Ruthie Engford

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

Engford farm

Ruth Engford, daughter of Harry and Lois Engford, was born April 15, 1940 at St Michael's Hospital, Stevens Point, Wisconsin. She traveled with the Forges Bros. Show, operated by her father during 1940 and 1941. The onset of World War II stopped most traveling circuses as gas rationing and travel restriction were put in place. During the war, Harry operated a chicken farm supplying eggs to local merchants. This farm was rented and located near Lois' family farm. (Red circle is Engford farm, blue circle is Lois' family's farm.)

"Both David and I did attend the Plover Grade School a couple blocks from the Engford home. As a child, in that very church in Heritage Park, I participated in a Christmas Eve program (photo) of 1944 and of course, Auntie Florence sang in the Choir there!"

"During the War years "The Engfords" act did not perform, but beginning in 1946 the family was on the road again. Harry & Lois did not want to leave us with relatives or baby-sitters while they were on the road. So, Dave and I attended schools in Indianapolis and in Pittsburgh. 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." (A letter from Calvert School and Lois' response can be read in David's page here.)

"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 began her career in 'acting' at age eight. The letter written (photo) by her father to the American Guild of Variety Artists attest to this fact. From 1946 to 1965 the Engfords performed throughout the United States and Canada.

Prince Albert, Sask.
Saturday, August 9,1958
Show Business Is Tough "But It's Fun

Herald Staff Reporter

Ruth Engford, 18-year-old back bender and hand balancing expert at the grandstand show, says that travelling which must be done for her act sometimes makes her weary in the physical sense of the word but, she would not give it up.

"To have the opportunity of meeting people is a great thing and we are able to do a lot of this in show business," said Miss Engford.

"I find that I learn from each person I meet and this is really wonderful. But there is a sad part to the travelling which we do, for one day we meet people we would very much like to know better and the next day we are gone," she said.

Miss Engford says she enjoys her profession which is the art of contortion, close back-bending and hand balancing and although she has such a young age, she has had ten years of experience in her field.

"It has taken a lot of practice and the end results did not and do not come all at once," she said.

Miss Engford has her own solo spot in the show and she is also part of an act with her parents.

"I don't practice on the day of the performance, but on other days I usually spend from one to two hours brushing up and teaching myself new routines."

Miss Engford says she and her parents have been on the move for the last seven or eight years, usually spending a year or two in the same city.

"We have a home in Wisconsin, but we locked the door and have hardly seen it for years. We have lived in Minneapolis, Kansas City and St. Louis."

"It is nice to live in so many different and large cities, as there is much to do and see, but I admit that I have never had the feeling of real roots. Occasionally, I wish we could settle down for a time."

"While on the road I live in a trailer with my parents and we are not lacking for any conveniences for the trailer is well equipped and we usually cook our own meals," she said.

"We have two trailers, a large one if we are going to be on the road for a long time and the smaller one which we brought with us this time as our appearance with this show lasts only six weeks."

"I design and sew my own costumes, and take pride in the fact that I never appear in the same outfit twice in a show. It is sort of a luxury," she said.

Miss Engford has taken her schooling by correspondence and she says she has found this method of getting an education difficult in some ways, but it is also more interesting as she can cover the course as quickly as she likes.

Miss Engford says show people have the time for fun like anyone else and the good times vary according to the cities where the performances are scheduled to be given.

"Sometimes we go swimming, have fish fries, attend jazz sessions or just have a party like we're going to do tonight. If we drive during the night to reach a show, we rest in the day and the parties must wait."

"Of course, there are some things which I would like to do. I guess everyone has secret desires which will never get past the dream state. Even if one did these things, I don't see how they could match show business," she stated.

 ruthie heel hold

Ruthie's part in the act grew to include her own acrobatics parts. During the family's engagement at Circus World Museum in the summers of 1964-65, Ruthie performed her "Estreleta" trapeze act (photos) as well as performing with her parents (photos). During her trapeze performance, Ruthie did a "heel hang" of which she is very proud. In March 2007, Tavana said: "Ruthie Clark did one of the best heel hangs I have ever seen."

In 1965, in addition to preforming with her parents and her "Estreleta" performance, Ruthie also developed a "Slide for Life" (photos) performance that ran daily at 4:45 PM.

Two articles sum up the "Slide for Life."

The Milwaukee Journal
May 31, 1965

The Circus World Museum at Baraboo, living up to the tradition that a good circus show must include at least one dangerous number, features every afternoon Estreleta Engford in her "Slide for Life." Miss Engford, 25, glides through the air suspended by her neck from a free wheeling trolley. The trolley rolls on a cable, from a platform 40 feet high, for a 200 foot ride to the opposite bank of the Baraboo river. Performing her stunt with grace, Estreleta makes it look deceivingly easy.

A Press Release describes Ruthie's act as follows:

The term "Slide for Life" are the words used for generations to describe the hazardous feats of daring that people have endeavored on an inclined cable or rope suspension. It has been performed by hanging by the hair or feet... but only the dainty Miss Estreleta Engford has accomplished the daring feat of hanging by her neck.

Suspended from a top elevation of a 200 span of cable, raised to the heights of a 65 foot center pole, Miss Estreleta hangs only with a noose about her tiny neck and slides at a speed of 60 miles per hour to ground level completely crossing the raging Baraboo River. Her ability to accomplish this feat is certainly no spur of the moment idea or dare of nerve. It is the work of a truly great artist of three generations of circus family.

Today, circus lovers of all ages thrill to this act daily at the Circus World Museum, in Baraboo, Wisconsin, the mecca of circus history in the United States.


During the summer of 1966 Frank Clark and Ruthie Engford began performing together as "Francarro & Estreleta, America’s Premier Aerialists." They were married Sept. 17, 1966 and continued to performed together until the year 2000, the final year of their act "The Brigadier."


Third generation of Plover family travels vagabond road of the circus
By Dean Jensen
Milwaukee Sentinel Wednesday March 30, 1983

Ruthie Clark travels a road that her father and grandfather journeyed before her.

It is a long, winding road, but wherever Clark finds herself on it in her motor home, she sees a rainbow just ahead.

She is one of the vagabonds of the circus - the third generation of a family from the tiny Wisconsin community of Plover to choose the calling.

‘Born with sawdust in blood’

"I was born with sawdust in my blood, I guess," says the green-eyed daredevil. "When I was a little girl, my friends talked about one day becoming nurses, teachers and housewives. I already knew in my heart then that I was going to carry on in the tradition of my family and stay with the circus."

Clark has been performing as a professional since she was 8.

She moves to a different city every few days, but the place where she reports to work never changes. Its a tiny perch 50 feet in the air from which she, along with her husband Frank, dangles by her heels and toes and scares the bejabbers out of circus audiences.

The Clarks, who bill themselves as "Francarro & Estreleta, America’s premier aerialists," performed here recently during the run of the Tripoli Shrine Circus at the Arena. (See their Frank & Ruthie Clark Videos.)

Traveled state in 1920's and 1930's

Her grandfather, Robert Engford of Plover, was the operator of the Engford Family Shows - a one-ring circus of a half-dozen or so performers that made the rounds to tiny Wisconsin towns in the 1920s and 1930s In a small caravan of splashily decorated trucks.

Then, early in the 1930’s, her father, Harry Engford, decided he, too, wanted to be a Big Top Impresario. Plover became the home base for a second Engford circus - this one employing the family name of Harry’s wife and titled the Forges Bros. Circus.

Her grandfather’s truck circus began sputtering during the Depression years and finally ran out of gas in 1938. Then, after the 1939 season, her father’s circus returned to its winter quarters in Plover and never again went out on the road.

"I always felt kind of cheated," Clark said. "Both my grandfather and father owned circuses, but I never had a chance to appear in either one of them."

After the demise of the circuses, though, her parents kept trouping, appearing as an acrobatic duo at such events as county fairs. When she was 8, she became part of the act.

Met Frank Clark on the Road

It was out on the road where she met Frank Clark, who was also a performer. They fell in love.

As professional daredevils, the couple decided they should do something a little different to get their marriage off the ground.

Friends and relatives of the bride and groom were gathered in a field in London, Ontario. The calm was suddenly disturbed by a helicopter that appeared overhead. In a moment, Ruthie and Frank opened the door of the chopper and lowered a rope ladder. Then, as a minister inside the helicopter addressed them over a radio, the couple said their "I do’s" while hanging, upside down from a trapeze ladder, several hundred feet up in the air.

For several years after, the Clarks performed their helicopter trapeze feats at fairs and rock concerts. Then their pilot was killed in a helicopter crash that did not involve their act. The Clarks decided to discontinue the stunt.

"We have been very lucky ourselves," said Ruthie. "In all the years we have been performing, we have never had an accident."

The Clarks perform without a safety net.

The old circus winter quarters for the shows her grandfather and father operated a half-century ago still stands in Plover, Ruthie said.


See our Permissions page for use and copyright information.