The Great Iowa City Circus Poster Mystery.

Our Great Mystery involves both P.T. Barnum Circus Posters and The Englerts of Iowa City.

Allow me, here, to introduce you to some of the players in this Great Mystery…

Louis & Clara Englert came to Iowa City from Germany in 1842. In 1853, calling upon his Bavarian heritage, Louis Englert opened The Englert City Brewery, Iowa City’s first brewery. Operating his new business out of a basement on Market Street, beer production was a whopping ten barrels per day, using a Brobdingnagian kettle of brass, all carefully brewed in Louis’ modestly-equipped kitchen. One additional fact you need to know – Louis and Clara loved children – they had eleven little Englerts between 1843 and 1867. One trivia item here: One of their grandsons, William Englert started The Englert Theatre in 1912.

In 1857, Louis expanded his beer-making business by opening a small one-story tavern/inn on North Dubuque Street, just south of Terrell’s Mill. Englert’s inn not only brought a cool beverage to hot and thirsty farmers who were waiting for hours until their time came to process their crops at Terrell’s, but it also served as a stagecoach stop/dining area as well. Many believe the home was an important station stop on the Underground Railroad during the Civil War era, complete with a secret room, a tunnel, and a cave carved into the back yard!

Family records show that the 1857 building had three large rooms, with the largest being a walk-out 20′ x 20′ space that served as the saloon. It had a nine-foot ceiling, with one whole wall of windows and doors that looked out toward Terrell’s Mill to the north and west. One more fact – once the one-story building was completed, the big Englert family moved in as well.

In the late 1870’s, Louis expanded the inn, constructing a second and third floor above the original 1857 building. The completed home became the Englert Iowa City residence for not only Louis and Clara, but a second and third generation of the Englerts as well. In the 1920’s, the Englert family finally sold the home, and there have been four other families own this beautiful house, overlooking the Iowa River from Dubuque Street, since then. Which brings us, now, to…

In 2004, the Stefaniaks became the fourth family to own this historic Englert home. As many homeowners certainly do, Mary Helen and John wanted to do some updating on “This Old House,” having no idea what they’d gotten themselves into. You can read the full adventure here, as written by Mary Helen. The Stefaniaks started with the oldest portion of the home (the lower level built in 1857), and slowly, worked they way upward. When they got to the second and third floors, that’s when The Great Iowa City Circus Poster Mystery began.

Allow me to share Mary Helen’s explanation, along with her pictures for evidence…

…In the course of tearing out the walls of an upstairs bedroom in our former stagecoach inn, our daughter Liz spied the first signs of what lay hidden behind the plaster. There were words on the boards back there, she said—and pictures! “Come and see!” she called to me in the next bedroom. I squeezed through a pair of hand-hewn studs and soon we were wielding our crowbars side by side, exclaiming to one another in mask-muffled voices as chunks of plaster fell, revealing pictures of—what? Was that a foot? And perhaps—a barrel? A pair of bare legs? In dainty boots? A horse’s—tail? The dust rose and then settled around us. Finally, we stepped back and took in what we had uncovered.
The entire wall of the bedroom—an exterior wall made up of 12-inch boards formerly covered by lath and plaster—was papered with Circus Posters. Click here to read more about P.T. Barnum and his circus coming to Iowa City.
They were in strips and pieces as wide as the boards they were pasted to, some words and images right side up, others upside down, but there was no mistaking them. Along with “The Greatest Show on Earth,” and “Well worth going 100 miles to see,” we had uncovered the chests and pounding hooves of horses whose upper halves, we cleverly theorized, were on boards that faced the outside, under the clapboard siding. Balancing acts and trapeze artists appeared here and there, in whole and in part, and in various sizes. A woman in buttoned boots and a scandalously short skirt seemed to be lifting a barrel with her teeth. (This, we learned later, was “Millie DeGranville, the Woman with the Iron Jaw.”) In another picture, on another board, she lay back with an anvil resting on her midsection, while a shirtless man with a handlebar mustache hoisted a sledgehammer over the anvil, as if in mid-strike. (Apparently, she had an Iron Stomach, too.)
In other rooms, we found lettering that spelled out things like “P. T. Barnum,” “Music Chariot,” and “Iowa City,” “Saturday,” “Sept 8.” A poster fragment in the bathroom promised “A Stupendous Bear” and “The Only Living Hippopotamus” in America, billed as a “Behemoth” “worth $20,000.” In a corner of the master-bedroom-to-be, a pair of bare-breasted ladies posed demurely.

But wait! There’s more – Not only did the Stefaniaks find P.T. Barnum Circus Posters in the upper bedrooms, when they started tearing the siding off the outside of those same upper floors, guess what they found?

More circus posters were uncovered on the outside of the house!

So – what were the Englerts thinking? Was this some form of entertainment? A practical joke? Curious minds want to know…

Now, with the help of some good investigative work by the Stefaniak’s (and your humble author), let’s try to unravel this Great Iowa City Circus Poster Mystery.

So, as the story goes – Mary Beth and John – like any homeowner who might discover such curiosities in their home – began searching for answers. Being new to Iowa City, they started by looking into the history of their home. We’ve done just that as well, and found that Iowa City historians, Irving Weber and Margaret Keyes have both offered a great deal of background on the Englert family. You can read more here.

Which now led the Stefaniak’s to uncover the following clues…

On a research visit to the Circus World Museum in Baraboo, Wisconsin, the Stefaniaks discovered that most circuses like P.T. Barnum’s kept excellent travel journals that recorded not only the dates and the cities played, but also the number of miles traveled, the weather conditions, plus any other important factors – such as the entry for December 24, 1872 – the year Barnum first brought his circus to Iowa City

“season ended by fire at Hippotheatron.” Quite a closing act, don’t you think?

When the Stefaniaks looked through the P.T. Barnum ledgers, they found that his circus first visited Iowa City on September 9, 1872, re-visited in August 1875, and just like the posters in their home stated…

1) a third visit occurred on Saturday, September 8, 1877,

2) the weather in Iowa City was fair that day, and,

3) the day before – September 7- in Des Moines was rainy!

Hmm. This means that the addition to their home had to occur after the September 8th circus visit in 1877. So now, with a date better established, here’s the next clue…

The Englert Family Photograph – Circa 1890.

In the top left corner is Jacob J. Hotz (1853-1916) – Louis Englert’s son-in-law. Now, here’s the kicker. Jacob not only married Louis’ daughter, Francis, but he also was a successful building contractor in Iowa City. Hmm. Are you starting to get the picture? Sorry – no pun intended!

Did the wood siding that was used in the Englert home come from Walter Terrell’s Mill?

Walter Terrell’s Mill on North Dubuque Street

A turn-of-the-century picture (above) of Terrell’s Mill – located directly across Dubuque Street from the Englert home – shows that at least one of his barns was used for promotional signage. Dubuque Street was (and still is) a highly-trafficked road in and out of Iowa City – a perfect place for a “billboard.” It’s a good bet that the Circus Poster wood that Jacob Hotz used on the Englert home came from a barn or shed that was being torn down on Walter Terrell’s property.

It would make perfect sense that sometime after September 8, 1877 – the date on the circus posters – Louis Englert, nearing age 70, turned to Jacob J. Hotz, his son-in-law and building contractor, to build two additional stories on top of his 1857 home on Dubuque Street. And, it’s our premise that Jacob not only said yes, but he also got a really good deal on some slightly used 12″ side boards that just happened to come from a nearby barn that had once served as a billboard for local promoters. Good wood at good prices, particularly if you’re a fan of the circus!

So, as home owner, Mary Helen Stefaniak, summarizes…

(The solution to our mystery) was recycling, mid-19th-century style: a roadside barn or mill dismantled, the boards once papered to advertise the circus put into service a second time.

Thanks Mary Helen. I think we can now say…

DYK-December 26, 2022

Kudos to the amazing resources below for the many quotes, photographs, etc. used on this page.

Hysterical Preservation, Parts I-V, Mary Helen Stefaniak, The Iowa Source, September 6, 2013

Irving Weber’s Iowa City – Volume 2, Irving Weber, Iowa City Lion’s Club, 1979, pp 203-208

The Englert-Pownall House – Illustration 26 from Nineteenth Century Home Architecture of Iowa City, Margaret N. Keyes, University of Iowa Press, 1993, p 41

The Englert Family History, Gertrude Englert, RootsWeb

Jacob J. Hotz, Find-A-Grave

Behind the Plaster, an Iowa City Circus Mystery, Mary Helen Stefaniak, Iowa Magazine, February 21, 2023

Mary Helen Stefaniak, MHS Website

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