ENID — Visitors to the Cherokee Strip Regional Heritage Center are stepping right into the exhibit titled “Step Right Up.”
It's a step back in time into the history of the circus, not only under the big top but behind it.
Ask museum director Andi Holland about her favorite item, and she takes on the excitement of a child at a circus, darting from one item to the next.
Holland looks over to a red, white and blue horse bridal.
“I'm a horse fan, and so there's a whole section on how important horses were to the circus, which I found very interesting,” she said.
Then she moves to a photo of clown Gene Lewis painting the toenails of his “Big Feet” shoes. Looking at the oversized footwear, she said, “I would imagine he used a lot of red paint on those.”
“Step Right Up! Behind the Scenes of the Circus Big Top, 1890-1965” continues on display through Aug. 11. The exhibit is put on tour by ExhibitsUSA, a national program of Mid-America Arts Alliance. ExhibitsUSA sends more than 25 exhibitions on tour to more than 100 communities each year.
Holland praises the traveling display of photos, circus posters and artifacts whether the latter were worn by elephants or the ringmaster.
“It's a fantastic exhibit and the reason we chose to bring it to the Cherokee Strip Regional Heritage Center was that we have a circus history,” Holland said. “The Campbell Brothers Circus would winter near Drummond, which is just to the west of here.”
Plus, museum officials were certain the exhibit would stir memories.
“When we had the opportunity to bring this exhibit, we really jumped on that because in talking with our rural community guests they can remember very vividly the circus pulling into town on the train,” Holland said. “They remember meeting the train and watching them unload and then going to the circus.”
And with that, Holland makes her way to a panel and photos about water buckets provided to circus personnel.
“I thought this was interesting too,” she said. “These circus workers got two buckets of water a day, and they could do with it whatever they wanted. They could drink it, wash their clothes or take a bath, but they got two buckets.”
Nearby are pictures of “flipping flapjacks in the cookhouse” and of the mail call area.
Running a business
The circus was a mobile community and a business.
The latter is an aspect that fascinates David Kennedy, curator of collections at the Cherokee Strip Regional Heritage Center.
While the eye-catching posters of leaping tigers and colorful clowns were one form of advance preparations, there also were circuses with a 24-hour man, he said.
“This was the person who would be advancing in front of the circus,” Kennedy said. “As the circus is performing in one town this man would be driving to the next town.
“He would be setting up the directional markers for the circus caravan. He also would be making sure the site that they were going to was OK for the circus and that no changes needed to be made.”
A big deal
Holland found some information about a circus that came to Enid in the late 1800s that attracted several thousand spectators. Too, Holland has talked with visitors to the exhibit who have come from nearby communities. They have shared recollections of when the circus stopped in their towns.
“I've heard many, many stories of people coming out to the train to watch them unload and then watching them parade through town,” Holland said. “We were just talking the other day in staff meeting about how our numbers at the museum are up about 500 compared to this time last year.
“I don't know that all of it is because of the circus exhibit, but I think there's a good bit of it that is.”
If you go
What: “Step Right Up! Behind the Scenes of the Circus Big Top, 1890-1965”
When: Through Aug. 11
Where: Cherokee Strip Regional Heritage Center, 507 S Fourth St., Enid
For more information: Call (580) 237-1907 or go to www.csrhc.org
Admission: Adults, $5; seniors (ages 62 and older), $3; students with ID, $3; group rate (parties of 10 or more), $3 each. Active duty military, veterans and children 5 and younger get in free.