By Lena Mitchell/NEMS Daily Journal
RIPLEY – Circus memorabilia fan and collector Bob Middleton didn’t need to run away to join the circus as a child to indulge his favorite pastime.
Instead, the father of one of his childhood friends – a devoted circus fan himself – took them to experience the delights of the circus world on a regular basis.
Some of the dozens of pieces the 73-year-old has collected or built during more than six decades of devotion to the circus is on display at the Tippah County Historical Museum in Ripley through December.
“I guess I really caught the circus bug when I was 13 years old,” Middleton said. “It was June of 1953 and the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus was coming to my hometown in Bridgeton, N.J.”
From about age 9, Middleton and his friend Melissa had attended circuses with Melissa’s dad, Sam Brown.
Brown had befriended Middleton’s dad when the career military man retired in Bridgeton after World War II, and Brown was national president of Circus Fans of America.
“Melissa was the same age as me and he’d take us every time,” Middleton said. “When we were 12, Melissa died of leukemia, and he just kept taking me after that.”
It was before the days of television and electronic devices to distract and entertain children, and 30 to 40 circuses came through Bridgeton or nearby towns in 1948 and 1949, Middleton said. But the Ringling Bros. Circus was the turning point.
“Never before had I seen such a mass of trucks, wagons and equipment,” he said. “It was unreal. When the big top (tent) went up the poles, I could not believe it. The show was great. It had five rings of performers at the same time. The tent was so big it held 8,000 people and had a form of air-conditioning.”
One of the display items at the museum is a replica of the ring worn by Ringling Bros. Giant Ted Evans, who was about 8 feet tall. Middleton bought the replica for a quarter, and at that age he could fit four of his own fingers in it.
Going behind the scenes with Brown and walking the midway was even more thrilling than sitting out front watching the show. From early morning and throughout the day they’d visit behind the scenes before going to the 7 p.m. show to watch the performances.
Middleton continued to forge his connections with the performers as he went through high school and off to college, where he trained as an engineer.
His new profession didn’t interfere with his ongoing dedication to the circus, and Middleton returned home to join a new local circus-related organization, the George Hammond Top. Relocating with his job to Ladson, S.C., to be near his family roots in McClellandville near Charleston, Middleton started the Clyde Beatty Top.
Soon after, Middleton picked up the hobby of building circus and carnival models, which he continues today. He started out using model kits from a couple of companies that made them in the 1950s and 1960s. However, he could soon create the wooden pieces himself and scale them to any size he needed, now buying only the right size plastic wheels.
“I build and sell a lot,” he said. “People write or call and want certain things made, and it’s a hobby I enjoy.”
Middleton migrated to Ripley in 1987, when as a plastics engineer he took a job with Oster Sunbeam in Holly Springs. Soon after the company moved its operations from Holly Springs, construction of the Ecowater plant was in the planning stages, and he went to work helping set up that plant in 1997, before retiring in 2001.
Retirement only lasted a couple of weeks, however, before boredom set in and Middleton went to work for the Tippah County Sheriff’s Department as jail administrator, the job he holds today.
His fascination with the circus has brought not only endless joy, but also has brought Middleton many lasting friendships with people in the circus world.
“I’ve gotten to meet a lot of interesting people through the years, in the United States and Europe,” Middleton said. “Some of the pieces I’ve collected came from a good friend in Le Havre, France, and I’ve met many of the big-name performers of Ringling Bros., Clyde Beatty Circus and many others.”
Middleton’s circus connection continues as he attends performances and through his membership in Circus Fans of America, but he’s now the only Mississippi member left. The next convention will be in San Diego, Calif., in February.
Unfortunately, none of Middleton’s children, grandchildren or great-grandchildren have been drawn to his love for the circus to carry the tradition forward, but he’s found promise in a great-nephew.
“I’m kind of grooming him now,” he said.
• What: Exhibit of circus memorabilia
• Where: Tippah County Historical Museum, 106 N. Siddall St., Ripley
• When: Through December; open 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Tuesday-Friday and by appointment
• For more information: (662) 512-0099