The Circus Came to Town – 52 Ancestors #356

I’m not sure how to begin this article, or where. The beginning is a bit fuzzy, but the end is clear, crystal clear.

This chapter began when I was looking for my mother and father in the 1950 census, just a few short weeks ago. They weren’t married, at least not to each other at that time. I don’t even know if they had met. I wasn’t a gleam in anyone’s eye for several years in the future. And, truth be told, I came just a hair’s breadth from never existing.

I found my father living in Chicago in the census, but have been unable to locate Mom. At this point, I probably won’t, at least not before the census is indexed.

It wasn’t for lack of trying. In fact, I spent quite a bit of time reconstructing Mom’s timeline in the late 1940s and 1950, hoping for a hint of where to look.

Early 1950 was a transition in mother’s life. Literally, a door slammed in her face.

Before we visit the 1940s and 1950s, let’s fast forward a few years.

Peru, Indiana

When I was a child, my grandparents lived in Silver Lake, Indiana, and mother and I lived in Kokomo, an hour or so away.

That drive was exciting, especially the crooked part between Wabash and US 31. The old road, today, Business 24, follows the Wabash River – the old Indian path, then the pioneer and settlers’ road right through the center of Peru.

The road threaded and shimmied along between the Wabash River and the railroad tracks. At one place, we could stop and use the old hand pump beside the river to get a drink of water.

I vividly remember an old weathered red round barn along that stretch of the road, now long gone.

Peru was known as the Circus City, which made perfect sense to me.

Why was Peru, in the middle of Indiana called the Circus City?

That answer seemed evident to me as a child too.

Just south of Peru, if we were lucky – very, very lucky – we could catch a glimpse of the circus animals in the yard by barns.

Circus animals, in a yard in Peru, Indiana? How did that happen?

Winter Quarters

The circus wintered over just south of Peru, or it least it did at one time. This property had a long circus history beginning in the 1870s, not long after the Civil War. The circus property eventually developed into a small village, then declined.

In 1929, Ringling Brothers bought the winter circus headquarters south of Peru on today’s US 31 which included 30 buildings, horse stables, training facilities, shops to repair and build festive circus wagons, tractors, a hospital, commissary, general store, bunkhouses, a restaurant and more. You can take a look, here, at the buildings being restored.

Today they are known as the Terrell Jacobs Circus Barns.

I remember the land at this intersection, even though the intersection itself looks different today.

These two barns are massive and were built to house the entire cadre of circus animals.

Sometimes, when you drove by, you could see the elephants outside, or maybe large cats or camels. It all seemed magical. From time to time, Mom would pull over and we could watch along the fence line for a while.

One of the barns, at right, is hidden behind trees from the road. It’s actually larger than the smaller barn you can see well, as shown in the aerial above.

In years past, there were more buildings.

The Circus waned during the Great Depression. In 1941 Ringling burned 126 of their decorated wagons, taking the remainder to Sarasota, Florida, and selling the Peru property by 1944.

In the mid/late 1940s into the early 1950s, the Peru property was used by other circuses and for training by Terrell Jacobs who had a wild animal act and performed independently with several circuses, including Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey.

By the 1960s, this location outside Peru was used for the Kelly Circus Winter Quarters and a roadside attraction called Pipe Creek Wild Animal Farm which featured small amusement rides and animal acts.

As a young child, when Mom and I drove by these barns, by then pretty decrepit, sometimes she would tell me stories about the circus and the elephants.

It never occurred to me that my mother might have a connection to the circus.

I had never seen an elephant before, so a real, live elephant or two or three was something I would never forget.

Of course, I had an entire raft of questions for my mother.

Why are elephants in Peru, and how did they get there?

The circus used to winter there, she said.

But it’s summer, Mom.

Yes, but for a long time, before the circus moved to Florida, it used to winter in that location, beside the huge barns.

Bigger barns than I had ever seen. Gigantic barns!

Why did the circus move to Florida?

It was warmer in Florida for the performers and the animals.

What performers, Mom?

There were lots of performers that did all kinds of things.

What kinds of things?

Acrobats and clowns and animal trainers.

Then Mom explained that sometimes training those beautiful elephants was mean to them.

I cried, because one day the elephant had oh so very gently reached through the fence and touched my tiny hand with her velvety trunk. She seemed almost human to me. It seemed wrong that she had to live behind the fence. Some of those retired circus elephants could still be alive today.

I could tell that Mom was really uncomfortable talking about the circus and the animals. I stopped asking questions, but I continued to crane my neck to hopefully catch a glimpse of those elephants, wishing them well every time we drove by.

Inevitably, the circus would “come to town,” just like the circus had been coming to towns for decades across America. I desperately wanted to attend. All the other children were going with their parents, making plans. The excitement was palpable.

Mom relented, reluctantly. We purchased tickets and made our way through the crowd to our bleacher seats in the stands high inside the big top.

As I sat there, mesmerized, the lights and glittery costumes were fantastic, awe-inspiring. The performers in the spotlights seemed larger than life. Children aspired to be that amazing – but mother cautioned me that circus life was not all it was cracked up to be.

She mentioned sadness and loneliness.

But the performers all looked so happy – singing and smiling and flying through the air above the floor on trapezes and ropes. These people were so brave.

According to Mom, it was all an act.

Neither the animals nor the humans were happy, but they all performed for the people who thronged to see the circus. What else would they do, if they didn’t perform in the circus, she asked.

It never occurred to me to wonder how or why mother would know that. Truthfully, I wasn’t entirely sure I believed her. After all, they looked so doggone happy.

How could they be unhappy? And why would they stay if they were?

The Circus

Circus life was intended to look glamourous and to be entertaining. You can view the circus in this 1949 short “moving picture.”

The lives of both the performers and animals were chaotic.

Most circuses moved to a new location by train every day, AND performed twice a day. That’s 7 towns and 14 performances a week during the spring, summer, and fall. Circus life was exhausting.

The larger circuses sometimes stayed a day or two in each location because setting up the massive big top, often a block in length was no small feat. The elephants helped with that too.

Often the train traveled at night, waking up in a new location.

Circuses wintered someplace stationary to repair and train, originally in Peru, Indiana, then in Sarasota, Florida beginning in the 1920s and continuing until 1960. The Peru circus moved to Sarasota in the 1940s.

Today, the Sarasota winter circus site has been developed into a subdivision, but you can still see the outline of the original fairgrounds.

No trace remains today, except the historical marker at the red pin and street names like Circus Boulevard.

Circuses were intended to be exciting and entertaining – accompanied by midways and carnivals with sideshows. Food, games, and performances – pretty much anything to dazzle you and part you with your $$.

This Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey “Congress of Freaks” (their description, not mine) gives you some idea of what people would pay to see. While staring at people who are different bothers me intensely today, these people in that time and place may have had no other alternatives to earn wages and support themselves. Some of their stories speak to incredible fortitude and success.

After all, the circus was about shock value and entertainment. They wanted you to go home and tell your neighbor about the tallest and smallest or conjoined twins, perhaps, so they would want to come and see too.

Families and relationships between performers were formed around circus life.

For those who have never seen the movie, The Greatest Showman starring Hugh Jackman, it’s definitely worth a watch, particularly his musical performance, here and Keala Settle’ here. Keala, who plays the bearded woman says it all and her performance in the actual movie is amazing.

I can’t help but think of Mother when I hear Keala sing.

The circus matinees were sometimes free in order to attract people. Who, in town, wanted to be left out of the excitement? There were all kinds of things to buy.

In 1930, the circus train of the Greatest Show on Earth was a whopping 90 cars long which included bright and colorful circus wagons, animal cars, baggage wagons, dining and sleeper cars, and any number of unique sights. Some trains became too long and were divided into groups of 25 cars each, with the advance cars holding the items needed first for setup.

The performers lived in the cars, permanently, in cramped settings allowing few personal items, several roommates to a car.

Everything needed to function was encapsulated on the circus train. Food, laundry, and on the Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey train in the 1940s, even a dry-cleaning facility was available for the performer’s costumes as they traveled.

At the next location, unloading the train and then walking to the circus grounds, which were ideally near or beside the train tracks, was a sight to behold. Sometimes the elephants were paraded through town, largest to smallest, holding each other by the tail, to attract attention, generate excitement, and announce that indeed, the circus had arrived. Never any other time in your life would you see an elephant in your town, maybe even in front of your house.

Often, the entire town turned out to watch the process, beginning to end.

The circus tent was nearly a block long and people marveled at the entire circus construction process – and that was before the actual performance itself.

Life for circus performances was different than that of anyone else. Establishing permanent relationships with anyone not with the circus was nearly impossible. How was one to raise children in the circus environment? What if a performer became pregnant? Or even sick, for that matter?

The circus was also a haven for runaways. Who hasn’t heard the phrase, “run away and join the circus.”? No one would ever find you. No one would likely look.

Some people might just have had something to hide, or maybe were hiding from someone.

Perception of the Circus

Women performers were intentionally scantily clad and wore leotards and body-shaped clothes. While some people were enthralled, enchanted, and entertained, others were horrified and equated the circus with sin, depravity, and damnation.

Not everyone was happy when the circus came to town. In northern Indiana, and assuredly other places too, some groups of people including members of very conservative religions were staunchly opposed to the circus and what it represented.

To begin with, and just for starters, the women were immodest. Tempting men. Showing their ankles and even their knees and legs. FOR SHAME!!!!

The Brethren, Amish, and Mennonites, known collectively as Anabaptists, attempt to distance themselves from perceived immorality and anything that would distract them and their families from a simple, unadorned Godly life. Their clothes were dark or black and to this day, many Amish don’t drive cars or have electricity in their homes. Women wear prayer caps, don’t cut their hair and pin it up under their prayer cap. Men don’t shave.

The circus was anything but conservative. In fact, it was intentionally the polar opposite. Flashy and flamboyant.

The circus was perceived as somewhat seedy, at best, attracting winos and people of ill repute. That perception was not entirely wrong. But it wasn’t entirely right either. Not everyone deserved to be tarred with the same brush.

The Ferverda and Miller Families

My grandfather, John Ferverda, mother’s father, was raised in a Brethren home, smack dab in the center of a very conservative Pietist community that stretched across several counties in northern Indiana. His parents were long-time members of the Salem Brethren Church.

His mother was Eva Miller, a descendant of several generations of Brethren families who had been opposed to specific activities within their communities since before they immigrated to the US in the early 1700s. They allowed their land to be confiscated instead of providing service in the Revolutionary War. They moved to a new frontier in Pennsylvania and Ohio, and then another in Indiana. They didn’t take sides in the War of 1812 or the Civil War either. By the time WWI came along, three of Eva’s sons served and the boys were indeed drummed out of the church.

John married a Lutheran woman and he too was the equivalent of excommunicated, called shunning in those religions. Treated as unclean and dirtied by the world, they weren’t even allowed to eat with other Brethren family members, at least not Brethren in good standing.

A few years ago, a cousin told me that her grandmother, the daughter of one of the Miller men, had gone to either the circus or the carnival with a boy. She came home to find her clothes on the porch. She was not welcome back. Not then. Not later that night. Not ever.

Mother (GASP) Danced

The Anabaptist religions don’t include musical instruments in church, or at least they didn’t then. They do sing hymns, but without musical accompaniment.

Dancing was strictly forbidden and condemned as immoral.

As I recall from my youth, if something seemed like fun, by all means, don’t do it.

When dancing, bodies were moved in a sensual way or could be interpreted as such.

Dancers wore makeup. Dance outfits were tight and colorful and showed “things.” Heaven forbid – no, just no.

My grandparents moved about 20 miles down the road from where my grandfather was raised. They lived across the road from my grandfather’s equally as backslidden brother, Roscoe, who also married a woman outside the church. In fact, he divorced and married twice.

Women were expected to be subservient to their husbands, NO MATTER WHAT, and divorce was viewed as adultery.

If Roscoe hadn’t already been shunned, that would clearly have done it. Not only those two things, but he and two of his brothers chose to serve their country in the military.

Mother began dancing at about the same time as mother’s Miller cousin was thrown out of her home and excised from her family for going to the circus or carnival. It doesn’t matter whether it was the circus or carnival, because the circus included a carnival or midway, and they were viewed as equally bad. Very, very family-splitting-worthy bad.

I won’t even comment about what they expected would happen to a young teenage female who had to find a place to live and sleep for the night. Throwing her out seems counter-productive – but I digress.

About the same time, mother became very ill and was diagnosed with Rheumatic Fever. At ten years of age, her heart was damaged. The doctors told her parents that they recommended ballet dance to strengthen her heart. It was literally a matter of life and death, but there was a problem, aside from the community’s anti-dancing bias.

In the tiny town of Silver Lake, there were no dance instructors. Not only that, there wasn’t even anyone living there who danced and could give mother lessons.

My grandparents decided to drive mother to Fort Wayne, 40 miles each way in their Model-T Ford, twice a week, for dance lessons. The neighbors be damned. Mother’s health was more important.

My grandmother began playing the piano for mother who practiced ballet in the music room. Then, mother began performing in dance recitals with her dance class in Fort Wayne.

Tongues wagged. That area wasn’t entirely conservative, but primarily so. Dancing was against the rules and perceived as immoral by many, many religions – not just the Anabaptists.

Yes, mother wore costumes and YOU COULD SEE HER ARMS AND LEGS!!!

She was only a child but made to feel that dancing was dirty and immoral – and therefore so was she.

Even one of the local ministers thought girls who danced were inviting the affections of “any male.” And yes, he was “any male.”

Nothing hypocritical about condemning her from one side of his mouth while trying to take advantage of the situation. Nope, nothing to see there. Move along folks. After all, it was HER fault, right, because SHE invited men by dancing. Of course, a 10-year-old inviting grown men. (I hope you can hear my dripping sarcasm.)

Yes, indeed, dancing was immoral and so were dancers, even young girls who danced to strengthen their hearts after being deathly ill for a year.

It’s difficult to not be affected by all of that targeted negativity.

Mother continued to dance, then taught dancing.

She married her high school sweetheart just before he shipped off for overseas during WWII.

Mom became pregnant during their abbreviated honeymoon and lived with her parents, waiting for her new husband to return from the war so they could set up housekeeping and begin their married life.

He came home from the war alright, just not to her. Suffice it to say that Mom was heartbroken. Clearly, there was no future for them, and divorce resulted at a time when divorce was quite uncommon.

If tongues were wagging before, they were out of control and slapping tonsils by that time. Of COURSE the marriage failed. Mom DANCED! Never mind that she had been living at home with her parents and baby and doing nothing else for that entire time and HE was the one who stepped out. Or more accurately stated, he came home to someone else.

Once divorced, Mom had to somehow figure out how to support herself and her son.

Her dream, the American dream of getting married, settling down, and having a baby was dead. That dream could only exist with a husband.

Now Mom was not only a dancer, she was a divorced dancer. Might as well have that scarlet letter D tattooed dead center on her forehead. The depths of her perceived immorality now seemed bottomless.

There was absolutely no future for her in Silver Lake or in any conservative location. But she had to somehow support and care for her child.

The arrangement arrived upon by all parties concerned, including both grandmothers, was that my grandparents would retain physical custody of my half-brother, my mother would work and Dan, her former husband, would pay $4 a week child support to my grandparents.

A very unusual arrangement for 1943 or 1944.

My mother only had one skill set. You guessed it. Dancing. She had no choice. There were no jobs in Silver Lake, she had no other skills and no “decent man” back then and there would EVER consider marrying a sullied divorcee who DANCED!

Within a few months, Mom borrowed clothes, traveled to Chicago and auditioned for the Dorothy Hild Dancers who performed exclusively at the upscale lakeside Edgewater Beach Hotel, opening for famous acts like Bing Crosby.

Being welcomed into the dance troupe meant that Mom “turned pro,” beginning her professional dancing career.

Mom’s dream was to become a bookkeeper, but she had a child to support.

Chicago

In Chicago, Mom met Frank Sadowski, a medical student and the brother of one of the other Dorothy Hild Dancers. Mom and Frank fell in love and became engaged before he shipped out overseas. Once again, she could look forward to the future out from under the grey cloud of criticism that loomed, ever-waiting, back home in Indiana.

On April 19, 1945, Frank was killed in action attempting to save another man.

Not only was mother’s world destroyed, she was devasted. Hope for the future was gone. Back in Indiana, those wagging tongues blamed an immoral lifestyle – suggesting that mother deserved whatever happened to her – no matter how bad that something might be.

By this time, mother had lost any hope for a “normal” married life; lost her first husband to an unwelcome divorce, lost her son due to the circumstances, and lost the love of her life to death.

Frank was handsome, kind, and brave. Everything she could ever want. He loved her for who she was, loved her son, and he was gone.

Mom really struggled with Frank’s death – not just then – but throughout her remaining life. I wrote Frank’s story as I uncovered the details, to honor both of them, here.

Frank’s body wasn’t returned home, at least not right away. Mom said there was no closure with no body and no funeral.

On May 8th, just three weeks after Frank’s death, Mom appeared in a jubilant public Chicago celebration when a truce was reached in Europe. Frank had died needlessly. Mom was glad for others, but tears slid down her face as she sang in the performance.

Mom became incredibly thin during this time, almost emaciated.

Mom was still dancing with Dorothy Hild in May and June, but by September of 1945, she had struck out on her own as a solo act character dancer – an entertainer in high-end show clubs where she was compared to Miss America.

Mother kept scrapbooks that detailed her performances when something was printed in newspapers. She cut and pasted ads detailing her appearances across the eastern half of the US. Illinois, Ohio, Michigan, and along the Mississippi River near St. Louis, specifically in Cairo, Illinois.

But then….

Radio Silence

Mom stopped clipping items for her scrapbook, or maybe a scrapbook is missing. Regardless, we know nothing after late 1945, although there are many undated clippings from across the country.

At MyHeritage, I found a newspaper article in the Warsaw Daily Times in Indiana dated October 8, 1947, that reported that my grandparents traveled to Cairo, Illinois to bring Mom home because she had broken two bones in her foot. Mom was to remain home with her parents until the broken bones healed.

Mom later told me that a dancer’s feet never really heal when bones are broken.

I can just hear the neighbors, can’t you? ‘You know, if she hadn’t been dancing…”

I don’t know how long Mom remained in Silver Lake, but I’m sure she was miserable there. My brother would have been 4. If there was nothing in Silver Lake for mother 3 or 4 years earlier, there was even less for her there in 1947.

She still had no skills other than dancing.

By sometime in 1948, mother was performing again.

We find Mom starring as “Miss Zenith Radio,” performing in Omaha, Nebraska.

For the first time, I noticed that the emcee is a person who appears to suffer from dwarfism. This may or may not be relevant, but keep it in mind.

1949

To say that Frank’s death rocked Mom’s world would be an understatement.

Mom said that after the war ended, dancing engagements were more difficult to procure, and things had changed. There was less interest in big bands and the clubs were becoming more interested in less clothing, a style of dancing Mom personally did not embrace

Some people already considered professional dancing of any type as burlesque, which originally meant a type of variety show but eventually became synonymous with striptease. Recently a historian documenting the life of dancers in Chicago referred to ballroom and upscale hotel dance troupes like the Dorothy Hild Dancers as family burlesque.

Unless you were morally opposed to dancing, these dancers did nothing that would be objectional for any family member to see.

By Christianmsufan88 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=85214616

In fact, families frequented the posh Edgewater Beach Hotel Marine Dining Room where the show would commence after dinner.

Mother continued to dance, but I could tell her heart wasn’t in it. Frank’s body had still not been returned from Okinawa. I think there was a tiny piece of her that hoped against hope that Frank was somehow still alive. That there had been a case of mistaken identity and one day she would discover Frank was actually in the hospital someplace, not in a temporary or unmarked grave.

Military records show that Frank’s father ordered his headstone in February 1949, and Frank was finally laid to rest on March 23, 1949, in Chicago.

Frank’s own father, a physician, apparently had doubts as well and performed an autopsy of sorts to assure that the body in the coffin was really Frank. It was. I can’t fathom what that father went through, opening his son’s casket and body bag.

Somehow that seems to have been a fork-in-the-road turning point in Mom’s life.

The next chronological record I found in her “Suitcase of Life” with the scrapbooks that she left me was her performer’s union card.

On June 1, 1949, Mom withdrew her membership in the American Guild of Variety Artists in Chicago which was a labor union that supported performing artists, including entertainers and circus performers.

Whatever Mom had been doing, wherever, she seemed to retire at this point, but why?

What was she doing?

And where?

Did the return of Frank’s body and his burial have anything to do with that?

What I didn’t know, at least not at that point, is that something was missing.

Mother Meets William Foy Large

There were gaps in mother’s life after Frank’s death, specifically part of 1947, most of 1948, and the first few months of 1949.

At some point during this time, she met William Foy Large, known as Foy.

Sit down.

Brace yourself for this…

Foy was a one-legged acrobat who performed with the circus.

Additionally, he ran a dry-cleaning operation on the circus train.

And appeared in “Ripley’s Believe It Or Not” Sideshows.

She didn’t just meet him, she married him.

Far away, in Florida.

On April 26, 1949, mother and Foy applied for a marriage license in Tampa, Florida. According to their application, he was 22 years older than her. Mom was only 26, even though she had lived through a lifetime of Hellish grief already. He was 48.

If you’re picking your jaw up off the floor, well, so did I.

I knew that she had been married briefly and that his surname was Large, but there was a whole lot I didn’t know. Probably a whole lot I still don’t know and never will.

Here’s what I do know, positively. My mother was suffering and had been, at least since Frank’s death. Earlier, she had become socially ostracized in the small town where she grew up – beginning when she was 10 years old. There was no place left to turn.

Women who are “marked” within their community never have the opportunity to recover.

Their only option is to leave and “live it down” elsewhere, even if the “it” in this case was simply dancing to strengthen her heart as a 10-year-old child. Everyplace and everything Mom tried unraveled, adding another layer of sorrow and another negative stripe to her supposed “desirability” to a male in good social standing. Certainly, that applied to males where she grew up who by that time had married their high school sweethearts and were already farming and raising families.

Maybe Mom had all she could take. Reached her breaking point.

Maybe Mom ran away to join the circus too, ran away to marry one of the performers.

Maybe she just wanted to escape and start over someplace else.

Maybe she found common ground with Foy, and he understood – having lived much of that himself.

Four days later, the marriage license was issued, and they were married by a judge on April 30, 1949.

Mom had the one and only photo of them together tucked into this certificate of marriage, so I would presume that was their wedding day, outside, after the nuptials. She is holding her hand with a ring on “the ring finger” so that’s it’s visible on her purse.

April 30th

If that date looks familiar to you, it’s because it was exactly today’s date, 73 years ago.

Additionally, Mom passed away, exactly 16 years ago today.

The anniversary of mother’s death has always been quite difficult for me. It’s not just a day, but the two weeks leading up to her death – so more of a season. She suffered during those two weeks, which meant I suffered – both of us needlessly.

Now I’ve discovered there was more to this date than I knew.

What Happened?

How the heck did Mom meet up with Foy and get to Florida?

According to their marriage license application, she was living in Silver Lake and he gave his address as Windsor, California. Both listed their occupations as entertainers.

The circus wintered in Sarasota, Florida, just south of Tampa where Mom married Foy just 35 days after Frank was buried.

A month later, on June 1st, Mom withdrew her membership from the American Guild of Variety Artists.

Did she return to Chicago to do that? Did she mail something? Did she actually submit her resignation before she left? Was this her commitment to a new life with Foy? Goodbye to the past?

My first thought was that perhaps she was performing with the circus, but that same union represented circus performers.

The rest of the story, the part Mom did eventually tell me plus what I’ve found out since make that scenario unlikely.

What Do We Know About William Foy Large?

William Foy Large’s life was no bowl of cherries either.

He was born in Lancaster, Texas on August 28, 1894. How is it even possible that my mother was married to a man born in the 19th century and old enough to be her father?

In 1900, the Large family was still living near Dallas, Texas, but by the 1910 census, they had moved to a farm in Ohio.

In 1917, Foy registered for the draft giving his address as Aberdeen Avenue, Linden Heights, Ohio, part of the Dayton metropolitan area. He was a “telegrath operator” (sic) for the B&O Railroad in Blacklick, Ohio, just east of Columbus. He was single, Caucasian and claimed a military exemption because of the loss of “mi leg” (sic). He was tall and slender, with dark blue eyes and light-colored hair.

In 1920 on the census, Foy is 25 years old and is living with his parents in a different location in Ohio, but still listed as a telegraph operator at the railroad office.

As luck would have it, his application for employment dated July 8, 1920, with the Pacific Railway still exists. He claims he doesn’t use alcohol, but the answer to question 13 just chilled me to the bone.

“Have you ever suffered any physical injury?

William: Yes

“If so, state when, where and nature of injury.”

William: July 15, 1902. Portsmouth Ohio – left leg amputated

I’m sure that’s a date he never forgot until the day he died.

However, when asked if any ailment or defect might render him unfit for railroad service, he answered “no.”

That says a lot about his perspective.

On December 7, 1923, Foy married Martha Vannerson in Maricopa, Arizona. The newspaper article announcing their marriage said he was from Columbus, Ohio and she was from Chicago.

What were they doing in Maricopa, Arizona?

This next item provides a clue.

On November 9, 1925, a photo of Foy and another performer are shown as acrobats with the Bob Morton Circus in St. Petersburg, Florida.

An article a couple of days later explains the men’s unusual stories more fully.

And yes, for the record, I’m horrified about the Klan. I had no idea they hired circuses and other acts for entertainment and probably to raise money for their dastardly deeds.

Thanks to this article, we now know how Foy joined the circus, although mother’s version is slightly less glamourous. Mom said he joined as a ticket seller, but let’s face it, that doesn’t make NEARLY as good of a story as the one-legged acrobat who secretly excelled, conquering his disability and then burst upon the circus scene so grandly that the show was stopped because he was just that dazzling.

Personally, I’d like to believe the newspaper version.

A few days later, on November 18th, the St. Petersburg paper reports that Mr. and Mrs. W. F. Large of Columbus, Ohio are guests at the Floronton Hotel during their sojourn in the city. Clearly, Martha was along.

Apparently, the dynamic acrobatic duo didn’t last long, because by 1930, Foy was living in New York City.

In the 1930 census, he’s living at 109 West 46th Street in Manhattan, a lodger, along with a whole raft of other lodgers. Additionally, he’s married, shown with Martha, age 19, also married and one Albert Large, age 70, widowed. All three are shown as actors in the theater as are many of the other lodgers, although some have no occupation listed at all.

Albert appears to be Foy’s 70-year-old widowed father. This is confusing because his father is also enumerated in California and was never an actor.

The head of household is a printer, so I wonder if all of these lodgers are renting rooms above a print shop.

That address looks to be right about here today, in the heart of the Theater District, just a block off Times Square and two blocks from Rockefeller Center. It looks like Foy gave acting a hero’s try.

Martha, a beautiful lady, would become a performer in the Barnes-Floto Circus and other circuses, later.

On April 2, 1932, the Spokane, Washington, newspaper stated that at the Fox Theater, two one-legged men, Foy Large and Frank Morgner were exceptionally clever in an athletic feature.

In December of 1932, William and Martha are listed on an incoming British passenger list, New York to Southampton. They were headed for the Joster Agency, Leicester Square, in London, noted as performers. Others on the same ship were headed to the Palladium Theater in London, the most famous variety theater in the world. Leicester Square is the entertainment hub of London, including the Royal Opera House.

A few months later, on April 28, 1933, William Foy Large, without Martha, is listed aboard the SS Gerolstein which sailed from Le Havre, France to New York. He listed his birth date and location, but his address in the US is shown as Windsor, California, Route 1, Box 158.

Apparently, he was done with New York City.

Foy is listed on the voter registration list between 1938-1940 at the same Windsor, Sonoma County, California address as his father who is listed as a farmer. Foy is noted as a rancher. Apparently, his father’s home is Foy’s “home base.” I’m guessing Foy wasn’t actually home often.

It’s through Foy’s divorce from Martha, published in the Logansport, Indiana newspaper on January 3, 1936, that we find Foy’s connection to Peru, Indiana.

Where was Foy on March 1, 1935? I have no idea. Apparently, neither did Martha.

Given the divorce, it’s safe to say that Foy spent some nontrivial amount of time in Peru, the home of the Hagonbeck-Wallace Circus that wintered there. That circus split from Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey in 1935.

The history of circuses in the US is similar to the mergers of banks- a knotted tangle. Purchases and mergers and many of the same families behind various organizations.

Their divorce was granted on March 16, 1936.

Foy was free to go his own way, although it appears that he already had. Although in that time and place, there was no such thing as “no-fault” divorce, so maybe the couple just decided Foy would be “at fault” so they could get divorced.

This time, Foy’s adventures took him all the way to another continent – Australia!

The story of Frank’s leg was told in a Melbourne, Australia newspaper in December of 1938.

I thought I recalled Mom saying he lost his leg in a train accident – caught between boxcars as a child and then run over. I still cringe just thinking about that.

The next day, this photo appeared in the Perth Sunday Times stating that they were with the Ripley “Believe it or Not” Strip. I’m guessing Foy is the man at left.

Another article says they had the courage to offset the tragic disability of the loss of a leg each by capitalizing their misfortune into a really first-class athletic show – one that would make for more fortunate brethren look to their laurels.

It appears that in addition to being performers, they were also in the sideshows as “freaks.”

On March 5, 1939, according to the ship’s manifest, Foy returned from Sydney, Australia, landing in San Francisco, his home listed once again at the Windsor, California address. He spent (at least) three months in Australia.

I don’t find Foy was in the 1940 census. He wasn’t living with his 80-year-old father on Laughlin Road between Mark West Station Road and Slusser Road in Healdsburg, Sonoma County, California. I doubt that many circus performers were accounted for in the census.

I don’t know what crops they raised back then, but today, Laughlin Road is wine country.

Never one to let moss grow under his feet, or foot, when he registered for the draft in 1942 (probably April 27th), he registered in Detroit, Wayne County, Michigan, but he gave his address as Windsor, Sonoma County, California at the same address he had been using for years.

Then 48 years old, Foy gave W.A. Large, his father, at the same address as the person who will always know where he lives. Six feet tall and 145 pounds, Foy had blue eyes, brown hair, and a light complexion. This left leg was “off above the knee.”

In 1944, he and Martha were living in an apartment in Newport News, Virginia according to the city directory.

Wait? What? Is that even possible? They were divorced in 1936 – 8 years earlier.

Maybe there’s another William F. Large with a wife named Martha V.? I suppose it’s possible, but it’s very unlikely.

After that sighting in1944, we don’t find Foy again for several years. However, by inference, I can tell you where he was at least part of that time.

Peru and Florida Again

Somehow, Foy and Mother met. How I wish I had asked more questions while I could. I didn’t, because I could tell Mom was uncomfortable with this topic. She was embarrassed about this entire episode, probably, in part because he had abandoned her. Yep, he dumped Mom, and that story sounds very familiar. Maybe Martha and Mom should have compared notes before she married Foy.

Hindsight is always 20-20.

Was their courtship one of immediate infatuation? Love at first sight? Was Foy an excellent actor, knowing how to mold himself to be, at least for a short amount of time, what women wanted? Mom did mention that he was very handsome and we already know he was athletic.

The circus wintered in Tampa, Florida, where Mom married William Foy Large just a month and a few days after Frank’s burial.

They were married by a judge, here in the Tampa Courthouse. Marched up those steps twice – once to apply and once to pick up the license and find the judge.

Did Mom call her parents afterward to tell them? She must have felt quite alone. No wedding gown or celebration with family.

Did Mom meet Foy in or near Peru, near her parent’s home? Had she gone back home to deal with Frank’s death and such?

Did they travel to Florida together to marry, which would suggest strongly that my grandparents did not approve?

Or, did she meet Foy and correspond with him over time – later joining him for matrimony?

Why did she marry Foy? Foy was 28 years older than she was, born in 1894. Did she know that before she married him? She wouldn’t have been the first bride to discover those types of discrepancies by looking at dates on her soon-to-be husband’s marriage application while waiting for the judge.

How did Mom get to Florida anyway? I’m suspecting she traveled by train. She would not have owned a car and there were lots of train tracks into Sarasota thanks to the circus.

The interstates didn’t exist then, either. Just two-lane highways.

“Old Florida,” Homosassa, an hour north of Tampa looked like this in 1950. Did Mom see the countryside dressed in gently blowing Spanish Moss passing by as she swayed back and forth in the train car lumbering across the country? Was she hopeful, or did she have a premonition that something wasn’t quite right?

What was mother signing up for?

What was circus life like?

Circus Life in Florida in 1949/1950

I was able to find several photos of the winter quarters of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey circus at the Library of Congress and Florida’s archives.

The Ringling family was quite wealthy, with a mansion and upscale hotel in Sarasota, Florida. However, the performers were anything but and the circus’s winter quarters were at the Sarasota County fairgrounds.

The circus winter quarters was not a vacation. It could better be viewed as an extended practice session.

Circus wagons got a fresh coat of paint. New acts were developed. Maintenance was performed and new costumes created.

The Big Top was erected in a field. Local residents came to see the free shows on Sundays.

Abandoned Ringling Brothers Circus bleachers and buildings in Sarasota after they left in 1960.

Mother probably sat in these very bleachers just a decade earlier.

The circus train cars were repaired and maintained as well. The circus train was more than a mile long and functioned not only as transportation and a home on wheels but as a traveling advertisement too.

This aerial photo of the Sarasota Ringling Brothers winter quarters was taken in 1951.

Notice the many railyards at bottom. The winter quarters included housing for the performers, staff, and animals. A few people rented short-term accommodations outside of the complex, near or in Gibsonton that became known as a sideshow wintering “carney” town that catered to circus members. Gibsonton even had a post office with a dwarf-height counter and became known as the place where everyone who lived there had run away with the circus. Many circus and carnival members retired in Gibsonton among people “like themselves.”

Another 1951 aerial view of the circus winter quarters.

The Big Top is erected, at right. The dormitory is the large white building that housed up to 1600 members of the cast and crew.

A rare color photo from 1949 shows the audience watching performances.

Free shows every Sunday were available for the locals.

The elephants performing on a sunny Sunday afternoon. Is Mom one of the people sitting in the bleachers? If not that day, then certainly another.

The dorm building is shown in the background.

The circus winter quarters were self-sufficient – just like the circus trains were.

In the late 1940s, Loomis Dean, a photographer rode along with the circus for a year and took some amazing documentary photos. You can read more, here.

In an interview in the 1990s, Loomis summed circus life up pretty well:

The privacy was minimal, and the ambiance created by this conglomeration of athletes and beauties and adventurers and freaks and con merchants often resembled a pressure cooker on a slow flame. There were some bizarre happenings, to be sure, most of which occurred in the wee hours in the vast darkness of the railroad yards. Invariably, the yards were surrounded by an assortment of seedy bars and hotels. These were grim and grimy places under the best of circumstances, although they took on a kind of spooky Dante’s Inferno glitter when the circus mob descended into town, pouring into its streets and saloons.

The last Sarasota winter show of the 1947 season. The circus normally left its winter quarters sometime in March.

In 1948, crowds gather to watch the circus train leave winter quarters in Sarasota.

The arrival and departure of the circus was an event itself. Locals all came out to watch- waving goodbye or welcoming the circus home again.

The circus wasn’t just a career or a job – it was a way of life. Sometimes for generations.

If you were going to marry a circus performer, or worker, you were going to work in the circus too. Nobody rode for free. Work was the price of admission.

Everyone worked. Married circus couples who had children often taught their children age-appropriate acts, such as trampoline as early as age 5. Kids sold tickets and other non-dangerous work.

A marriage where both partners didn’t travel with the circus wasn’t likely to survive. As difficult as circus life was, people did marry and lived their entire adult life traveling with various circuses.

According to the embedded photographer:

Love always seemed on the mind of circus folk, although given the cramped quarters, liaisons often took place in lumberyards, warehouses, or even, in extremis, ditches. For all the licentiousness of these scenes, however, I was surprised to discover that the circus had a rigid sexual caste system that made certain relationships taboo.

At the lowest level were the casual laborers, most of whom were winos who joined the show for a few days or weeks and then disappeared into the void. One level up were the workingmen—the roustabouts and the canvasbacks. Then there were the wranglers and grooms who took care of the 1,000 animals on the train. Above them were the sideshow freaks, above them were the propmen and riggers, and above them were the ushers and band members.

The young showgirls were next up the ladder, and one rung higher still were the monied aristocracy, aka the ticket sellers. The Brahmins were the featured acts, the executives, and of course, the stars.

Based on this, Foy, both a performer and a “freak” was far from the bottom social rung. Based on his marriages, he clearly mixed it up with the young showgirls. If he actually was a ticket seller at some point, he was higher still, which might explain his attraction to the decades-younger female performers.

The circus train, steaming into the circus grounds, returned to winter quarters sometime in October or November, although the timeframe varied. Sometimes, if problems occurred such as the horrific 1944 Hartford fire, a circus would retire to winter quarters early.

Everyone must have looked forward to this break and opportunity to recharge and regroup. This was the only chance to stay in one place for more than a night or two, at most.

Often, practice was held outside.

The acrobats are flying above and dogs are being trained below. The Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus included a thousand animals.

Circus performers exiting the train in Sarasota in 1951 during the filming of the award-winning, highly-acclaimed movie, The Greatest Show on Earth which was filmed on-site – in Sarasota and along 60,000 miles of train tracks. If I didn’t know better, and the year is off by one year, 1950 vs 1951, I would swear that the dark-haired woman at right on the steps is Mother. You can watch a clip, here.

Did Mother Understand What Circus Life Meant?

Is Circus life what mother signed up for? Did she understand what that meant?

She was a beautiful woman and a talented performer, but circus life was different than dancing with the Dorothy Hild Dancers. For beginners, there was an entire culture attached to the circus that was very different from the comparatively sheltered professional dance troupes.

Did mother and Foy marry in Florida just before the circus left their winter quarters for performances across the country? Did she accompany him? Did she perform with the circus or work one of the jobs?

Based once again on scanty information, I believe that shortly after their wedding, such as it was, Foy left with the circus train, and mother stayed in Florida.

Obituaries are notoriously wrong in terms of locations of descendants, but Foy’s mother’s obituary, published on July 8, 1949, in California says Foy is a resident of New York City.

I’m guessing here, but I’d wager that Foy spent the 1949 summer on the road, or more specifically, on the train, criss-crossing the country without mother.

Whatever brought Mother and Foy together didn’t last.

If she didn’t accompany Foy on the train, what did she do while he was gone? Did she stay in Florida and get a job there? Did she return to Indiana, intending to go back to Florida when the circus returned to winter quarters?

Was there a plan? She had already resigned from the union, so she was unlikely to be performing someplace.

Whatever she thought was going to happen, I’m sure this wasn’t in mother’s plan.

Mom and Foy were married in Tampa. The circus wintered in Sarasota, but he filed for divorce in Charlotte County, Florida only 9 months after they were married.

Was that where mother was living in January of 1950?

Mother said that she was divorced from William Foy Large in Bradenton Florida. That’s not the same location, but it is right beside Sarasota. Perhaps that’s where she was living, at least part of the time. The divorce was final on March 21, 1950.

It appears that the winter quarter hiatus was just long enough to get either married or divorced.

I need to order those divorce records. For one thing, they may help me know where to look for mother in the 1950 census, taken just a month later. No wonder I can’t find her.

Mom may have been living someplace in Florida. I know one place she isn’t living – with her parents in Indiana.

Mom didn’t talk much about this marriage, but when, as an adult, I found a photo of Mom and Foy along with the Certificate of Marriage, she did explain, at least somewhat.

Mom said they were never really able to live together after they were married, as they were both traveling. She said she received divorce papers shortly after they were married as he “was never one to be alone.”  She indicated that she wasn’t surprised, but I could tell that it still pained her. She would only have been 26 in 1949 when they married and just turned 27 when she received divorce papers. Rejected again!

My heart aches for my young mother. In the 9 years since she graduated from high school, she had married her high school sweetheart, only to have her husband come home to someone new without even telling her he was home.

Then, divorced, she went to Chicago to dance to support her son.

She met Frank who was killed.

She may have gone back home to regroup.

She met Foy and everything must have seemed rosy.

She journeyed to Florida to begin a new chapter of her life, only to find herself alone. I’m presuming here that her parents did not approve.

Was she even able to go home for Christmas in 1949 to see her parents and son?

Then, just after New Year’s, she was served with divorce papers, again.

She had already withdrawn from the performers’ union.

What was she to do?

What would she do?

Where would she go?

What Happened to Foy?

He got married again, and quickly.

On November 21, 1950, the Sarasota newspaper reports that William Foy Large, age 50 had taken a marriage license with Angela Antalek Reynolds, age 31, also of Sarasota.

According to her 1947 petition for naturalization in Sarasota, Florida, she was a circus performer who was born in Hungary, immigrated in 1937, and married a US citizen in 1943.

Maybe now Mom’s comment about Foy never being alone makes more sense – especially taken in combination with the commentary about life on the circus trains from the embedded photojournalist.

Maybe that’s what Foy was doing on the circus train while they were married.

Apparently, Foy remained in Florida, at least for a few years.

In 1953, he flipped his car.

March 2, 1955 – Ringling Brothers may attempt again to air-condition the Big Top. Also Foy Large is back from a European Thrift Tour.

In 1955, he is living in the waterfront Franklin Manor apartments in Sarasota on the Tamiami Trail where he files the intention to register the business name of Swift Deluxe Cleaners and Laundry Services. This suggests he may no longer be traveling with the circus.

In 1958, Foy is living in the La Tosca Trailer Park (owned by the Canestrelli Circus family on Fruitville Road) in Sarasota, Florida, and petitions the city council for an agreement to have a concession stand on the Ringling Causeway opened to competitive bidding. He says he would offer better service than is presently being offered. That petition was eventually denied.

By 1958, Foy was 64 years old. His days as an acrobat were probably long behind him, which is why he was likely petitioning to open a concession and a cleaners.

He was planning for his Act 2, except for Foy, it was act several-hundred and something.

At some point, he divorced again given that his third wife married someone else.

I lost track of Foy other than discovering that he died in San Francisco, California on April 8, 1979. To the best of my knowledge, Mother had no contact with him after their divorce. She wasn’t angry with him. He was simply inconsequential and didn’t exist. I know she was embarrassed about that whole episode.

She might have run away to marry the acrobat and join the circus, or not, but she came back.

What About Mother?

I’m still hoping to locate Mom in the 1950 census, although this search for her has probably provided more information and insight than the census itself ever could. I wish I could just ask her. I wish I had asked her.

Mom eventually went back to Indiana, but I don’t know when, or where.

In 1951 and 1952, mother was living in Fort Wayne. In 1951, according to the city directory, she was working as a salesperson at Lerner’s Department store and by 1952, she was assistant manager.

In 1951, she lived at 534 Meyer in this cute little yellow house.

In 1952, she lived at 514 Madison, a building that no longer exists.

At some point, Mother returned to Chicago and lived with a widow woman named Mommie McKenzie who rented to female boarders.

They would go to the pet cemetery so Mommie McKenzie and her current fur-family members could visit the graves of those already passed over.

Mother met my father on a train, but I’m unclear whether she met him when she moved back to Chicago, or if she met him earlier and perhaps he had something to do with her moving back.

When Mom was pregnant for me, she worked in a department store in downtown Chicago in the dress department. Mom used to tell me about dressing the mannequins in the window. Those were days when department stores were full-service, and sales clerks assisted customers in the dressing room, bringing them items to try on.

The Final Ironic Twist

My brother John told me that at some point, Mom worked in Lafayette, Indiana as a bookkeeper, which, ironically, is what she originally wanted to do instead of dance.

Perhaps those heartbreaking relationships which I refuse to call “failed marriages,” because neither had even a remote chance of succeeding, were just stepping-stones on her journey to where she needed to be.

They were assuredly stepping-stones to me through my father.

My parents moving to Kokomo after I was born would be the gateway to eventually meeting my wonderful step-father after my father died and would launch me on my journey to where I sit today.

I can’t help but think about the possible path my life could have taken. Had her marriage to Foy worked out, I wouldn’t have been me. “Me,” as I know it, would never have existed.

I Hope You Dance

The beginning of this chapter in mother’s life was a bit murky, but the end was not. That door closed with a resounding slam.

Mother must have cried her way back to Indiana to lick her wounds and suffer the indignity of even more condemnation in Silver Lake. Truthfully, I hope those gossips never knew what happened, because you know they would have somehow blamed her.

It’s no wonder mother never wanted to discuss things she suspected would or might result in judgment. She had already suffered enough under that cruel mantle.

What I don’t think Mom ever knew is that there were also people who admired her and respected her for her bravery and fortitude. Few stood up to and survived that kind of systemic chastisement.

Mother’s cousin would be born in Silver Lake about the time Frank died, but before Mom’s Florida year. The cousin would grow up silently watching Mom, absorbing the fact that yes, one COULD leave and it was possible for a female to select a different path.

By the time her cousin was old enough to have internalized those epiphanies, Mom had passed through the gates of grief and was doing much better. All that was left for her young cousin to see was a brave woman who had beaten the odds. My cousin had no idea how painful and difficult that journey had been.

And yes, if you haven’t guessed, Mom also raised another one of those women.

Mother, on this, the anniversary of your passing from this earth, You Raise Me Up.

Go Rest High on That Mountain, now. Your work is done and you deserve it.

And Mom, I Really, Really Hope You’re Still Dancing.

I will forever miss you.

Thank you for persevering, even when it was horrifically painful and seemed impossible.

You won.

_____________________________________________________________

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17 thoughts on “The Circus Came to Town – 52 Ancestors #356

  1. My husband’s GGGGgrandfather, Charles Hopkins, was with the Macomber Circus on the 1830 census in Ohio. The story was he ran away to join the circus as an acrobat but he was lodging with three men (one a Macomber) as drivers. The circus placed an ad in the local paper which I’m glad was located. In later life he was an excellent wagon maker so it makes sense he learned that skill to make the trip on the Oregon Trail in 1866. The one photo of him has his dog on his lap and he’s dressed with the flavor of the circus. Thanks for the insight!

  2. The history of our families that we uncover is also the history of our societies and social change. It’s so much more than you could ever learn in school. Thanks for lighting a fire and and sharing the warmth with these very personal stories.

  3. What a fascinating life your mother led, and it’s wonderful that you have documented it. How brave she was to travel and work as she did, and to rise above all that small town gossip. I admire her strength to carry on and make a life for herself, and I’m glad she found love with your stepdad. I knew a woman whose fiance returned from the military (not wartime) and never contacted her again – very painful and humiliating, since everyone knew he had returned. My mother also worked in a downtown Chicago department store, in the 1960’s, a great job in the heyday of department store style.

  4. Your best blog ever! Thank you for finding the details and the energy to put it all together, Roberta!

  5. I loved reading this! My husband is from this Miller family, originally from Pennsylvania. They came to Elkhart as part of the strict Anabaptist, Amish, family and for one reason or another were all shunned as well. He is your third cousin through DNA. His local Ancestor was Steven G. Miller. I too am somehow connected through the Ferverda side. Michael is both my husband and my connection. My mom has Miller relatives, but I have yet to figure them out as we found out she was adopted through her DNA just 4 years ago. It is a Daniel, but which one remains to be found as of yet.
    So reading this has a very personal connection for us! I also just lost my mom in January. The pain is still very new and very hard to deal with. She had so many dreams she left unfulfilled to raise 5 children. She was very talented, yet left everything she ever did undone because she had 5 of us in five an a half years. There was a set of twins in there. She kept telling me, “one day I will tell about me”. That day never came. She only worked after we were grown. She loved animals, so worked for a Veterinarian. Your story is beautifully written!!

  6. Your beautiful and informative blog inspired me to donate to the restoration/preservation of the Circus Hall of Fame in Peru. However, their Go Fund Me page shows that donations have been suspended…..any idea why? I hate it when my charitable impulses are thwarted!

    On another topic, back in September 2020 I sent you some info to help in your search for male line Berstlers for your Y-DNA study. How did that turn out? I’ve always wondered if it was helpful.

    Dee Gainer

    • I need to check on the Berstlers again. It was just about that time that things sort of turned upside down in my world.

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