Something quirky caught William Pedersen's eye as he pedaled past Greenhill Cemetery during a bike ride along Sunrise Drive in his hometown of St. Peter, Minn.
"I thought it was a strange sight, especially in a cemetery," Pedersen said in an e-mail. "It was a replica of an elephant, apparently set in as a head stone of sorts."
The 4-foot concrete sculpture of the elephant, trunk aloft, stands above side-by-side graves of George and Vates Engesser — a married couple of zany vaudeville and circus impresarios from St. Peter before the Depression wiped them out. More on them in a paragraph.
This is the 250th consecutive Sunday for these Minnesota history columns, which have morphed into a crowdsourcing, self-feeding storytelling enterprise. Ninety percent of these columns come from tips from readers like Pedersen. So, thanks to all for priming the pump of the past.
Born in St. Peter in 1889, George Engesser came from a family of German immigrant beer-brewing brothers. Their Engesser Brewing and Malting Co. started in St. Peter in 1856 — predating statehood by two years and becoming one of the longest serving breweries west of the Mississippi River until Prohibition 64 years later.
Beer apparently never interested George, who expanded his circus into one of the nation's largest motorized shows with 75 trucks that traveled to towns that circus trains couldn't visit.
"We were called the Sunday School circus because there was no drinking and no short changing allowed," George's younger brother, Emmett, recalled.
George cracked into the entertainment business in 1909. While working in a music store, a vaudeville troupe came to St. Peter and needed a piano player. George signed on and developed his own unique act.
"George's gimmick was playing the piano while standing on his head," recalled his grandson, William Powell, a high-ranking executive with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus in the 1990s.
Billing himself as "The Mad Pianist," George met Vates Lola Swenson on the vaudeville circuit — where her shtick was performing as a mechanical, windup doll. Vates grew up in the early 1900s — part of a pioneering family of Mormons in Utah. She married George in Oklahoma in 1912. She claimed to be 19 on their marriage license. He was 22. Records and family lore put her closer to 16.
In 1917, when George filled out his World War I draft card, he listed his address as "on road in South" — arguing that he qualified for an exemption because he was employed as the "proprietor of two tents shows" as well as being married with their first of three daughters. That was good enough to keep him out of the Great War.
Owning his own circus had long been his dream. "For nearly 15 years he talked to her about the day they would be master and lady of a circus," according to a 1935 newspaper clipping at the Nicollet County Historical Society in St. Peter.
Another story, from a 1925 St. Peter Herald, said: "The circus game has been an alluring one for Mr. Engesser. For several years, it has been his ambition to plunge into the big time, but he is conservative …"
Conservative? By 1925, he had 35 trucks and four touring troupes playing seven days a week across the country. He vowed to invest $20,000 in 1926, purchasing two lions, a bear and some wolves and kangaroos. He soon added two elephants, Ruth and Mary, according to circusesandsideshows.com.
Just before the Depression descended in 1929, theirs was the second-largest motorized circus in the country. But they called it the Zellmar Bros. Circus and then Schell Bros. because "Engesser" was too hard to say and remember.
"They had a fair amount of money and it was invested in stocks and bonds," their grandson said in 1992. "In one day, it all went down the tubes."
When the circus fizzled in 1934, George and Vates traded an elephant for a Ford at the local St. Peter dealership and went back to tent shows in small towns.
George died in Dallas in 1962 at 72. Vates died 22 years later in Ohio in her late 80s.
Their showy legacy lived on with oldest daughter Vates starring in Hollywood films in the 1920s and '30s, including a circus flick.
Daughter Gee Gee went from showing elephants to wolves and malamutes — "Gee Gee's Alaskans" — in which she'd enter on a sled wearing furs. Her son, William Powell, became regional vice president and marketing manager at Ringling Bros.
"George and Vates' final resting place is adorned by an elephant sculpture," according to Stew Thornley's 2004 book "Six Feet Under: A Graveyard Guide to Minnesota."
Curt Brown's tales about Minnesota's history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at email@example.com.