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Join me this summer as I travel the country to research the steam calliope tradition on America's inland rivers.
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You Must Play That Lonesome Cally: Week of June 1-7

Posted 06-09-2008 at 12:02 AM by Jon Tschiggfrie
Here's a riddle for you: What do you get when you mix the Circus World Museum with tornado warnings? Answer: a subterranean tour of infinite shelves of authentic circus equipment and memorabilia.

Today’s posting comes amid continued severe thunderstorms here in the Midwest that seem to have been plaguing us for the past few weeks. This past week saw the calliope grantee and his faithful Dad-assistant on a whirlwind tour of the archival hotspots on the Upper Miss: the Murphy Library at UW-La Crosse, the Winona (MN) County Historical Society, and the Circus World Museum in Baraboo, WI. Murphy is of course the location of the Steamboat Photograph Collection, one of the largest in the country. WCHS houses the complete Ralph DuPae collection, although budget restrictions make it inaccessible to the public at this juncture. CWM includes the Parkinson Library and Research Center, a veritable treasure trove for any circus historian.

Linda Sondreal of the Murphy Library was incredibly helpful in sifting through the calliope and showboat files housed there, and also assisted us in beginning our review of the photograph collection, which will undoubtedly be continued sometime in the next month. We were informed that the Midwest River Buffs would be stopping by the following day, making our sole presence that day at the archives a remarkably fortuitous event. Also a quick report on the Julia Belle Swain: she looks “purty as a picture.” On Thursday, we stopped at the riverfront to chat with Lee and Kathy Havlik, Beau Inman, et al; the crew had roughly 24 hours to paint, restock, and prepare the boat before the season’s first cruise. The results are displayed in photographic form below. We also visited with Bill and Bobbi Steinike a few miles down the road in Stoddard and were reminded of the true nature of river hospitality.

With the DuPae collection unavailable at the WCHS archives, we were unable to discover much beyond their sole calliope file, but took the opportunity to explore and photograph the rundown old Julius C. Wilkie replica (see attached photo). While at the site, we met two gentlemen who seemed generally knowledgeable about the ultimate fate of the boat. They suggested that anything considered of historic relevance had already been removed, and that the remaining structure would be completely razed within the next month, save for the large concrete slab upon which the whole thing sits. When asked about what the city planned to do with the intact vintage steam engines, they shrugged and admitted that they had heard of no plans to remove or preserve them.

Although I (now ashamedly) had my doubts as to the wisdom of budgeting time for the Circus World Museum, this stop proved to be this trip’s pièce de résistance. The Parkinson Library and Research Center is a calliope researcher’s paradise: two box files of original documents on the instruments, another box file of original photographs, multiple files of calliope music, plans, whistle dimensions, and history, an unfinished manuscript on the subject, and all the letters written by Tom Parkinson to calliope experts in the 50s. Ms. Erin Foley was ineffably accommodating, and is regarded by this author as an archivist of the finest caliber. In addition to her tireless assistance in finding materials and her unstoppable cheery demeanor, Erin took us into the PLRC’s basement when the tornado sirens sounded. But this was no typical basement: she gave us the 50-cent tour of the place where the museum houses its currently unused original artifacts: musical instruments, advertising posters, show props and costumes, repair and animal handling equipment, and the largest circus model collection in the world. Sadly, Ms. Foley informed us that the PLRC is very rarely used by serious researchers, considered a particularly unscholarly waste of time by academic types, due to that social stigma still associated with circuses. Needless to say, the wealth of information available here will necessitate at least another full day of review.

Performance Director Dave SaLoutos and Wagon Superintendent Harold “Heavy” Burdick were our hosts to the Wagon Pavilion, which housed 50 completely restored circus wagons, including the America Calliope. This instrument is an original Nichol, probably built ca. 1910. [Incidentally, the museum also holds the only photograph I have ever seen of Thomas J. Nichol himself, as well as a large original drawing of whistle dimensions from the Thos. J Nichol company after he had moved his operation to Grand Rapids in the 20s.] I took physical measurements of each whistle and the manifold, as well as a number of photos (see below). Although the boiler had not been fired up for at least two years, I naturally indulged my fancy by plucking out “Margie” on the brass keyboard and listening to the click-clack of the trackers and whistle valves.

JUDGMENT OF THE WEEK: the Circus World Museum is an invaluable resource for any and all calliope aficionados. If you are reading this blog, I will assume that calliopes indeed pique your interest, and I can safely say that the things that the CWM has to offer merit at least one visit in your lifetime to this admirable institution.

INQUIRY OF THE WEEK: Anyone with information on a Mr. Charles Phillip (C.P.) “Chappie” Fox: I hereby beseech you to contact me at once! Thank you.

FIND OF THE WEEK: Showboat entrepreneurs certainly understood the value of appealing to a wide demographic. The zoologically-inclined could be entertained on one exhibit boat promoting “The Monster Whale - His Mouth Holds 25 People!” Alternately, the thrill-seeker of a more demure nature could visit French’s last New Sensation (presumably the Newest of the eight) which carried “The Great Moral Show.”

A continual “thank you” to all those who continue to support my research through your kind comments, suggestions, and anecdotes. If it has not already been said of river folks, you are the salt of the earth.

As per usual, address all concerns and inquiries to

See you 'round the bend,

Jon Tschiggfrie
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