By LeAnn R. Ralph
COLFAX — If you’ve been in the Colfax Municipal Building lately, you’ve seen them — the circus posters on display in the hallway.
Surviving for 115 years is quite an accomplishment for those posters.
Especially since they were attached to a side of a building and only discovered a few years ago when the building was going to be torn down.
Colfax historian Troy Knutson vividly remembers seeing those posters for the first time.
“I found out about the circus posters in, I believe it was, May of 2006. There was a kitchen fire in the house, and the house was going to be torn down,” Knutson explained.
At that time, the house was located at the corner of Pine Street and First Avenue and was owned by Jami and Michele Kuesel of Colfax.
“Pat (Davis) used to live in that house. She found out they were going to tear it down, and she knew I was the town historian, and she called me and said, ‘before they tear it down, you need to get over there and tear the siding off the north side of the house, because under the siding, under the tar paper, there are all these old circus posters along that wall,’” Knutson continued.
“I said, ‘What? On the north side?’ And she said, ‘Yes, when we resided the house, we found the posters and tried to get them off but decided there was no way to get them off.’ So I got permission, and my Aunt Marian and I went over with the generator and the circular saw, and we cut each board, each poster off, board by board and took them home. Aunt Marian glued all the loose pieces back on there; glued all the boards together and (applied polyurethane) and they are hanging on the wall in the municipal building hallway,” he said.
Even though the posters are more than 100 years old, were glued to the side of a building and were covered with tar paper for years, the colors remain astonishingly clear and vivid.
After the posters had been removed, Troy asked Juul Noer about the house.
Juul, the former owner of Noer’s Drug Store in Colfax, also has quite a collection of old photos and a wealth of knowledge about village history.
“He told me that at one time, the building (with the circus posters) sat along Main Street as a cigar shop,” Knutson said.
And this is where the story takes a decidedly lucky turn.
Several weeks ago, former Colfax resident Jean Burling Alf called this reporter to say she had two photographs that she wanted to donate for the Colfax Sesquicentennial in 2014. She said that one photo was very faded and that she did not think it would be very helpful as an historical artifact. The other photograph is in very good shape.
The picture that is in better shape appears to have been taken from University Avenue of what existed in downtown Colfax in 1894.
The faded photograph has “Taken in Spring of 1898” written in pencil on the frame.
The two photographs were scanned into the Messenger’s computer at a high resolution.
Knutson also scanned the photographs into his own computer.
Zooming in on the scanned photographs allows details to become more visible.
For example, on the older photo, when you zoom in, you can see that there is a banner above the general store listing the dates of the Northern Wisconsin State Fair.
You can also see people (and cannot help but wonder who they are and what are the circumstances of their lives).
The faded 1898 photograph is obviously downtown Colfax. When Knutson zoomed in on the photo — there they were on the side of a building on Main Street.
The circus posters.
The same circus posters that Troy Knutson rescued from the side of a house that was going to be torn down.
What Juul Noer said about the building being along Main Street at one time “plays right along with the photo we (received) that the building is on Main Street and the circus posters are on the north side of the house, because that would be the corner of River and Main. Right on the corner where the Farmer’s Store was. Kinney and Fjelstad would be right across the street. The Farmer’s Store wasn’t built until 1903,” Knutson said.
“And that’s the story of where the posters came from and how they got to be in the municipal building and now the picture showed up,” he said.
“I keep telling people about the photo. I told Jean Burling (Alf) about it. I saw her at church. She got goosebumps,” Knutson said.
As it turned out, the two old photographs had been in the bottom of a cedar chest that had belonged to Jean’s mother, Minda Burling.
The Burling family lost most of their possessions in the Colfax tornado on June 4, 1958. “We do not know if the photos were in the Minda’s possession before or if they were part of Minda’s work for the centennial celebration,” Knutson said.
Minda Burling served on committees and helped plan the Colfax Centennial Celebration in 1964.
The two photographs, especially the 1894 photograph, are the oldest photos of Colfax that Troy Knutson has seen — or that he is aware of.
“It was unreal that those photos showed up. The posters made it full circle. They disappeared. We found them. Now they’re up in the municipal building. And we’ve got a picture,” Knutson said.
Pine and First
Knutson gives a tremendous amount of credit to Pat Davis for her foresight.
“If she hadn’t thought about it and called me, the posters would have been lost forever,” he said.
At this point, no one knows when the building with the circus posters was moved to the Pine Street and First Avenue location.
Knutson also does not have much of a history as to who lived in the house after it was moved.
“The posters would have been on the wall, and then the building would have been moved and the wall would have been covered up. The posters would have had to be covered up to survive. The weather would have ruined them. The sun would have faded them. The rain would have deteriorated them,” he said.
“When we got over there and started pulling the black tarpaper off, there they were. We just kept digging and digging … It was a crazy day,” Knutson said.
“Whatever they used to glue the posters on (the building), it sure worked,” he said.