When the Circus Came Home to West Baden

It was 1915 when West Baden Springs Hotel owner Ed Ballard purchased the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus, one of the six circus companies he owned. (Ballard owned all of the big names with the sole exception of Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey.) The circus would tour the Midwest and East Coast from April through October, sometimes logging in over 12,000 miles before heading home to West Baden.

Circus Wagons Arrive
During the winter months, the circus troupe lived in West Baden. It was an exciting event when the circus arrived back in town – the population increased by more than 1,000 people and it took 60 train cars to carry the performers, animals, props and tents to their winter retreat. 

The Circus Parade
A parade from the train depot through town was always spectacular. Locals watched as performer, groomsmen, trainers, painters, carpenters, seamstresses and the menagerie of animals walked the main streets from West Baden to French Lick measuring about one mile in length. Residents vied for the best spots to see all of the action because the circus gave a special afternoon performance just for them.

Winter Quarters in West Baden
Ed Ballard was a great showman. He also enjoyed kicking off the season with a local performance before the circus took to the road for six to eight months each year. Ballad had been known to turn the hotel atrium, then known as the Pompeian Court, into a circus “big top” for guests and locals. 

Residents Watch a Circus Performance
The three-ring show was a treat for circus performers and guests alike with the performance ring set up in the center of the atrium, under the dome, and a menagerie of animals were brought in to perform for the crowd. This was quite a big event; at the time, Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus was the second largest circus in the US. (Ringling Brothers Barnum & Baily held the number one position.)

Performers with an Elephant
Circus Performers with Elephant
The circus touched the lives of most of the residents during this time; it wasn’t surprising to hear an elephant trumpet into the night or to see a lion tamer working on his act with two “ferocious” cats. The circus wintered in West Baden until 1929 when Ballard sold out to John Ringling for $1.9-million. It was then moved back to its original home in Peru, Indiana.

Wilstem Ranch
Traces of the circus still remain in the area today; the elephant barn still stands behind Lane’s Motel. The property where the Wilstem Ranch is located was once owned by Ed Ballard and was used as a hideaway for wealthy and famous friends. (It’s rumored that Tom Mix and Al Capone were frequent guests.)

While the circus is long gone, remnants remain to remind us of that quiet, simpler time when residents lined the streets because the circus was back in town.

By Joy Neighbors