Robert Engford & Family

Robert Engford, born in 1883, came to America (either 1887 or 1888) with his mother, father, brothers, and one sister. In Germany, his father owned a fleet of fishing boats. His mother often told how the women would wave good-bye as the boats left to go fishing then, watched, waited and worried until they had safely returned.

Robert and his family arrived in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, a gathering place for German settlers. Here he was raised, and as a teenager, helped the family income by working in a bakery. He learned to bake large batches of bread, pies and sweet rolls. Although his life took a much different direction, he always enjoyed baking. He baked all of the bread, rolls and pies for three generations of the Engford family until his death in 1967, at age 83.

Robert Engford received his Citizenship certificate issued in Milwaukee, Wisconsin on June 20, 1906. On the certificate his name is "Engfer". This was the original family name. Robert's professional name would be Engford most of his life and he became universally known as Engford. The house purchased in Plover, Wisconsin has Robert Engford as the purchaser.

robert and amanda's wedding photo
robert and amanda act

As young men, Robert and his brother Bill developed an interest in physical fitness. They attended the Milwaukee Turnverein, eventually excelling in the then very unusual arts of hand balancing, along with extreme front and back bending. The brothers performed together until Bill married. Robert continued performing. Robert went beyond, to invent and create such technically difficult hand balancing feats that only he and his son, Harry, were able to duplicate these feats. Robert also developed a philosophy of nutrition quite unique for the early 1900's that was adopted and refined by his son.

Robert appeared as early as 1903 with the Robert V. Hall circus, Fond Du Lac, Wisconsin, performing as Robert Engfer "The Human Snake". He appears in a Hall circus photo in 1909. (photos)

In Milwaukee, Robert met and married Amanda Raduchel on March 10, 1904. A tiny, but agile woman, Robert taught her his art, and she became a very important addition to his unusual work -- actually sometimes being the "understander" in this team -- see photo that illustrates Robert supporting Amanda's weight with ease. The technical difficulty of performing these unique feats on "life", as opposed to a stationary object, was duplicated only by his son Harry and Harry's wife, Lois.

Early Engford Poster
Early Engford poster, pre-1910, before children joined act.
Detail from bottom of poster

detail  detail

detail  detail
robert and amanda handstand

Example of very difficult physical dexterity. You can see Robert’s hands gripping a small block. This block was attached to a "board" strapped around Amanda’s waist. This small block was on a revolve-ratchet, and Robert "revolved" in a complete circle while holding this handstand position. Note, also, that this handstand position was not "pressed" into, Robert "kicked up" from the floor. This required endless practice, because the kick or "strike" had to be perfect. With the hands in this close, wrist-to-wrist position, Amanda as a "living table" with the natural movement of "life", there was little leeway for error. Robert and Amanda’s son, Harry Engford, is the only other person to duplicate this original feat.

Robert and Amanda would have two children. Harry was born May 15, 1905 and Florence was born Jan. 1, 1909. Both children were born in Milwaukee.

In the early years, Robert, Amanda, Harry and Florence played the Vaudeville Circuits. Traveling by train from town to town staying in hotels. Their steamer trunks needed for the performance (props & wardrobe), were delivered right to each theater. They even carried their own "back-drop" (curtain), which they worked in front of. It was customary, in those days, for acts to carry their own curtain.

Robert and Amanda toured as "The Engfords". The children were incorporated into the act at about 8 years old. When Florence joined the act as "Clara Florence" they became known as "The Four Engfords" or "The Engford Family". Among the many "act" names used were: Florence Roberts Troupe, The Musical Engfords, Harry Roberts Troupe, Great Harold, and Forges Brothers. The "The Forges Bros." (photos) was originally Robert and Harry Engford dressed as clowns for a specialty hand-to-hand balancing act. Forges Brothers would become a separate "circus" touring on its own beginning in 1937. This "circus" would become Harry Engford's show after 1939 and operated until 1942 when most motorized circuses ceased because of the gas rationing of World War II.

Bob Engford truck
Lettering on truck "Bob Engford, Milwaukee" Must be pre-1923.

Beginning in 1920, the Engford Family Shows traveled all over Wisconsin by motorized vehicle. During the warm weeks of spring, summer and fall they set up the tents and took them down each day in each town, and exhibiting amazing feats of gymnastics, both on the ground, and in the air. An example of their 1928 travel schedule and a performance line-up is provided. Here are some photos of the back lot operation of the circus. (photos) Most of these  photos are from 1928 with a few attributed to 1929. Most of these photos depict locations in the 1928 schedule.

Robert and Amanda Engford bought the Engford Family Home located in Plover, Wisconsin which is known locally as the "Circus House" in May of 1923. Their son, Harry, was 18 years old then, and their daughter, Florence, 14 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.

The original letters concerning the sale of the house and property, between Robert Engford and Walter Barnsdale Sr., are on file at the Portage County Historical Society. Three generations of Engfords called this "home". Florence Engford lived there for 76 years. She saw it on its new site just before her death at Heritage Park in Plover. It has been restored and preserved as a gift from the Engford Family for all to enjoy and experience as a bit of the past in Portage County.

Walter Barnsdale Sr. and his family lived across the street from the Engford Family home. Two of Walter Barnsdale’s sons were circus performers. They were Richard Barnsdale, and Frankie Barnsdale. None of the Barnsdales actually lived the house. The only actual circus performers to ever live in the house known as the "Circus House", were The Engfords.

All of the Engfords were musicians capable of playing several instruments. A musical review as well as performances by individual family members were part of the circus act line-ups. (See Performance Line-up)

music review
Florence on drums, Amanda with guitar, Robert with accordion. Deagan Unafone Bells attached to Robert's accordion. (The Deagan Unafone Bells were donated to Circus World Museum.)
Deagon Unifone Bells
Deadan Unifone Bells
Engford calliope

Ruthie Engford Clark provides some additional information about the Deagan Bells. "The very interesting thing about this instrument is, Robert created the "attachment". He figured out, with the use of a Model-A battery, to play the Bells thru his accordion. The Bells also have a small (like an octave and a half) keyboard that they could be played from. The Bells, are built into a traveling trunk, that opens up and is part of the "stand" displayed. This trunk, the small keyboard, and the accordion are at Circus World Museum. They were donated at the same time as the Calliope, Robert's accordion and Florence's drum set as well as some other small items, by David Engford and Ruth (Engford) Clark."

This is an Original trick, created by Robert Engford (in back-bend on table). Difficulty factor is, "life" at both ends of pole, causing movement no matter how steady the hold. Amanda Engford, in backbend at bottom end of inclined pole. Harry Engford, walking hand-over-hand from top of pole to other end, as opposed to "side-ways", which would be easier. And, Florence Engford hanging in "birds nest" under pole. Photo on right shows same trick performed by Robert and Amanda.

The tented version of "Engford Family Shows" closed in 1939 when Robert and Amanda retired. After retirement in 1939, Robert worked at "Cash and Carry" in Plover. All the experience of building the Show Caravans, and the truck bodies on the show trucks, qualified him to work as a "cabinet maker" there.

Robert and Amanda trailer
Robert and Amanda sitting in front of caravan.

Restored caravan at Heritage Park. Another unrestored caravan (from the Forges Bros. Shows) is at Circus World Museum. A third, Engford Family Shows, is stored with David Engford.
Robert and Amanda
Robert and Amanda about 1940.
Robert June 1958
Robert in front of home in June, 1958 before elm trees were cut down to widen street.
Ruth and Amanda
Ruthie and Grandmother Amanda. Fern in background was always present. A descendent of the fern is still displayed in the house.

Ruthie Engford Clark adds: "His beloved wife, Amanda, passed away on Feb. 15, 1945 (Obituary). After that, he devoted his time and effort to a huge garden, raising all kinds of vegetables. These were canned in jars to last thru the winter. Auntie Florence was working at Weber’s Fly Tying Company (approx. 1940-’70), and as he liked to bake and cook, had dinner on the table each night when she arrived home. He made all the breads and baked goods right up to when he passed away. Also, after Amanda died, he raised many dozens of Gladiolas. He dug the bulbs up each Fall, and replanted them each Spring. Many different colors. Each Sunday, after Church, we always took a ride out to the Plover Cemetery, and took a bouquet of these lovely Gladiolas, to place on her grave. It was always a happy event, to visit Grandma's grave and leave these flowers as a tribute."

When Robert visited Circus World Museum in 1964 (Harry, Lois and Ruthie were performing), Paul Luckey (Ringmaster) made an announcement during the performance Robert attended, asking Robert to stand so the audience could see him, and told how Robert operated a fully motorized circus during the 1920's and 1930's.

Left photo: Robert entering ring. Center photo: Robert being acknowledged by Paul Luckey. Right photo: Paul Luckey, Florence, Lois, Robert, Barbara Bailey, Harry.
Photos taken by Eldon "Buster" Bailey.

Ruthie Engford Clark provides some additional information about the letter below: "Paul Luckey was not a CWM Director. He was Ringmaster of the Circus Performance. Narrator for the horse drawn wagon loading onto the train demo and did a lot of creation of visual displays around the Museum. He was interested in Circus Music preservation etc. He worked at CWM for quite a few years in the 1960's and after. He had met Robert Engford when Robert visited the Museum in 1964, when the Engfords were performing there (Harry, Lois, Ruthie). David was working in the Prop Department. Robert (my Grandfather) was not well that Fall and Winter. This letter was just an inquiry and encouragement to rest and recuperate. Unfortunately, Robert did not write a brief history of the shows. How I wish he had!"

From the Circus World Museum

22 October 1966
Mr. Robert Engford
Plover, Wisconsin

Dear Bob:

Ethel, our organist, told us last night that she had gotten a letter from Lois saying that you were now back home recuperating, and this is good news.

We hope that you are now well on the mend and will continue so. We went through two sessions like this, and we know what it is like. You will take a lot of rest and quiet. That is the best medicine there is. We thought we would go nuts when they told us how we had to ’behave’ for several months, but we gave in and behaved ourselves, and got so we didn't mind the loafing one bit!

I presume that Harry told you I had seen David in Chicago at the Ringling show, and Dave had told me about you. I had a nice visit there for several days with a lot of the old timers I know. I had just arranged some music for Merle Evans to use in London, England, this fall in a recording session, so one of the reasons I was there was to talk some of this over with him. It was the first time I had an opportunity to get away from the Museum and out of Baraboo for two years, so I really took advantage of it and had myself a good time. Mr. Fox gave me orders when I returned that next year I was to go there and spend a whole or more or more. He won’t have to tell me twice to do that! I have a lot of friends and acquaintances on the Ringling show , so you can't do much visiting in two or three days.

I am busy, of course, working on new things for next year. "We are going to turn the who south end of the Ring Barn into a "Circus Music Hall". As you know, they have the big Skerbeck band organ there, also a Una-Fon and a set of Deagon shaker chimes. We will park the Engford calliope truck just outside the west door of the building, and Ethel will go from one of these instruments to the other demonstrating them while I give a talk along with it. We will have new circus band pictures, pictures of band wagons, old circus musicians, etc., to go along with it. It sounds good to me, and I am anxious to get to the actual work of building it.

Another new thing in the plans for next year, is a whole new display on clowns. We just recently got a trunk full of Felix Adler's things, so this will be the center of attraction for this exhibit. It will be across the north end of the Ring Barn and be in a big case some 20 feet long.

While Harry was here he let me make photo negatives of a lot of pictures of your show. I have never had the time to get to a display on your show, but I want to do it this winter.

While you are home resting up, and you find the time when the spirit moves you, will you please write out the history of your show? It doesn’t need to be elaborate - just names and dates of when it started, where you showed, how long it was out etc.

There are so many of these little shows that are going to pass out of mind if we don't get the history of them to preserve for posterity. We are trying to get all the information we can on Wisconsin shows, because, of course, they are more dear to our hearts than the others. Ringling history, and that of Hagenbeck-Wallace, Sells-Floto, Al G. Barnes, and the other bigger ones, has been recorded, but it is these little shows that we are lacking details on.

So, we would appreciate it very much if you would send us this information.

I hope you continue to get along good, but, as I say, it is going to take a lot of rest.

Again, very best wishes from all of us down here, and kindest regards to your daughter - I hope she can keep a short rope on you!

Most sincerely

Holiday season

Robert Engford died Feb. 17, 1967. (Obituary) His legacy as a circus performer lived on through his son Harry and granddaughter Ruthie. A very unique record with the exception of the years during World War Two (1942-1945) there has been an "Engford" performing every year from just after 1900 to the year 2000. Florence remained living in the family home, "The Circus House", until 1999.

In addition to a fern that was always in the bay window, the Engford family always displayed their Christmas Tree in the bay window. The Society continues both traditions by displaying a descendant of the fern during the summer months and a Christmas Tree during the holidays.





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