Huge 19th Century Circus Poster Found in Walls of Wisconsin Bar

The family-owned Corral Bar in Durand, Wisconsin, has served drinks and meals to diners since the 1970s. The property is a long-standing one: the land was first surveyed in 1857, and it has housed a series of shops, barbershops, and saloons. Eric Lindquist, a reporter for the Eau Claire leader-Telegram, reports that Ron Berger, one of the current owners of the Corral, revealed a relic from the rich history of the Corral: a 55-foot long, nine-foot-high circus poster.

The remarkable discovery was made in 2015 when Berger began a project that would expand the Corral Bar & Riverside Grill, as the restaurant has been called since 1996 when a dining room and full-service kitchen were added, into an adjacent property. When he cut into the wall of the Corral, he was shocked to see a bison illustration staring at him. He slowly uncovered a complete circus scene over the next few weeks: lions, giraffes, sea creatures, aerialists, and elephant riders.

Berger determined that 1885 was the year the Circus was performed in Durand. A large stamp on the poster indicated the performance date. The poster’s block lettering advertised the star performance of Miles Orton. Orton was famous for riding a horse and holding two child acrobats on his shoulders. The sign announced: “ALLIE & BERNARD TINY AERIAL MARVELS! MILES ORTON RIDES with US!”

The original artwork would have been visible on the Chippewa River to broadcast the Circus to passing boat traffic. Berger told Evan Nicole Brown of Atlas Obscura that he believed the circus performers had permission to put their posters on the wall. The sign was covered with a wall later, but no one removed it.

The artwork’s existence to this day is still a wonder. This poster is a woodblock lithograph, a print created by stamping the carved blocks onto paper. Like other circus posters, it was designed to fall apart in a few months. Berger told Brown that the signs were made to be easily removed by a team without having to return.

This poster also shows how circuses were the pioneers of early advertising. P.T. Barnum, the famous showman. Barnum was called ” Shakespeare for Advertising” before radio and TV. In those years, circus workers decorated towns with posters that promised exotic animals and unique acts. The Corral Bar poster, for example, seems to show a variety of sea monsters, including prehistoric fish.

Lindquist is told by Pete Schrake (archivist, Circus World Museum, Baraboo, Wisconsin) that “circuses were pioneers in mass media, and they used a lot of advertising in a very aggressive way.”

Berger, a team, and experts, took two years to restore the poster at the Corral bar. After removing an outer wall of the Corral Bar, Berger and his team had to wash, micro-vacuum, and re-stick peeling pieces carefully. The poster is now protected by glass but still visible to bar patrons. It’s a great reminder of the exciting day when the Circus visited the town in 1885.

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