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  • Writer's picturePortage County Historical Society

The Engford Family Circus: Part 1

Imagine it being 1904 and seeing Robert and Amanda Engford performing their acrobatic act while traveling throughout Wisconsin on the Vaudeville circuit.


Many explanations have been offered as to the origin of the term “Vaudeville”, one origin was; “What town is this?” “Vaudeville.” The town “Vaudeville” doesn’t exist. It’s imaginary. It refers to the many stops that performers made performing their acts one night and moving over night to the next unnamed town. These early performers provided entertainment in countless towns, usually along rail lines, before electricity, radio and movies began to penetrate American theaters, homes and gathering places.


Who were these Vaudevillians’? Some of the greatest names in American Entertainment History began in Vaudeville. Entertainers like George Burns, Jack Benny, Bob Hope, and Milton Berle all got their start traveling the circuit. Many of these performers were able to transition into radio; some eventually helped create television entertainment; most notably Milton Berle.


As theaters began to show motion pictures, Vaudeville theaters began to disappear. Performers that created visual entertainment; acrobats, slapstick comedy, magicians etc., could not go over to radio and these acts did not make good movie material. One available option was the circus.


Robert Engford found himself in this situation. His answer was to purchase a truck in 1920 and travel from town to town performing in available theaters. By 1923, Robert and Amanda operated a motorized ‘circus’; one of the first in Wisconsin. Incorporating other acts, they could provide entertainment to areas that had neither electricity or a theater.


Robert Engford & Family


Robert Engford, born in 1883, came to America in 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, amongst the many German immigrants there. In Milwaukee, he helped the family income by working in a bakery as a teenager. 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.


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 after which Robert continued performing on his own. Robert went beyond, to invent and create such technically difficult hand balancing feats that only he and his son, Harry, were able to duplicate.

Hall's Circus poster, 1909. Note "Robert Engfer: The Human Snake" advertised on the poster.

Robert appeared as early as 1903 with the Robert V. Hall circus, Fond Du Lac, Wisconsin, performing as Robert Engfer "The Human Snake".


Robert and Amanda Engford's wedding photograph, 1904.

In Milwaukee, Robert 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.


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 had 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 when they were around 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." was originally Robert and Harry Engford dressed as clowns for a specialty hand-to-hand balancing act. Forges Brothers became a separate "circus" touring on its own beginning in 1937. This "circus" became Harry Engford's show after 1939 and operated until 1942 when most motorized circuses ceased because of the gas rationing of World War II.


Home Base from Town to Town


Engford Circus truck, early 1920s

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. Here are some photos of the back lot operation of the circus. Most of these photos are from 1928 with a few attributed to 1929.


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.


Engford Family House, 1926.

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.

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