MILWAUKEE — As the son of a father who loved to patronize circuses, Jim Peterson probably dreamt of running off to join Barnum & Bailey.
Instead, confined to home in a walking cast for the summer following a foot operation in his early teens, Peterson crafted a mini-circus to which he’s added a great many pieces in the intervening decades. Occasionally, he displays portions of this circus at area shopping malls.
Peterson, a deacon at St. Sebastian Parish, Milwaukee, since ordination in 1990, finally did join the circus – by becoming a volunteer at the Great Circus Parade, beginning the summer he graduated from Messmer High School and the year the parade first stepped off in Milwaukee — 1963.[su_pullquote align=”right”]Click here for related story.[/su_pullquote]
The parade, which had been an annual Independence Day event, left Milwaukee in the early 1970s and resurfaced in the Ringling Brothers’ hometown of Baraboo in 1980. Deacon Peterson was asked to resume his volunteering in that city 120 miles west of Milwaukee. By then married to his college sweetheart, the former Donna Pulvermacher, and the father of three, he said he would help out if he could bring his family along to the new location. No problem, parade organizers said.
The Petersons camped with other volunteering families at Baraboo’s Sauk County Fairgrounds. The picturesque yearly event alternated for a time between Baraboo and Chicago and the Petersons continued to volunteer, camping on Navy Pier when in the Windy City.
They performed tasks such as affixing banners to circus wagons, supplying transportation crew members with water, helping load the train for its return trip from Milwaukee to the Circus World Museum in Baraboo, conducting parade marshaling and nighttime guard duty, and working in the wardrobe department.
Finally, the parade came back to Milwaukee and Donna wound up managing the campground for parade volunteers at Veterans Park on the lakefront. Deacon Peterson played his saxophone with the band and assisted in demonstrations of loading and unloading horses as the Petersons’ volunteerism expanded from parade weekends to additional summer weekends and vacation periods at the Circus World Museum.
The Great Circus Parade is history, but the Petersons revisit their wealth of enjoyable experiences in “Staging the Great Circus Parade,” a recently published paperback of approximately 100 pages.
The book, consisting primarily of color photographs from the Petersons’ extensive collection and explanatory cutlines, is part of the Arcadia Publishing “Images of Modern America” series. The project consumed about a year of work for Deacon Peterson and Donna, including several rewrites. It is divided into several chapters, among them “Parade Grounds” and “Parade Day.”
The non-bylined introduction establishes a rationale for the book: “While many beautiful books were written about the parade itself, the Petersons realized that ‘a lot of work behind the scenes went undocumented. Setting up in a city with approximately 70 circus wagons, over 600 horses, exotic animals, and hundreds of volunteers was a mammoth undertaking.’”
Telling the story behind the story “was our goal,” Donna noted in an interview with the Catholic Herald.