Frank Skerbeck, Sr. (1847-1921)’s father traded a linen factory for a small circus about 1857 in what is now Czechoslovakia. The Skerbeck Circus toured Europe 1871-1876. Eventually the circus went broke.
Frank’s son, Frank, Jr., learned trapeze skills and how to swallow a sword. In 1880 Frank, Jr. sailed to America and bought a “grape farm” near Dochester, WI. It was really a forest. Grape farming was not going to work. Frank built a house and a large training barn there.
Frank Skerbeck (1847-1921) and Mary Dillie Skerbeck (1849-1931) had 16 children. Of these, 9 lived to adulthood and all were show people, Antonette (1870-1949); Anna (1871-1954); Joe (1871-1954), Antone (1875-1900), Gustav (1876-1957), Clara (1878-1958), Amanda “Mandy” (1882-1967), Pearl (1890-1967), and Frank (1891-1973).
A family tradition is that Frank Skerbeck “persuaded Al Ringling to start a canvas show.” Another tradition is that “Frank sold Al his first circus tent.”
The first U.S. Skerbeck circus was in 1884. Frank performed as an acrobat and sword swallower, Antonette as an acrobat and gymnast, and Joe and Gustave performed tumbling and trapeze acts. They performed in northern WI and the U.P., Minneapolis, St. Paul, and Chicago. Some of the family stayed on the farm.
The family joined Furgeson and Williams Circus of Appleton, WI, in 1885. A partnership between the Skerbecks and Ephraim Williams began then and lasted until 1893. Eph Williams (1860-early 1930s) was an African-American from Milwaukee, WI. He developed a “mathematical genius” horse and dogs act. In the history of circus, most owners were white. In 1884 Eph and Del Fergus had the Ferguson & Williams Monster Shows. Eph and the Skerbecks had the same territory. The first show of Ferguson & Williams Skerbecks joined in 1885 went broke before July in Sioux City, IA. Frank then organized his own circus later that month.
1884-1911 the family sometimes operated its own circus and sometimes performed with others. Sometimes they performed an Uncle Tom’s Cabin Show, or as a Wild West. Sometimes they worked with carnivals. They were respected for their performance skills. Their usual route was WI and MI, which they sometimes traveled by ferry boat. They also traveled in the west, midwest, and south. Some interesting notes of their circus life are:
In 1889 in Tomahawk, WI, Joe accidentally shot himself in the hand. The bullet remained in his hand, hurting him, for the rest of his life. Surgery would have required him leaving the circus, so that was not an option. Family acts signed contracts with a specific number of members. If one disappeared or was unable to perform, the family did not get paid because they had failed to fulfill their contract. After being shot, Joe continued with his acts that day. This included “carrying a balancing pole… slack wire…single trapeze, tumbling, and pyramid act,, [and]… clown acts.” Joe never told his parents.
In 1892 Joe fell from the highwire at Grand Marais and was hurt for 9 weeks. This was tough on his brothers in the acts they performed with Joe, riding and tumbling.
The Skerbecks worked at the 1893 World’s Fair on the Midway.
In 1897-1898 Frank Skerbeck, Jr. toured with a merry-go-round. While some Skerbeck family members worked for other carnivals, the family did not become owners/operators of carnivals until about 1914.
In 1901 the Skerbeck’s Great One Ring Railroad Show had a tent blowdown. Antone died in the ring performing his “knock-about clown act” of a heart attack at age 23. He was carried out as part of the act. They could not stop because the show was their main source of income. They also lost a trick pony and a member of the circus, Col. Phil. Coup, was shot.
In 1902 Mrs. Frank Skerbeck, 8 performers, and 5 band members were delayed by a boat at Green Bay and missed the opening at Manistee.
In 1903 a cyclone blew down their circus tent down injuring about 20 people, 2 were seriously injured.
In a rainy season forced the family to mortgage their home and sell the circus.
Joe Skerbeck switched to carnival in 1912. This carnival still operates today as Skerbeck Brothers Shows, Inc. Mandy Skerbeck and her husband, A. Kaarup, also began a carnival. Her father, Frank, Jr., operated a merry-go-round on her carnival and died in 1921 on the midway. The Kaarup’s Shows were sold in 1947 to Dusty Rhoads. Pearl Skerbeck and her husband, H. Weydt, started a carnival in the early 1920s. After her husband died, Pearl operated the show with Doyle “Doc” O’Kelly until she sold it in 1966. Her show became A & P Enterprise Show, owned by Art and Phillys Kedrowicz.
Joe Skerbeck (1871-1954) married a distant relative Miss Ida Skerbeck (her maiden name) in 1902. They had three children: Pauline (1906-), Violet (1912-1973), and Eugene (1918-1969). Joe and Ida operated a carnival in WI and the U.P., 1920s-1930s. Violet, Joe’s daughter, married G. Greaser, and they operated a ride with her folks’ show and later their own show in WI, 1950-1955.
In the 1930s, Art Kedrowicz’s parents, Emil and Tecla Kedrowicz, demonstrated their mechanical saw mill with the Skerbeck carnivals. Mechanical and inventive demonstrations were big hits on carnival lots. In 1945, their daughter, Arlene, married Joe’s son, Eugene. Emil and Tecla had 6 children in the business. Pauline and Eugene bought their parents, Joe and Ida’s, show in 1951. By 1956 the show’s route was all in MI.
Eugene and Arlene had 4 children: Joe (1947-), Catherine “Candy” (1949-), Mary (1954-), and William “Bill” (1956-). When Eugene died suddenly in 1969, his son, Joe left college to manage the carnival for his mother, Arlene, and Aunt Pauline. Arlene later married Robert Altenburg and they booked their 3-A Show rides with Joe Skerbeck’s Skerbeck Shows for several years. Joe and his brother, Bill, united as partners in1975 and renamed the show Skerbeck Brothers Shows, Inc. Two years later they added 3-A Shows stock to their shows. They still operate the very successful, classy, friendly carnival today. Bill operates one unit and Joe the other. Their children and grandchildren are learning the business. Candy Skerbeck and her husband, T. Koleff, operated concessions in the 1960s. Mary Skerbeck owns and operates “Mary’s Munchies” on the Skerbeck Brothers Shows.