves.

Weeks said the restoration is exciting for he and his wife, Shelly.

“For several years, we’ve been hoping to restore it, to make it nice again,” he said.

Several other groups have offered to do the work over the years, Weeks mentioned, but never followed through—until now.

He anticipates it will be a sought-out attraction in McGregor.

“Even when it wasn’t in as good of shape, there were always people taking pictures by it,” he said. “Now, I think it’s going to be very popular.”

Frater, now 96 and living in Watertown, Wis., said McGregor should be proud of the wagon and its Ringling history.

“Having it restored is great,” she shared. “I’m happy to know someone re-did it. I always thought it was a clever idea.”

Wild said plans are also in the works to add to the attraction.

“I think the next project for this is going to be cutouts for people to take pictures with,” she said. 

She’s already designed boards that feature a ringmaster, strongman, trapeze girl, clown and a dog doing tricks. The faces will be cut out of each one, allowing people to take their photos by the wagon.

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