Down at the Depot with Children's Author
Karen Kulinski

Fun History (Coming Soon)

The Year of Ivy -- The Trouble with Research

April 10, 2014

I love discovering new things, so I was really looking forward to doing research for Rescuing Ivy. But I soon discovered that for every question I found an answer to, three more questions were raised.

So, my visit to that small circus led to my wanting to know more about circuses, especially how the shows operated in the early 1900’s when my book was set. And I knew just the place to learn about this — Circus World Museum, in Baraboo, Wisconsin.

I had visited there after a trip to the Chicago Bears Training Camp with my husband and sons many years ago. The Circus World stop was payback for my spending three days in the broiling sun trying to get autographs for the kids from sweaty football players.
I loved Circus World, but my teen-aged sons, however, were less than thrilled with the experience — I’ve still got their sour-faced photos to prove it — and so we cut the day short. My second visit to Baraboo,this time with just my husband, was quite the opposite.

I discovered that Circus World is located on the site of the old Winter Quarters of the Ringling Brothers Circus. The brothers came from Baraboo, and in the late 19th and early 20th century, they brought their show home every year for winter layoff, during which time they repaired and repainted equipment, designed and fabricated new props and wardrobe, and hired new acts, among other things.

All their animals came with them, too — and in 1916 that consisted of 500 horses and ponies, 29 elephants, 15 camels and about 20 other hay-eating animals, plus tigers, lions, monkeys and birds, including an ostrich. The brothers built a veritable small town — 25 structures — to house their show during the off-season, and 10 of these buildings still exist, carrying the designation of National Historic Landmark structures.

Needless to say, I toured every building that was open to the public, madly asking questions and just as madly taking notes, telling my husband, “take this photo, take that photo.” One of the highlights of the visit was the “Elephant Encounter.” Here I got to talk to their two caretakers, but more importantly, I got to see an elephant up close and personal. So close that I could feel her bristly, hairy skin, hear her breathing through her trunk as she explored my hand looking for food she knew she would find there. And I got to smell her up close, too.

But more importantly, during this visit, I saw a side of elephants most people aren’t aware of — they are very mischievous. While the caretaker was talking to me next to the fenced-in elephant enclosure, he had his back to a tray of food-filled ice cream cones that were sold to visitors to feed the elephants. During our conversation, one of the elephants snuck up to the edge of the fence behind the man, reached her trunk out and snatched one of the food cones, then ran away.

As she ran,it seemed to me that she was laughing to herself about the trick she had just pulled. Later, I was sure of it when I read — in one of the armload of books on loan from Circus World’s wonderful Library and Research Center — that circus elephants are skilled at snatching food, especially sweet treats, and truly are, “like 5000 pound five-year olds” as the caretaker laughingly told me that day after I witnessed that pilfering pachyderm.

Now, of course, I wanted to know more about elephants, and where would be the best place to go on such a quest? To an elephant preserve, of course. So before long my husband and I were trekking to the wilds of Arkansas, in the middle of nowhere, to visit such a haven for elephants.

So you can see what I mean about research being trouble, but to me, it was the best kind of trouble to have. At each place that I visited, I was rewarded with a bit of information that added something wonderful to my book. And many times, it was something I didn’t even know I was looking for.