Denny and Margaret Watson may not have graduated from Illinois State University, but they certainly have earned the title of friends. A member of the Friends of Milner Library Board and the Senior Professionals group that serves as a resource for the University, Denny Watson donated an impressive private collection of circus memorabilia to Milner Library.
Watson said Bloomington was the “aerialist capital of the world” in the early and middle 20th century. Milner Library Special Collections Librarian Maureen Brunsdale added that the twin cities were home to the Flying Fishers in the 1870s, and later produced acts such as the Flying Wards and The Conciellos. She said the community became a popular winter training location for numerous circus acts due to the presence of massive barns fitted with the requisite rigging.
Eleanor Welch, Milner Library director in 1955, started the Circus and Allied Arts Collection to document the important relationship between the circus acts and Bloomington-Normal. Brunsdale said the growth of the collection has been aided by private collections of past performers and enthusiasts such as Denny Watson.
“It is certain that Milner Library could not afford to purchase many of the items the Watsons donated to Milner Library’s Special Collections & Rare Book Room,” Brunsdale said. “Denny’s generosity of spirit makes possible the recent significant growth of the Circus and Allied Arts Collection. Various posters, route cars and route books as well as circus programs were integrated into the collection and many author-signed books, periodical titles, photo albums, scrap books, tickets and articles are also being processed to join our unique and wonderful collection. We greatly appreciate the Watsons’ sizable collection and know that many circus fans and researchers will too.”
After graduating from Illinois Wesleyan University and serving in the Air Force, Denny came back to Bloomington-Normal to work at State Farm for 37 years, retiring in 1990 as director of Service and Systems.
Watson said his interest in the circus spanned some 50 years, including membership in the international Circus Fans Association of America. He enjoyed visiting the Milner circus collection over the years, saying it was one of the largest circus collections in the U.S. Watson knew his own collection would enhance the Circus and Allied Arts Collection. As friends of the University, the Watsons also attend as many Milner Library events as possible and have been season ticket holders for the Illinois Shakespeare Festival since its founding.