During the Boeing 737 Renton Factory tour at Aviation Geek Fest this year, I thought I heard the tour guide say something about elephants walking the factory floor. Wait… what? I wasn’t sure if I heard it right, or if maybe he was having some fun with the guests. I mean, I have been in the factory many times, done a few stories, but elephants had never come up. I also know that the Boeing tour guides are super knowledgeable and he mostly likely wasn’t lying. So I decided to reach out to Boeing Historian Michael Lombardi and, sure enough, the circus did come to town! Kind of — way back in the 1940s.
It was 1947 and World War II had ended two years earlier. During the war, the factory produced 1,119 B-29 Superfortresses, but production stopped in May of 1946. The facility was owned by the U.S. government and at that point was mostly just a huge storage unit that sat unused. That is until the circus needed a winter home.
After the 1947 tour of The Sparks Circus, they had planned to transport everything back down to Florida for the winter, but ran into some financial issues. This was a legit operation and not easy to transport. They had 10 railcars worth of equipment (including one for “two dens of 13 cats for Damoo Dohtre’s act” and another for “bibles and planks”), and plenty of animals (including two elephants, horses, dogs, monkeys, bulls, and likely more). Not to mention all the fun oddities that might blur the lines of man and animal that were seen at shows like these at the time (aka the freaks). They needed a home to store everything and prep/train for the next season. What better place than a large, unused hangar?
Mr. Lombardi shared a Boeing news release that was sent out at the time with some of the photos included in this story:
“Two circus elephants take a morning stroll down the walk in front of their new ‘big top,’ the former Boeing Aircraft Company B-29 assembly plant at Renton, Wash. Bigger than any three-ringer in history, the war plant produced 1,119 of the 2,766 Boeing-built Superforts, but is now used only as a warehouse. Sparks Circus, renting the space from the War Assets Administration, will use it as winter quarters, their ten flatcars of equipment stacked among surplus Army material, old B-29 tools and fixtures, and Navy planes in storage. Circus animals will be shipped to Florida.”
1947 was not a great year for the Sparks Circus. It was the first year that they used rail cars to take their show to new destinations farther north and west. It didn’t pay off and they lost a lot of money. Over the winter, it became clear that there wouldn’t be a “next season” and The Sparks Circus was no more. Much of the equipment and animals were leased, so they were re-possessed, sold, or returned. Soon, all that was left out front was one single circus wagon, waiting to be picked up (and my guess some hay scattered around).
Side note: Man, there is so much great stuff about historical circuses out there and I almost got lost in my readings. We AvGeeks think we might be cool tracking airplanes, but there is a website that tracks historical circus wagons! Sparks wagon #132 was the one left behind waiting for a new home (which it got).
Shortly after the circus left town, Boeing came back in 1948 to start building the C-97 Stratofreighter in Renton. This was just the first of other historical aircraft including every Boeing 707, 727, 737, and 757 that was built at the Renton factory. It actually wasn’t until 1962 that the facility became Boeing’s. Before then it was still owned by the government and called Air Force Plant 20 (that is almost as creative as the Advance Technology Winglet’s name).
Sure, the Sparks Circus had a huge tent, over 20 displays, and was widely popular (in 1946 anyhow). However, I would have been more than willing to spend my money just to see an elephant walking around with airplanes and their spare parts. Now, that would be a 737 experience to the MAX!
Great story! I’m sure there’s more out there!
Mr. Lombardi was great to give me an old article and some leads, but I was surprised how much was out there about a circus company from 1947. Google has done a great job preserving old material, including magazines and newsletters that were just for the circus industry back then. I was really hoping to find more about what animals and/or people were hanging around the factory, but mostly found about their 1946 tour. Either way, I found it interesting :).
David | AirlineReporter
I don’t know if you are still active, but I wanted to let you know that your story lives on in a new art project in South Renton along Burnett Avenue. Come by to visit the “Elephants of Renton” or check out the artist’s web page: http://SouthRentonArt.com
This is super awesome! I am totally going to stop by and check this out next time I am in Renton.