Have you ever wondered why there is a Circus Room in the Bone Student Center or why there are often display cases containing vintage circus advertisements and photographs in Milner Library?
What most students on campus — and most people — do not know, is that in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Bloomington-Normal was the trapeze capital of the world, and a spot in which many major circus acts wintered for the year.
Unfortunately, this is a fact that is typically overlooked by the Illinois State and greater Bloomington-Normal communities.
This is not the case for Mark Schmitt and Maureen Brunsdale, two librarians working in the Special Collections and Rare Books room at Milner Library.
The two have actually published a book together on the subject and are hosting a book talk , at 7 p.m. tonight in the Bone’s Circus room itself.
The book, The Bloomington-Normal Circus Legacy: The Golden Age of Aerialists, is, in the words of Brunsdale herself, “about the history of circus in this community. From the 1870s to the 1950s, the world experienced the Golden Age of circus arts, and Bloomington was the trapeze capital of the world. People from Bloomington were literally traveling the globe in order to perform.”
“We have a letter,” Schmitt said, “from a sixteen year old boy, writing from Australia, from a time when the world was much less connected, and he knows to contact Bloomington, Illinois about becoming a trapeze artist.”
The origins of Illinois State’s Gamma Phi Circus are also connected to this time period. As stated above, the Golden Age of circus began in the 1870s, so in the 1920s, when a man named Clifford “Pop” Horton arrived in Bloomington, the area was already ripe with performers and a love for the art.
Horton organized a fraternity — Gamma Phi — that focused on physical education, fitness and gymnastics.
“By 1931 they had their first circus,” said Schmitt. “It evolved from simple acts with rings to more elaborate spectacles such as a bicycle built for 10.”
Schmitt and Brunsdale also spoke about why they chose to write The Bloomington-Normal Circus Legacy.
“This is such a magical place,” Brunsdale said about the Special Collections and Rare Books room. “We are honored to oversee this collection, which is really world-class, and through working here we have met so many with a past in circus performance in the Bloomington-Normal area. Being librarians, we know how to do research, and so we started to ask questions.”
They found Pop Horton’s children to inquire about their family’s history and to discuss their father’s work at ISU. “They were shocked to hear we still care,” Brunsdale said, “and when they heard that Gamma Phi still goes to Pop Horton’s grave, his daughter began to tear up.”
“As members of ISU,” Brunsdale added, “you have such a rich history here, and I wish more students understood that. There are so few traditions on the Illinois State campus, and Gamma Phi has been here for 85 years.”
“Tradition should be honored,” Schmitt said, “and that is what we are trying to do with this book. Bloomington has not acknowledged its circus past in quite some time. We would like for Bloomington to be able to hold that as a point of pride again.”
Certainly, it has been quite some time since the Bloomington-Normal area has paid attention to this important part of its past.
It is the responsibility and privilege of the community to celebrate the accomplishments of the members of the town who came before us. Brunsdale said that while she was speaking with Pop Horton’s daughter, she could not “believe [we] still have a place for [her] father” at ISU.
Thanks to the work of Maureen and Mark, it looks as though we will have a place for Mr. Horton for years to come.
In order to learn more about this legacy and the important influence that the Bloomington circus performers have on our lives today, be sure to attend Brunsdale’s and Schmitt’s book talk, at 7 p.m. on Monday, September 16, in the Circus Room located in the Bone Student Center.