Gamma Phi Circus

Illinois State University is home to the Gamma Phi Circus, which formed at the height of the circus craze in the area.

In Bloomington-Normal, the circus came to town and never really left.

As a result, the Twin Cities’ three-ring heritage is among the richest in the country, rivaling that of Baraboo, Wis. (birthplace of Ringling Bros. Circus) and Sarasota, Fla. (present-day home of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus).

From the early 1920s to the 1940s, B-N was known as the “Circus Aerialist Capital of the World,” courtesy of the more than 17 world-class trapeze acts who wintered here.

Though that heyday ended around 1950, B-N is is still home to ISU’s Gamma Phi Circus, America’s oldest collegiate circus, founded in 1929 at the peak of local circus mania.

It all began with the first local aerialist, Fred Miltmore, who joined the circus in 1871 and retired by 1900. Along with Miltmore, fellow B-N residents Harry Green, Harry Foreman, Eddie Ward and Charles Waller established their own acts.

Eventually, the Twin Cities became a hotbed of aerialists-turned-trainers, whose students either came here to study or were recruited from the local ranks.

Bloomington’s YMCA was equipped with an aerial rigging, and its directors recruited dozens of local youths to develop their talent.

More training sites mushroomed, including Eddie Ward’s Ward Barn and Circus Park, located in what is now State Farm Park on Bloomington’s south end.

Eventually, roughly 90 percent of America’s top aerialists, including the Flying Wards and the Flying Concellos, called B-N their winter home and training ground.

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