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Recalling the Circus: Rhinelander Man has Storied History with Circuses Throughout 1900s

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Wisconsin Historical Society
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Musicians with the Gollmar Brothers Circus pose in front of banners advertising the circus sideshow features near the entrance to the museum annex tent.

Edward Gropengeiser was born in Rhinelander in 1903.  His parents, Fred and Emma Gropengeiser were German immigrants, and his father worked in the paper mill as a pattern maker.  Eddie was born with a birth defect and was unable to walk or use his legs.  The early twentieth century was not a particularly accommodating time for people with disabilities, so Gropengeiser never attended public school.  Nevertheless, he was intellectually curious and was fortunate to have parents who recognized his abilities.

In those days when a circus came to town it was a major event.  The entire community turned out to watch the circus performers disembark from the train then parade through town.  When still very young, Gropengeiser’s father took him to one of these circus parades in Rhinelander.  Observing how delighted his young son was as the performers and steam calliope passed by, Fred Gropengeiser vowed to make certain Eddie would never miss any circus parade or Big Top performance that came to Rhinelander.  He kept his vow.  He also took Eddie to as many fairs, concerts, and shows as possible.  For Eddie, it was a revelation as he discovered the two passions in his life: music and the circus.

Music came first, and Gropengeiser learned to play the tap drums, bells, and to sing acapella.  He had a photographic memory and often did public recitations of famous poems. 

As Gropengeiser got older, he increasingly focused his attention on the circus.  He studied everything he could get his hands on, kept meticulous notes and scrapbooks of every circus and performer, both past and present.  He corresponded and became friends with circus professionals and collected authentic memorabilia they sent to him.  He became a living encyclopedia of circus history and lore.

Gropengeiser joined several circus fan and historical clubs and used his skills to build his own scale model circus.  The working steam calliope alone took him seven years to construct.  Everything in his circus was authentic and modeled on a real-life original, and when completed he took the entire operation to the Circus World Museum in Baraboo for performances.

Gropengeiser lived in a wheelchair his entire life, but his accomplishments were recognized in the circus community.  In 1966, Gropengeiser received an invitation from the Circus Hall of Fame in Sarasota, Florida.  The people of Rhinelander held a fund drive so Eddie and his nurse could fly to Sarasota for the ceremonies.  He became the first non-performer to have his photo hung in the hall.  A highlight of his visit was meeting Emett Kelly, one of the biggest circus stars of all time.

Although in poor health, Gropengeiser always kept an optimistic outlook on life.  He left us with these words:

I never had a money tree,

   I never climbed an apple tree,

I never ran a race;

   I never swam in lake or sea,

Yet I’m as happy as can be.—

   For though my legs are wheels,

God gave me eyes to see

   The friends who call on me;

And I know that I belong to God,-

   How much better can it be?

Eddie Gropengeiser died in 1980.

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