Barnsdales Brought Circus to Town

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From the Stevens Point Journal May 19, 1992

Walter Barnsdale “has the best moving picture outfit on the road,” raved one reviewer. “Everybody admits that Barnsdale’s pictures are presented better than anything of the kind ever seen,” anotherWalter Kate and Eva Barnsdale - early 1900's wrote in a series of newspaper reviews of the Plover man’s traveling moving picture show.

So the Barnsdale legacy began.

Showcasing more than 100 reels of old-time feature films and the most sophisticated lighting equipment, Barnsdale pioneered his family into the entertainment business.

His sons, Frank and Dick, followed in the family tradition of entertaining audiences starved for roaring ‘20s-style fanfare. The two performers could be seen executing feats of daring-do on circus high-wires and in knife-throwing acts.

Although they weren’t always in the spotlight, they certainly were well-known members of the Plover community back in the early 1900s, said Mary Swanson, a descendant of the performing Barnsdale family. As a girl, Swanson remembers watching her uncle, Dick, perform his barrel-on-a-slack wire act.

Her other uncle, Frank, was a circus midget who dressed in a Revolutionary War uniform and called himself Colonel Tom Thumb. As Swanson flipped through the pages of an old family photo album, she spotted a picture of herself dressed in her uncle’s uniform. But that’s as close as she ever got to anything related to circus performing. The entertaining was left toWalter Barnsdale her grandfather, Walter, and her uncles, Dick and Frank.

Walter and his wife, Kate, operated a small bicycle shop located next to their home on the corner of Post Road and Elm Street in Plover. Having sold bicycle parts for several years, Walter decided in 1903 to show motion pictures to local audiences in area movie houses.

For those who couldn’t get to the city, he brought the show to them. “He went out into the countryside when they didn’t have electricity out there yet,” Swanson said. “He took an electric generator with him.”

His lighting and electrical equipment was so modern, that the feature films “are brighter, clearer and less given to flickering than any other exhibition of like nature,” the Appleton Post reported.

For one winter, Walter took Barnsdale’s moving picture show out on the road with a popular local entertainer, Don C. Hall. “He was in show business all his life,” Swanson said of Hall. “He had a drama company. One of the things we would do is let his hair grow long, and he used to go out and impersonate Buffalo Bill.”

Walter's feature films, which were hits at area carnivals and circuses (generally held where the Manufacturers Direct Mall now stands), eventually began to decline in popularity as electricity became more accessible.

But the show went on for the Barnsdale family. Frank took his Colonel Tom Thumb act all over theFrank Barnsdale as Col. Tom Thumb country with Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus, having performed at local circuses and carnivals.

After a while, “he started to grow and he decided he didn’t like that kind of life anymore,” Swanson said. Frank’s brother, Dick, however, stuck with performing well into the 1950s.

Like his other family members, he got his start locally with the Engfords, another Plover family. The Engfords lived across the street from the Barnsdales in Plover and had a long history in the circus circuit.

Dick traveled in summer circus tours with the Engfords, and during the rest of the year, attended the Stevens Point Normal School. After graduation, he joined the Seils-Sterling family circus out of Sheboygan.

He swung at great heights on the trapeze and tempted fate on the high-wire. For a brief time, he toyed with a knife-throwing act.

The mid-1930's had him traveling with the vaudeville troupe, Broadway Bandwagon, in which he began his swaying pole act. “I remember when he was in the circus; everybody doubled up,” Swanson said. “He played in the band, he was a catcher in a trapeze act, be rode a bike on a revolving wire. He made it look harder than it really was.”

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