Harry Engford and Family

Harry Engford was born May 5, 1905 in Milwaukee, the son of Robert and Amanda Engford. Harry began performing with the Engford Family Shows sometime after 1910.

Robert and Amanda Engford bought the Engford Family Home, which is now known as the "Circus House" in May of 1923. Harry was 18 years old. Because Plover is centrally located in the State of Wisconsin, it was the perfect base for "Engford Family Shows" to use as their headquarters. Robert Engford's Family Shows was one of the first motorized circuses to operate in Wisconsin. A sample of their 1928 season schedule is available.

Robert, Amanda, Harry, Florence
Harry on Banjo, Robert on Guitar. 1915-16

Ruthie, Harry's daughter, recalls her father's philosophy. "Harry believed in the importance of physical conditioning throughout his entire life. As a young man at a time when little was known about a balanced diet or the importance of vitamins or even the advantage of consistent physical conditioning, by adhering to his theories on the above he attained amazing abilities in his field of hand-balancing at a very early age. With the addition of weight-lifting, to build muscle beyond what was needed to do the work, Harry performed at this level past the age of 60! Quite an accomplishment!"

She adds further: "Practice was the order of every day for all the Engfords. In the cold winters of Plover, Wisconsin each morning, first thing, was build a fire in the little stove up in the practice-barn. It took a couple hours to bring the temperature to a point where they could "limber up" and practice the acrobatic act. Then back to the house for music practice. Then Harry and his sister Florence would do art work painting with oils, water colors, or pen and India Ink. Not to forget choir practice (often the Choir met at the Engfords house for practice) for each Sunday morning Service at the Methodist Church."

"So, this was the daily routine all thru my fathers' life and later when he married and had his own family, mom (Lois) and my brother (David), and myself. My father always said, "The most important thing you do in each day is PRACTICE! Then you eat, then you sleep, and any time left, play". A simple discipline really and it works! To this day I hear those words in my ear and it always spurs me on! "

During the winter months spent in Plover, Harry continued to practice his skills (photos), even in the snow!

Harry studied music under Professor Wzalkevich. Harry also studied accordion and violin, and played second chair in the Stevens Point symphony, as a young man. One or two winters, he had a radio show, playing the accordion. (photos) Harry and his sister, Florence, performed a musical variety show for local events held during the winter season.

Harry also studied art during the winters eventually doing all the art work for the posters, stationery and lettering on trucks for "Engford Family Shows". (photos)

Harry sang in the choir at the Methodist Church in Plover. In fact, it was in the very Church that is now in Heritage Park, that Harry met Lois Espenscheid, who would become his wife on Feb. 17, 1936. Harry was Sunday School Superintendent at this church. He gave "Chalk Talks" (illustrating the stories from the Bible he was teaching, with drawings in chalk) on a huge tablet on an easel.

Forges Bros. Shows

The name originally began as a Clown Hand Balancing Act (photos) featuring Robert and Harry Engford. This show was part of the Engford Family Shows. The name Forges was derived from letters in the Engford name. Forges Bros. Shows went out for the first time in 1937 as Harry Engford's show and was routed separately from Engford Family Shows. On occasion they did combine with the Engford Family Shows to perform together as one.

Harry would marry Lois Estelle Espenscheid on Feb. 17, 1936. Shortly thereafter, Lois began appearing in the Family Act. In an interview with the Pantagraph, a newspaper published in Bloomington Illinois, dated August 10, 1960 Harry offers these comments:

"With show people the father usually starts working with a child at a very young age. Before you hardly remember," he said.

His wife, again, is a case of a women proving her adaptability. She and her husband met in a church choir.

"She proved quite adaptable athletically," said Mr. Engford.

Harry was "advance man" which means, while the tent was being put up in a given town, Harry would drive ahead to the next town, get a permit from the town to bring a show in, book the lot, put up some advertising bills, etc. He would be back to the tent in time for the Performance that day. This was a daily routine.

During the winter months of 1936 to 1940 Harry and Lois performed the night club circuit in Milwaukee, Detroit and other cities. Between tours Harry played for dances in the Plover area. (photos)

The War Years - 1942-'45

Ruthie Engford Clark, born April 15, 1940, provided much of the information to follow. Her own words are used when most appropriate.

Engford Family Shows went off the road in 1939 when Robert and Amanda retired, but Forges Bros. (Harry's Show) continued on for the 1940 & 1941 seasons. The 1941 season was the last one for Forges Bros. Show because of World War II. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, Dec. 7, 1941, the U.S. economy was put on a war time footing. Rationing began in early 1942 to divert as much farm and industrial output as possible to support the war effort. Everything was rationed including gas, tires and food. The availability of new vehicles for civilian use was drastically reduced. There was also travel restrictions placed on everyone in an effort to save gas as well as to keep passenger rail travel available for the movement of troops. This was the end of many tented shows throughout the U.S. for the duration of the war and after.

During the War years, 1942-1945, the Engfords did not go on the road. Harry & Lois, rented a farm from Mr. McGowan just outside Plover." (These maps (photos) show the location of farm. The first map is a 1948/49 platt map. The Engford farm is outlined in red while the farm that Lois' parents owned is outlined in blue. The second map is a Google Earth capture of the same area dated 2008.)

Ruthie again provides information: "Our team of horses were rented from Elmer Dakins, caretaker at the Church. Yes, the church in Heritage Park, he rang the bell! He was a nice, elderly gentleman, who in winter hitched up a horse and sleigh; drove around Plover and gave the kids rides around the block."

"Harry read all the available information at the time, on how to get maximum egg production from chickens. He bought baby chicks, raised them and produced fine eggs selling his eggs to several restaurants in Stevens Point. Harry's ability to attain maximum production from his chickens got the attention of other chicken farmers in the area. They wondered how this "amateur" farmer was doing this!"

Harry's success drew the attention of H. R. Noble, County Agent, too. This letter (photo) dated June 22, 1943 written to a George (person is not identified) about a "Poultry Culling" demonstration being held at Harry's chicken farm. We have a receipt from the Arnott Cheese Factory dated 1st half of August, 1943 (photo) for milk received. Ruthie says they had 2 milk cows. Harry's milk production must have been fairly high also.

Ruthie relates this story of her father: "I do remember the cows, two of them, a black and white one (Daisy) and a brown and white one (Maisy). And a true story about milking them, my dad didn't know about farming in the beginning of this farm adventure. First time he went out to milk the cows. Well, here he is, a hand-balancer, who walks down a pole gripping with his hands, a weight-lifter hoisting iron over his head; tore phone-books (true, they weren't nearly as thick as they are now) to make his hands stronger, well he couldn't get any milk! (Poor cow, am sure gave him a dirty look!) Anyway, had to call mom. Of course, she had been milking cows all her life, and in no time, the pail was full! Yes, dad did learn to milk the cows, but we always laughed at the lesson. It isn't how strong you are, its knowing the technique!"

"Lois (Espenscheid) Engford, was raised on a farm. Harry was not. Lois taught Harry how to hitch up a team of horses. How to plow a garden. How to rake and bale hay. Raise corn for feed. How to milk cows. This farm had no electricity. I remember the kerosene lamps. Heat was a wood stove. Root cellar to store vegetables. An outhouse. Daily life was hard work. Aside from the daily egg runs uptown, a milk can of milk was picked up daily from a Dairy. So, there were all the chickens to tend; cows to milk; horses to tend; a big garden to tend; (I remember all the canning mom did thru the summer to last thru the winter); barn roof to mend; bread to bake; mom made all our clothes. I didn't have a "store bought" dress until I was 12 years old."

"These years on the farm were hard work, just to survive the winters and keep all the animals fed. All the driveway and paths to the barn and chicken coop were hand shoveled. One must remember that, every day (yes, every day), Harry & Lois PRACTICED the "Engfords" Hand-balancing/Acrobatic Act! A necessary discipline in order to present the same quality of performance when they went back on the road, as they had presented when they went off the road. Perseverance!"

"Also, it was in 1943, during the time we lived on this farm, that David Harry Engford was born. I remember the day he was brought back from the Hospital. He had a cute, little, blue cap on! Yes, I was only 3 years old, so I'm not sure if I remember it, or remember the memory of it, but I remember it! Must add here, Harry DID practice daily, but Lois did have some time off, expecting this baby!"

During the war, Harry kept in contact with booking agents, but never performed as far as we know.

May 26th 1943
The Engfords
Plover Wisconsin

Dear Friends;

We have your letter, and am always pleased to hear from you, and to know that you have such a nice boy. Yes I presume that when he is old enough and you folks are ready you will have him doing his stuff in the show business.

I suppose you have a nice place, with the chickens and all, and the price of eggs now you should be going over the top. We expect to get gas for all of the acts that are going to play for us this summer, or we can't operate, as it is very necessary that they have gas, as it won't do us good to be going to the fairs, if the acts can't get their.

I suppose that if you really wanted to play fairs, and could get some one to look after your place for a few weeks you could play them alright. We can give you a good route of about five or six weeks, if you should find that you can get away to play them. As I said before we will have to get gas for the acts so that they can make their dates. If you work out anything, and want to work let us know. With best wishes to you and the family.

Sincerely yours

Williams and Lee Attractions.

After the War was over the Engford tented shows never went out again. On January 17, 1946, Harry signed a contract with Williams & Lee Attractions and the family went on the road as a separate act.

On the Road Again!

Again, Ruthie Engford Clark provided much of the information to follow. Her own words are used when most appropriate.

"Both David & I did attended the Plover Grade School couple blocks from the Engford home. Also, school in Indianapolis, and in Pittsburgh. Harry & Lois did not want to leave us with relatives or baby-sitters while they were on the road, so from, I believe, 1949, thru High School, we were Home Schooled. Calvert School, Baltimore, Md. was our Grade School. American School Chicago, Ill. was our High School."

"In those years, home schooling was little known. In order to comply with regulations to equal conventional education, the standards were much higher, etc. Both David & I, had a teacher we reported to in Baltimore. Sending in our paperwork, compositions, hand written answers to any questions the teacher would require, etc."

ruthie at 2 years old
Lois and Ruthie in 1940 while on the road.
Ruthie at 2 years old
Ruthie in 1942. Must have been taken at Engford Home or Harry's farm.

"Plover is where we always came HOME to. We were always "on the road". Traveling to perform shows. Stayed a year in Pittsburg; part of a year in Des Moines; part of a year in Kansas City; a year in St. Louis and so on. Always coming back to Plover several times during the year. Plover was always considered HOME. In the early 60's, Harry & Lois, Ruthie & David bought a Mobile Home in Chicago, living there, because that's where work was. After that, Harry, Lois, and children, Ruth and David continued to travel and perform for other shows, and at Fairs, Theatres and Clubs all over the U.S.A."

  third photo

The summer's of 1964-65 The Engfords (photos) and "Estreleta" (Ruthie Engford) (photos) performed twice daily at the Circus World Museum. In 1965 Ruthie did a "Slide for Life" (photos) once daily as well as her twice daily "Estreleta" act.

Harry Engford - the only known video of his act!

No Sound! Approximately 2:32 minutes.

Estreleta - Ruthie Engford first solo act!

No Sound! Approximately 3:19 minutes.

The Slide For Life

Sound! Approximately 7:12 minutes.

Harry, Lois and Ruthie performed together from 1948 until September 1966 when Ruthie and Frank Clark were married. Harry continued to operate Engford Circus (a booking agency) using other performers, including Frank and Ruthie, right up until he passed away on December 1, 1973. (Obituary) Lois died March, 1974. (Obituary)


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