The Circus is coming to Town……Pembroke
By David Field
Published in "The Upper Canadian" March 2005.
It is a pleasure to write another article on previously undocumented folk artists in Ontario; particularly in the case of the Klatt Brothers - Joe and Hubert. They have a significant body of work which develops from the strong Ottawa Valley tradition of carving and reflects on local events in the mid 1900's. This article also draws attention to an exhibit of their work, featuring the Klatt Bros. Circus; that will be shown at The Champlain Trail Museum in Pembroke starting May 24th this summer.
Information for the article comes from interviews with the Klatt family - Stanley Klatt, a brother; Gary Klatt, Hubert's son, Terry Klatt, Joe's son and others in the Pembroke area.
The Klatts are a Pembroke family. Hubert (1917 - 1997) and Joe (1919 - 2003) were the fifth and sixth of nine children born to Frank and Mary Klatt. Frank and Mary were first generation Canadians; their respective parents all emigrated from Germany. There was a family history of stone work and sculpture in Germany prior to emigration. Frank was known to carve small animals and toys for the children to play with. Stanley's first recollection of carving by his brothers was to make pieces for the farm games they used to play. Prior to carving their games used acorns and stones for animals - then Joe carved a pig and Hubert started with a horse. Joe was also known at school as an artist - always drawing. A quote from Hubert tells how at eight years old he would carve at noon hour at school then run home to complete the work in the evening.
Their work developed with time so that in their early teens they were starting to sell pieces to the tourist trade in the area. Working and selling from their home on Eganville Road, which, at the time of writing, remains in the family; their commercial work included moose, bears, beaver, natives on horseback, wall plaques - all typical of carving in the area. These same subjects were repeated by other carvers such as Abe Patterson of Renfrew and Charlie Volrath of Chalk River. Carving was a competitive business and Stanley relates that Joe and Hubert guarded their designs carefully and would stop carving when there were visitors to the workshop so no techniques could be picked up. The works done at this stage were carved from pine - available locally from the mills; and also used recycled material such as the orange crates for the food wagon in the circus. Once they became known their works were popular and they carved all winter to have sufficient supply for the summer tourist traffic.
The Klatt Bros. Circus is the major piece of work produced by Joe and Hubert. This is an eight wagon circus with caged exotic animals, outriders, minstrel band and elephants. The design truly reflects a circus - including the wagon to carry the tents and a food wagon. This work was carved in 1935/36 when the Klatts were in their mid teens. It was a cooperative effort - Joe did the designs and painting, Hubert carved many of the figures and they both produced wagons. While the circus has many wonderful design features, the horses truly stand out. You can feel them pulling the wagons. They kept the circus around their workshop and the only photos of the time show it displayed on a lawn.
A year or so after completion of the circus the brothers were encouraged to take it to Callander, where the 3 year old Dionne quintuplets were a major tourist draw. Joe and Hubert went to Callander, sold their own carvings and charged the public 25 cents admission to see the circus. This is the only time that the circus has been on display for the public. As the war approached people did not travel and demand for their work dropped dramatically. Joe and Hubert went their separate ways as carvers and folk artists, and split up the circus - each taking half and putting it in storage.
Hubert worked for at AECL as a carpenter and continued carving. After his retirement in 1974 he carved full time as a living. He worked with various locally available woods - white birch, basswood, cherry, pine and butternut and rarely painted his pieces. Hubert was often commissioned by the local Legion to make pieces as gifts for visiting dignitaries. Prime Minister John Diefenbaker, Premier Bill Davis and Governor General Vanier were among the recipients. Hubert made many of his own tools for carving. These were kept by the family and will also be displayed in Pembroke.
Joe worked for Canadian Splint and Lumber Company when he was young and later as a civilian employee at CFB Petwawa. They called on him there to provide carvings and paintings as gifts for special presentations to senior officers and visiting dignitaries. He carved selectively but his work shows great care in the sanding and painting of each piece. He also developed a number of dioramas combining carving and painting. Joe enjoyed painting - mostly nature scenes of moose, bears and logging activities that are so typical of the Ottawa Valley. Joe's design was also the winner of the logo contest for the Pembroke sesquicentennial - an image that was used extensively throughout the 1978 celebrations and now hangs in the museum.
The arrival of the circus was a feature of summer for many small towns in Ontario in the early to mid 1900's. The train would pull into town loaded with wagons, animals, equipment, performers and staff. Depending on the size, there was a major effort to unload the circus at the station - this would be followed by a parade through town as the circus went to the location where it would be set up. Pembroke was on the circus circuit - there are records that show Barnum Brothers Circus came to town.
The parade and set up was a draw for boys in town. Gary Klatt, Hubert's son, recalls being hired to help with unloading and set up - to be paid with admission tickets to the circus.
Circus touring and wood carving intertwined nicely as the carver that wanting to show off his range of skills would undertake the challenge of carving a full circus. The need to render people, animals, wagons and support material gave the carver the chance to shine. Circus carving was a passion among a select few in the mid 1930's, the period when the 500 foot long "Backstein's Minature Circus" was carved. At the time this was the largest complete ˝ inch scale circus in the world. It is on display at the Shelburne Museum in Vermont. Backstein and other similarly interested carvers formed the Circus Model Builders in 1935 - a club that exists today. There is no information to show whether the Klatts were aware of this club. The Klatt Bros. Circus is special to the Pembroke area and is a significant piece of our folk art heritage in Ontario. The display this summer will be only the second time it has been available to the public.
Folk art, carving, the Klatt Bros. Circus - it will all come together in an exhibit this year from May 24th to Labour Day weekend at the Champlain Trail Museum in Pembroke.
For information on the exhibit see www.pembrokeontario.com .
The writer thanks the family for their cooperation in preparing this article and welcomes any further information on Klatt carvings and paintings.