Durand Bar Owner Uncovers 134-Year-Old Circus Poster
DURAND, Wis. (AP) — All Ron Berger wanted was to install a door between two buildings.
Instead, much to his astonishment, he opened a window into the early history of Durand on Labor Day weekend 2015 when he cut a hole in the wall separating the family business from the property next door to accommodate an expansion.
Initially baffled by the green and brown colors he spotted on a long-buried wall, Berger assumed they must be old water stains. But he eventually uncovered enough of the wall to recognize he was looking at the image of a buffalo, with a puff of steam rising from its nostrils, charging right at him on a grassy plain.
Further inspection, by removing electrical outlets along the wall and shining flashlights into the gap behind, revealed the vibrant colors extended the length of the wall.
By the time Berger was done excavating and researching, he had unearthed a 9-foot-high by 55-foot-long, multi-sheet, full-color paper lithograph circus poster advertising the Great Anglo-American Circus and Menagerie performing in Durand on Aug. 17, 1885, the Eau Claire Leader-Telegram reported.
“It’s one of the oldest and best preserved circus posters in the world,” Berger said. “It’s considered a one-and-only type of thing.”
While Berger immediately recognized the discovery would throw a wrench into his plan to quickly connect the Corral Bar & Riverside Grill with the adjacent building to create a banquet facility, he felt a duty to preserve the historical artifact.
“It was such a rare thing, I just had to show it to the public,” he said.
His sisters Lori Snapp and Sharon and Karen Berger, who own the business, supported the decision even though they knew it would delay the expansion project.
“It’s an awesome, rare piece of art, and we’re so glad we found it,” Snapp said.
Ultimately, it took two years for the special events room to open, complete with a mirror-backed bar and metal ceiling that Berger believes date back to the 19th century. But, ladies and gentlemen, the main attraction undoubtedly is the massive circus poster that covers an entire wall. The artwork is enclosed in special glass to protect it from being damaged by light and prying fingers.
The banquet hall is named the Orton Room in honor of Miles Orton, a world-renowned performer who owned and managed the Great Anglo-American Circus. Orton was famous for stand-up horseback riding with his children on his shoulders — an act breathtakingly depicted in the Durand poster.
Large words across the top of the poster read “ALLIE & BERNARD (Orton’s children), TINY AERIAL MARVELS, MILES ORTON RIDES WITH US!”
As word has gotten out about the slice of local history served up as a sideshow to the eatery’s pie slices, curiosity seekers from around the globe have made the trek to Durand to see the spectacle for themselves.
A glance at the guest book reveals visitors from Malaysia, France, Kenya, Canada and across the United States from Florida to Alaska. Among the words most repeated in the comments are “awesome,” ”cool” and “fantastic.”
Such superlatives are not limited to amateurs. Pete Schrake, archivist at Circus World Museum in Baraboo, made the pilgrimage to Durand to see the discovery and was duly impressed, particularly because the find involved a Wisconsin-based circus in a Badger State town.
“This is a standout piece,” Schrake said. “What really made this one stand out is its size — it’s the longest one I know of — and that it’s an amazing poster.”
That’s high praise from a historian for a museum with an inventory of about 9,000 circus posters.
Schrake said the Durand poster is a relic from the golden age of circus, when the shows toured via railroad and advance teams would paper the towns on the schedule with posters and handbills promoting their acts.
“Circuses, in their day, were pioneers of mass media and in-your-face, bombastic advertising,” he said. “That bill stand is really a perfect example of that kind of approach.”
Terry Mesch, manager of Durand’s Old Courthouse Museum and 1895 Jail, also was thrilled to learn of the poster’s discovery and its display in the downtown business.
“It certainly is a significant historic artifact, and it adds a very nice story to Pepin County history,” Mesch said.
Perhaps more importantly for the city, it represents a new reason for people to visit Durand.
“It’s definitely an attraction,” Mesch said. “I know people from Eau Claire who bring friends down to see the circus poster, and everyone I’ve taken to see it has been impressed.”
On a recent Wednesday, friends Marilyn Qualley of Arkansaw and Robin McCorison of Altoona made the trip to the Corral Bar to have lunch, enjoy the expansive Chippewa River views and, of course, admire the circus poster.
“It is a gem. It’s just something that people would not believe,” said Qualley, who already had seen the artwork and recommended the idea to McCorison, who was not disappointed.
As the women mused about a section filled with depictions of sea life, Berger explained that the Great Anglo-American Circus incorporated a rare traveling aquarium.
“I can assure you those fish aren’t found in the Chippewa River,” Berger said with a chuckle, pointing out that some of the species appear to be prehistoric fish and sea monsters.
The artwork, originally displayed on an exterior wall facing the river to promote the circus to boat traffic, was printed on paper intended to weather away after a month or two.
The story of how it survived is a bit of a mystery, although Berger feels confident he has figured it out.
Shortly after the show, he assumes someone erected a building over the wall — installing wooden studs less than half an inch from the artwork — and never bothered to remove the poster.
The circus performers, ranging from aerialists and elephant riders to lions and giraffes, were entombed behind a wall for more than a century until Berger serendipitously freed them.
“It should never have survived,” said Berger, who has become somewhat of a circus historian while researching the poster’s background.
In another stroke of luck, though the building’s basement fills with water nearly every year, Berger noted that the only time Durand’s annual Chippewa River flooding would have been high enough for the above-ground artwork to be underwater was in 1884 — the year before the circus stopped in the city.
A signature indicates the artwork was printed by Russell, Morgan & Co. in Cincinnati, which Berger called the greatest lithograph city in the world at the time. Lithographs were created by carving images out of wood, applying colors and stamping paper.
“It’s remarkable to think of that whole thing being carved out,” Berger said.
A key to unraveling the lithograph’s history was a large stamp indicating the circus would exhibit at Durand on Monday, Aug. 17. But with no year shown, Berger had to make like Sherlock Holmes to sleuth out the answer. When investigation revealed the Great Anglo-American Circus only exhibited in 1884 and 1885 and only 1885 had a Monday on Aug. 17, he had his answer. Further research uncovered articles from the Durand newspaper discussing the circus coming to town on that date.
“It was kind of like reading a good book doing the history on it,” he said. “It took you back to that time.”
Reaching the point of displaying the artwork may not have been a circus act, but it was no simple task.
After methodically removing the wall concealing the former exterior wall, the bar owners enlisted a team of experts to microvacuum the artwork, repaste some peeling pieces and then meticulously wash the 500-square-foot poster by hand using cotton balls and distilled water.
Berger also had to figure out how to remove the old studs and put up new steel ones without the building collapsing.
Tom Airis, a retired glass specialist with Esser Glass in Eau Claire, helped Berger figure out how best to display and protect the artwork. Airis, a railroad history buff, was happy to be part of the preservation of an artifact from when the circus arrived in Durand via train cars.
“I think it’s absolutely amazing,” Airis said. “I’m over the moon about the way it turned out, and they’ve done a wonderful job on that whole room.”
Another challenge, Berger said, was walking the tightrope of completing all of the work without ending the family’s streak of keeping the business open every day since his mother, Marge Berger, bought the bar on April 15, 1977. As the circus performers might say, the show must go on.
“I must admit it was the biggest pain in the butt I’ve ever dealt with,” Berger said, although clearly it has been a labor of love, as the renovation ringmaster relishes the opportunity to shine a spotlight on the poster and tell the story of its discovery.
Berger still hopes to put the finishing touches on the room, including finding some 19th century mementos to display under the glass-topped bar.
And then there’s the matter of the buffalo that started the whole restoration stampede. Eventually, Berger plans to display the buffalo art, cut out to create the door opening, somewhere in the room. He will include the tail he originally cut off and threw in the trash before he realized the treasure he had stumbled upon.
Undoubtedly, Berger got more than he ever imagined four years ago when he cut out that door — just as Miles Orton surely hoped Durand area patrons would feel after buying tickets when his circus came to town 134 years ago.