Bandwagon ‘a big deal’ to area's circus historyDecember 6, 2018
By ALLEN LAMAN
WEST BADEN SPRINGS — Not far from the slots and card tables at the French Lick Casino rests a historic piece of American history.
No, that’s underselling it. Because as soon as you enter the warehouse that currently houses the enormous Barnum & Bailey Two Hemispheres Bandwagon, you’ll gasp in awe at the more than 100-year-old work of art.
It’s a bandwagon you’ll want to hop on.
“This is a big deal given our circus history here in the Springs Valley,” said Steve Rondinaro, the marketing manager at French Lick Resort. “People don’t know about it, and it was a big part of our past in the 1910s and 1920s. This particular wagon was one of the biggest, most recognizable components of the circus industry of its time.”
According to research compiled by resort historian Jeff Lane, the wagon is believed to be the greatest and largest circus bandwagon ever built. The regal behemoth stands at 28 feet long, 12 feet tall and weighs more than 6.5 tons. Forty horses were needed to pull the carriage.
It will be a featured attraction on the French Lick West Baden Museum Home and History for the Holidays Tour on Sunday. The event is a benefit for the museum and takes place from 1 to 5 p.m. The bandwagon and the resort’s historic car collection, which includes Tom Taggart’s refurbished 1929 Rolls Royce, will be on display in the resort’s annex in West Baden Springs from 1 to 3 p.m.
Tickets can be purchased from the museum for $10 in advance and $12 on Sunday.
Lane said the Two Hemispheres Bandwagon was manufactured in the early 20th century and was the most expensive single circus wagon crafted at the time of its creation. He said Barnum & Bailey took it across the country with their traveling circus, where people would eagerly await the circus parade because the grandiose spectacle meant fun was in town.
Peter Gorman, the bandwagon’s current owner, previously had the wood-carved monster on display at the Indiana State Fair. Gorman — who also built the circus diorama on display at the French Lick museum — needed somewhere safe to store it during the winter months, and approached the resort to inquire about stowing it there.
It has sat in the French Lick Resort annex since August. Resort employees carefully moved it in with a Chevy 2500 truck.
“To find a door here that it would actually go through was quite a challenge,” Lane said. “They found only one door — through the laundry (room).”
From what Lane could gather, the big bandwagon was conceived as the lead feature of the 1903 procession that heralded the Greatest Show on Earth’s return to America. It led the circus’ daily street parades through 1918 as well as the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Combined Shows parades in 1919 and 1920. It was last used by a circus in the early 1930s.
The wagon still has its bright colors and is in good shape. Both sides are adorned with golden animals, crests and symbols carved from wood. Sky-blue globes rest in the center of the elaborate artwork on both sides.
“It’s just such a special piece,” Lane said. “And to have it right here, where you can reach up and touch it, and you know how old it is. It’s just incredible.”
He later added: “I call it a work of art. There’s no doubt in my mind.”
You might not know it, but a circus has history in the French Lick area. Around 1915, the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus was owned by Ed Ballard, who was from the area and at one time owned the West Baden Springs Hotel. Lane said circus animals performed for his guests.
That circus would winter in the area. Behind the Dairy Queen restaurant in French Lick sat grounds filled with barns and fixtures for animals. Lane speculated that the circus would perform in nearby fields or perhaps inside that complex for onlookers, but he couldn’t say for sure.
Rondinaro and Lane also sit on the museum board. Rondinaro said this weekend’s holiday tour is a big fundraiser for the organization. More and more people are offering the institution donations, and he said the museum is looking into possibly expanding and playing a larger role in the community.
Other stops on the tour include the historic West Baden Church and four historic or well-known community homes.
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