Fascinating Story behind Antique Sunburst Circus Wagon Wheel
Finding antique and odd circus equipment is difficult, but such items are highly treasured by circus collectors. Sometimes the provenance of these items is more interesting than the item itself. The following is the story of a rare sunburst circus wagon wheel and my dear friend, Charlotte (Shive) Maxwell.
I met Charlotte in the early 1970s shortly after her second husband died. She became a close family friend who frequently spent time in our home. Our children called her Aunt Charlotte. When she was a young nursing student in New York City in 1917, Charlotte quit school and ran away to join Barnum & Bailey Circus. This was before the show was combined with Ringling Brothers. She soon met and married aerialist Frank Shive, but in the late 1920s he died after battling pneumonia.
A Charlotte Shive publicity photo.
Charlotte’s first husband Frank Shive.
A more detailed look at Charlotte’s early life in the circus was written in an article entitled “Circus Women” published in the April 1932 issue of a magazine called “The Circus Scrapbook.” The article was by the late Lillian Leitzel, as told to Paul Brown. Leitzel was a world famous aerialist who died from a fall while performing in Copenhagen, Denmark in 1931.
An article titled “Circus Women” appeared in this April 1932 issue of “The Circus Scrapbook.” One of the women featured in the article was Charlotte Shive. Issues of “The Circus Scrapbook” can be found for $10 or less per issue.
The following is the section about Charlotte Shive, taken verbatim from the article:
“Charlotte Shive, who is with the show again this year after an absence of several seasons, showed in her own quiet way the stamina and courage that the circus breeds in its women. She had been a student nurse in one of the great hospitals in New York City. The show always used a lot across the street and Charlotte met—at a private show for the patients of the hospital after which the performers were introduced to the staff of the hospital—the man who became her husband.
Frank Shive was an aerialist and a good one. He patiently taught his work to his new wife and Charlotte was soon ‘flying,’ swinging from a trapeze to her husband, who caught her, and back to the trapeze again. She was particularly adept and was soon an important element of the act.
They traveled on this show for several years, until one day, when we were working in Wenatchee, Washington, Frank collapsed on the trap. He had had about everything possible wrong with his lungs for some time and had concealed it from everyone, but our doctor.
Further work was impossible until he recovered. It was suggested that he go to Arizona until he was well and it was arranged that Charlotte could choose anywhere in the Southwest that suited her, so she could join Frank. Almost before Frank had left the lot a bashful, tremendously embarrassed canvas man approached Charlotte, and handed her a grimy hat overflowing with small change! It was a collection taken by the canvas men and laborers for her benefit. Naturally, she declined the money and returned it to the men, but she has never forgotten the gesture.
That collection was poorly advised and inopportune, for Frank and Charlotte had saved their money and needed no assistance, but both were very popular with everyone on the lot and it was almost inevitable that the, more or less improvident, canvas men should do the one thing which would have been urgently necessary in their own case.
Frank got as far as Los Angeles, when he became too ill to travel. Charlotte joined him at once, bought a small bungalow in the Sierra Madre district, installed a nurse to care for him during the day and started to look for work. She took care of her husband herself during the nights.
Before she found employment there was a most expensive operation and shortly after another was necessary. Just as their savings were almost gone Charlotte had an opportunity to do stunt work for one of the film studios and jumped at the chance. [Note: She doubled on a 1928 silent film called 4 Devils, which featured Janet Gaynor.]
For a good many months she risked her life regularly in various forms of trapeze work eighty feet above a concrete floor, with no protecting net beneath, to get Frank well and back with the circus. It was a futile effort.
Now she is with us again, just as popular as ever, and working alone. She has what we call a “tooth act,” and swings from a single line suspended from a soft pad which she grips between her jaws.”
A photo of Charlotte Shive appeared in an article about the circus in the May 23, 1931 issue of “Colliers” magazine. This is known in the circus as an Iron Jaw Act. It’s what Leitzel called a “tooth act.” The circus was a common theme for articles in popular magazines of the day.
For more about circus articles in magazines, see my story Circus Magazines Chronicle Circus Life of Yesterday and Today.
Charlotte later married Bill Maxwell, who worked on the front door of the circus. Charlotte and Bill retired from the show in 1938 and moved to St. Petersburg, Fla. She said when she left the show, she let it be known that she would love to have a circus wagon wheel in her yard. One day a Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus truck pulled up in front of their house and some workmen jumped out and unloaded four sunburst circus wagon wheels and mounted them in her side yard. By the time I met Charlotte, only two wheels had survived the Florida weather, and they were in rough shape.
This photo appeared in the “Evening Independent,” a St. Petersburg newspaper. It shows Charlotte and Bill Maxwell in their yard with one of the circus wheels.
One of Charlotte’s circus wagon wheels. The metal hub and metal wheel rim on the restored wheel are original—also, the spokes and fans between the spokes. The fellies, the rim into which the spokes are inserted, were all rotted and had to be replaced.
A friend of mine who worked for the Ringling Circus Museum in Sarasota, Fla. provided the ash wood for new fellies and cut them to size for me. He was quite experienced in doing this since he had restored many wheels for the museum.
Today’s value of a restored circus wagon wheel is $1,500 to $2,000. The other wheel from Charlotte’s yard was in similar condition and was sold in un-restored condition for $500 in the mid 1970s.
Charlotte was thrilled when she saw the restored circus wheel in our family room. Our family has many good memories of her visits with us. Today, our kids still fondly recall their Aunt Charlotte who hung by her jaw in the circus.
Larry Kellogg is a WorthPoint Worthologist specializing in circus memorabilia.
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