Baraboo artisans restore historic circus wagon

July 31, 2018

The Old Woman Who Lives in a Shoe circus wagon made its long-awaited public return during Baraboo’s Big Top Parade and Circus Celebration.

The more than 130-year-old wagon’s vibrant gold finish and intricate carvings captivated crowds July 21 as it was pulled by a team of horses through downtown Baraboo. While its journey in the parade lasted less than an hour, a team of skilled artisans spent almost three years preparing the wagon for the moment.

“We restore everything just like they did when the Ringlings were here in Baraboo,” said Harold “Heavy” Burdick, restoration director at Circus World, where the wagon is on display. “We don’t do anything different than they did, and that’s what this is supposed to be about.”

Baraboo artisans started restoring the wagon in 2015. Local woodcarver Homer Daehn took the body apart layer by layer before replacing rotted-out sections with new wood and restoring the intricate carvings on the giant shoe. He said there were about 20 3-inch pieces in total that had to be removed, restored and put back together.

“Once I got the base done it was building it all back up, and taking it back down, and building it back up,” Daehn said. “You couldn’t just take a section of it apart — you really needed to take all of it apart, redo everything, get the rot out of there and put it back together.”

The Old Woman in a Shoe wagon was built in 1882 along with six others as part of a fairy-tale series for the Barnum & London Circus. The Ringling brothers purchased the wagon along with Barnum & Bailey in 1907. It toured with several other famous circuses until it was acquired by Circus World in 1954, according to historical records.

Burdick said the last time the wagon was parade-ready was during the Great Milwaukee Circus Parade in the mid-2000s. He worked countless hours for the past three years with his team at Circus World and Amish craftsmen in Indiana to restore the undercarriage, wheels and other parts of the frame.

“Getting all those irons to fit under there, I had to cut them all out and make it level,” Burdick said. “I didn’t have to do that, but I felt I had to do it because that’s how I was taught. It drove me nuts.”

Painter and sign maker Joan Stevens completed the pinstriping on the wheels and undercarriage, along with the gold leafing. She said the process of applying gold leaf is tedious work — especially on such a large subject — and she was under a tight deadline to finish a second coat two weeks before the parade.

“When I was doing the second coat, I thought, ‘I never want to touch another gold leaf project again,’” Stevens said. “However, a week later I was thinking, ‘OK, what’s next?’”

Stevens, Burdick and Daehn together have more than 100 years of experience with restoration work and have worked on dozens of wagons housed at Circus World. Each said they view working on the artifacts as collaborating with craftsmen from the past.

“I respect the old craftsmen, and the idea is to try to emulate what they were doing,” Daehn said. “Creativity and ego, you might as well leave it at the door because when you’re done with the job people shouldn’t be able to tell where the carvers from years ago left off and where you started.”

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