The hulk of rotting wood, broken tires and cracked leather sits in a corner of the Circus World Museum, waiting to become a sunburst.
Now visitors can watch the amazing transformation of antique circus wagons from crumbling husks to golden treasures at the museum's new $1.1 million C.P. Fox Wagon Restoration Center, which opened in May.The Fox center offers a behind-the-Big-Top look at the art of wagon restoration that the public has not been allowed to see before. Before the center opened, the monumental task of turning 100-year-old wrecks back into their original parade-strutting condition took place at a building a mile off the museum grounds, off-limits to visitors.
"People don't realize that the wagons they see at the museum and in Milwaukee's Great Circus Parade don't arrive in that condition," said Harold Burdick, wagon superintendent.
One part of the new facility might be called the "Before" section, where antique wagons rescued from farm fields and leaky barns are stored before repair. At the moment several beauties are sleeping here: the 1903 Spain Float, whose bare wooden griffins were once gilded in gold; an 1883 British "RV" wagon complete with iron stove; a steel sea lion's cage.
Soon these wagons will be pulled into the adjoining "After" section for a lot of TLC.
Museum visitors can peer through huge windows right into the wagon-wrights' shop. On any given day the visitors might see the America Steam Calliope being completely taken apart, its amazing musical pipe with 32 whistles and a keyboard of solid brass being rebuilt.
People might also see the restored wooden faces of the America calliope - the bearded Man of Peru and the imposing Man of Brazil - being put back in place to gaze upon the crowd.
Or visitors might watch the spectacular wagon wheels, repainted as sunbursts of yellow, blue and crimson, being refitted onto the wagons.
Artisans who long labored in obscurity will now be spotlighted, including painter Joan Stevens. Using decades-old signage patterns, Stevens repaints the scroll work and other art panels on many of the wagons.
With a background in commercial sign painting, Stevens looks forward to the creative atmosphere at the museum. "When I come here the work is so vibrant. You feel like you're keeping the wagon alive," said Stevens.
"We'll show the people as much of the process as we can of the woodworking and the painting," said Burdick. "People will see the number of man-hours that go into repairing the wagons." Indeed, the process of restoring an antique wagon can take from a few weeks to 10 months.
Part of the new Fox center is a photo gallery explaining the importance of wagons in circus history. "Our problem was how to introduce today's public to the concept of the circus wagon," said Fred Dahlinger Jr., museum library director. "The circus has long been a traveling enterprise. As America developed, the circus went to them. The wagons carried people and things and advertised the circus."
Photos in the display show 10-ton wagons up to their axles in mud. "The unloading of the wagons from trains using elephants was a giant undertaking, "Dahlinger said.
Antique posters in the Fox center exhibit show how the wagons were part of the circus ballyhoo. Tableau wagons featured in a Cleopatra display are advertised in one poster. "There was an Egyptian revival in the 19th century and the circus was quick to capitalize on trends," Dahlinger said.
Children became "officially recognized" as genuine people during Victorian times, and the new status of kids was celebrated by scaled-down wagons featuring figures of Aladdin and Sleeping Beauty. Several of the old children's show posters feature wagons now in the Circus World Museum's collection; visitors can compare the real Mother Goose tableau with the artist's fanciful poster depiction.
Other exhibit items catch the eye. Photos capture a 1905 circus parade that literally brought a New York town to a standstill in an age when "Circus Day was as important as the Fourth of July and Christmas," said Dahlinger. Other pictures show rarely seen circus inventions including the mechanical stake driver that could do the work of 40 sledgehammer-wielding men.
Another display features the classic tools of the wagonmaker's craft, tools as lovely in their own way as the artwork they created. The "winter craftsmen" who labored on the wagons during the off-season used these very wooden chisels and spoke shaves, and they used an even rarer item: the antique gold leaf used to make the wagons dazzle in the sun.
"This is a treat for visitors. Most people don't ever get to see real gold like this," said Dahlinger.