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Remembering the Lewis Brothers Circus based in Jackson, Michigan

Ella Sharp Museum

In 1929, Paul and Mae Lewis founded the Lewis Bros. Circus.

The traveling circus was based in Jackson, Michigan and traveled throughout the state. They even went to Illinois, Indiana and Ohio, dazzling small towns with exotic creatures and acrobats.

I sat down with Grace Wolbrink. She’s a professional storyteller who collected memories from the family.

“The circus was a world that was different…they had animals that came from other countries that nobody could see. And so life was around the small towns, but the circus helped them cross into another world and dimension that way,” said Wolbrink.

Paul and Mae’s nieces, Barbara and Winona Stanton, toured with the circus during the summer as young girls. Barbara’s stories helped create a museum exhibit about the Lewis Bros. That exhibit is currently on display at the Ella Sharp Museum in Jackson, Michigan.

“Their Aunt Mae would dress them up in in makeup and fancy Middle Eastern and Arabian costumes and they’d climb up on top to the elephant and ride the elephant in the spectacle, the parade around the circus tent to start off the big show,” she said.

That part of the show was known as “the spec.”

“And they had the side shows and the animals. They had the big cats, and they had Two-Ton Tony and Jumble-Lou for the elephants, and Wooly the bear, you know, that escaped at one point before , he officially joined the circus,” Wolbrink said.

The circus ran from 1929 to 1945, and during that time, Paul and Mae Lewis encountered a variety of obstacles that we wouldn’t think about today.

The “advance man,” who booked the next show in neighboring towns, had to paint telephone poles with white and blue paint. The markers served as directions for performers because many of them couldn’t read the road signs.

“They would get to the next town, Paul would come out, he’d look around an empty lot, or maybe a farmer’s field and he would turn this dust bin into a magnificent show,” she said. “And they’d put up the big top and set everybody up.”

In the 1930s and forties, people couldn’t escape to the worlds of big-screen TVs or iPhone. The circus was really the most exciting entertainment available for everyone.

“They bought a one-ring circus and they rapidly and very successfully built it into a three-ring circus. This was during the time of the Depression and World War II. This is just an amazing story of hope and endurance and I can’t imagine how this circus touched people’s lives going through such uncertainty and trauma.”

You can visit the exhibit until September 7 at the Ella Sharp Museum of Art and History in Jackson, Michigan.

Cynthia Canty was the host of Stateside since the weekday show began in 2012. She retired in December 2019.
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