The Day the Circus Came Back to Town

A recent donation to the Oshkosh Public Museum reminds us that pride can also be an emotion which provides a satisfying sense of attachment while fulfilling the feeling of belonging. This hometown pride lasts long after many people have moved away, but is kept alive by memories and mementoes. 

When Marshall and Ruth Magnusen had their first child, Karl, in 1941, they faced many shortages due to the Great Depression and the beginning of World War II. Marshall was not about to let the lack of cash or availability of toys deter him from providing playthings for his son. Without formal training in woodworking, he crafted an eight-wheeled semi-truck, a red wagon, a hobby horse and a giraffe clothing tree. As Marshall’s skills and confidence improved the family joined forces on a new project — “Karl’s Circus, The Biggest Little Show.” 

The first installment was a four-ring show, with Ruth lending her sewing skills to construct a big top tent. Soon a repertoire of performers started filling the rings, each piece meticulously painted exactly the same on both sides by Marshall with such fine details that only a brush with one or two hairs could be used. Once the big top tent was completed the family felt their circus lacked a train to transport it from place to place and a parade to announce its arrival. Marshall picked up his tools again crafting a spectacular train with a smiling face engine and parade complete with calliope. The circus grew by increments finding plenty of inspiration from visits to the circus and paging through magazines, books and newspapers. 

The Magnusens moved around Wisconsin, finally ending in Oshkosh where their second son, Jim, was born in 1948. Although the circus had been considered mostly finished by this time, it seemed only fitting that an expansion to the circus was required so “Jim’s Side Show” was conceived. As the sons grew, their father made this a true family project by coaching and encouraging them to create new pieces. 

Word spread about the spectacular handcrafted circus and soon requests to exhibit their handiwork were coming from all over. Besides being on display in several Oshkosh locations, it traveled to many towns around Wisconsin and made appearances in Minnesota and Florida. The circus was even featured in a Hobby Magazine. Museum Curator, Deb Daubert fielded many questions over the years inquiring about the whereabouts of the circus. One person had even saved a newspaper clipping showing it on exhibit. 

Imagine the Museum’s delight when Karl Magnusen, now retired and living in Florida, contacted them last year to donate part of a circus his family had made. Within moments Daubert knew this was the “missing” circus she had heard so much about. In August of this year Karl and his wife, Olga, and his brother Jim Magnusen returned the beloved display to its roots in Oshkosh by donating the entire circus to the Museum. 

“Circuses are meant to be enjoyed,” Karl said. Letting go of something that was such a big part of their childhood was difficult, but the brothers are thrilled about the joy it will bring to others long into the future. The Magnusen family’s donation is currently on exhibit during Deck the Halls at the Museum and has already generated a lot of buzz as a “must see” for the holidays.


Debra Daubert