Circus life

Dalton couple operated regional circus complete with full-size elephants

Phyllis and Byron Osander at their home in Dalton. The Osanders ran Schmidt’s Circus for many years and even had elephants on their farm. Contributed photo

Area hunters in the 1960s were expecting to find their prey in a rural Dalton slough, but instead of flushing out deer, what they saw had them running away.

Near their hunting spot was a very large elephant. Yes, an elephant.

The hunters were in Phyllis and Byron Osander’s pasture, where one of the couple’s three elephants, Rosa, was quietly grazing.

It was quite a shock to see an elephant in an area where cattle and sheep are more common. But, for the Osanders, the elephants were part of their business and almost like family. Joining their interesting menagerie of stock were ponies, goats, llamas and dogs. Each one was a star in the family’s Schmidt Circus and Wild Animal Show, from the ‘60s to the ‘90s.

The couple operated the circus and carnival from their farm for more than 30 years. Their story of life under the “big top” is true, as Phyllis attested.

“What I have to say is the truth,” she said. “But it’s hard to believe.”

Phyllis grew up on a cattle ranch near Killdeer, N.D. She had a love for adventure and moved to South Dakota where she met and later married Harold Schmidt.

Harold, a gifted musician, performed in “back end shows” at carnivals. His one-man-band performances drew crowds, Phyllis said. Whether it was a tune he played on his fiddle, the rhythm he pounded on the tom toms or a song he sang while strumming his guitar, the audience enjoyed his music.

People paid 50 cents to hear him perform, and he made good money, she said.

While he was performing, Phyllis developed her own act with rope tricks and whips.

The two worked with carnival shows through the late 1930s and 1940s. Travelling became difficult during World War II, but Harold found a way to pay for fuel and tires using farm rations from his small farm place near Watertown, S.D.

Phyllis left circus performing when the couple started a family. Her goal was to see that each of their five children would have a good education.

“I didn’t have a big education like some people,” she said. “Back then, very few got a big education, but I wanted my kids to have a good education.”

Her wish came true. Each one attended a university, she said with pride.

When the couple divorced, Phyllis began making career plans. She wanted to start her own carnival operation.

“But I figured we would have a circus, because I always liked that better,” she said. “If you were with a carnival, they would call you a ‘dirty carny,’ but with a circus, they saw you had to work hard. I always thought a circus was for me.”

As she made plans for her venture, Phyllis asked Byron to join the troupe.

Byron was working in Watertown, S.D. where Phyllis and her family were living. The Underwood native was working in a music store and giving accordion lessons. Several of Phyllis’ children were his students.

He had also traveled around the country performing in stage shows. Some of his venues were in Seattle and Portland where he also did a few shows with Myron Floren. Myron later gained fame with the Lawrence Welk band.

Byron suggested a move to Minnesota for Phyllis’ circus. He knew of property near Dalton that was for sale. The move was made in 1963, and a year later, the couple married.

Then they added the elephants. Rosa was the largest. She came from India. Leta was purchased in Watertown, and Tanya was raised at the Como Zoo in St. Paul before coming to Dalton.

The Como Zoo was selling Tanya, so Byron got his trailer and went to check out the opportunity. After he made sure she was healthy, Byron loaded her on the trailer and made the trek for the farm. But, once they got home, Tanya didn’t want to get off, Phyllis said. He put his arm around the elephants neck and pushed her off so she could join the other elephants in the round barn.

People often came to see the animals, Byron said. When it would get a bit noisy and crowded in the barn, he would shake the elephants’ feed pail, and they would call out. The visitors would quickly leave while a smiling Byron gave the elephants a little extra treat.

From May through September the family traveled and performed throughout the region, including the kids – Darlene, Harold, Jr., Bonnie, Ed and Jolene. Each had acts showing their juggling and unicycle skills. The animals performed under the big top spotlights, and Phyllis wowed the crowd with her rope and whip skills. Byron’s music was the perfect backdrop for it all, said Phyllis.

Phyllis and Byron Osander prepare to say goodbye to Tanya in this Fergus Falls Daily Journal newspaper clipping from 1977. Tanya was sold shortly after this photo was taken. Thanks to the Fergus Falls Daily Journal for assisting in finding this photo.

At the height of their carnival and circus venture, the couple had 30 employees. Many of their crew were from the local area.

The two chuckle a bit recalling some close calls in their performances. Once, when Phyllis was going to whip a cigarette out of Byron’s mouth at a performance, she cut the tip of his nose. At another show, Byron cut Phyllis’ long fingernails during his turn with the whip.

During their 1997 season, the couple decided to end the circus and carnival.

“It was hard to walk up those steps to perform,” said Phyllis.

It did become their last year on the road. They put away the tents and props and were satisfied with everything they’d accomplished.

Rosa the elephant became ill after they closed the circus and was diagnosed with a telescoping bowel. She died a short time later, and the family buried her on the farm. A benefactor provided the money to exhume Rosa’s remains and move her skeleton back to the Twin Cities. Her story is now told at the Minnesota Science Museum, where her skeleton is displayed, except for one small bone in the tail that the officials couldn’t find, Phyllis said.

Before they dispersed their menagerie of animals, they made sure each had a good home. Byron and Phyllis now live in an apartment in Fergus Falls. Memories of days gone by fill the apartment, including Schmidt Circus posters and pictures of the farm. The couple talks glowingly about their years operating what is commonly known as “the best show on earth.”

#CircusLife #Elephant


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