My Aunt Ella Mills

 

 

 

586 Pounds of Feminine Charm

by Pat Gelhar Grahn

When my oldest nephew, Kyle, was in first grade his teacher called his mother to request a conference. When my sister-in-law arrived at the meeting, the teacher explained that the two of them needed to work together to help Kyle overcome his "problem" of telling outlandish stories. The tale the teacher was most concerned about was Kyle's insisting that his aunt was a "fat lady" in the circus. My sister-in-law smiled and replied that yes, his great-aunt, Ella Grahn "Mills" Milbauer, was a fat lady in the Ringling Bros, and Barnum & Bailey Circus sideshow. Being the keeper of the family's history, I was asked to send my nephew a photo of Aunt Ella for show and tell.

 

Traveling with the big top was always a dream for the poor country girl from near Baraboo, Wis., once the winter home of the Ringling Bros, circus. *When fat lady "Alice from Dallas" passed away, Aunt Ella applied for the job. She was never interviewed for the position, but obtained it by just mailing a photograph.


Billed as "586 Pounds of Feminine Charm,
**"Aunt Ella made her first sideshow tour in 1956 after having a wardrobe made by the famed "Doll Family" of midgets.

 

She was on stage with such attractions as a fire eater, a bearded woman, an alligator woman, a sword swallower, a giant, and a snake lady.  Aunt Ella was a fan favorite. In a 1961 newspaper article she noted, 'It was kinda hard to get used to the rest of the people in the sideshow. It took awhile to find out that they are all fine folks and friendly just like everyone else."


Ella and her husband, Bob, spent their circus years traveling in a house trailer pulled by a car that Aunt Ella drove. She sat behind the steering wheel in a front seat that had been moved directly in front of the back seat, allowing her to get her massive bulk behind the steering wheel. The gas and brake pedals were built up so she could reach them. Her sister once laughingly told me, "You always knew when Ella was coming and going as her large bust always beeped the horn when she went to put in or take out the car keys."


Part of Aunt Ella's "show" called for a display of her two gigantic legs. She remembered one man calling out to her, "Put your dress down, you're a big girl now. "She stayed with Ringling Bros, until they discontinued tent shows. Afterward, she traveled with other circuses, including the biggest remaining tent show, Clyde Beatty-Cole Bros. Circus. In 1961, at the age of 62, she retired to Montello, Wis.


Having a circus fat lady as a relative has left our family with some unique memories. Most notable was her funeral in 1964. She died in her circus travel trailer, which had been placed
on a concrete foundation; the entire local volunteer fire department was called in to help move her body, which was wedged in a hallway. A special casket had to be made: an ordinary coffin, quartered and plywood added to extend it in all directions by-fours for reinforcement.


Getting the empty coffin into the funeral home wasn't a problem, but to get Aunt Ella out of the funeral home, the picture window had to be removed and
***12 pallbearers (instead of the normal six) pulled the casket through the window opening. Burial required two adjoining cemetery plots. One cousin remembers hoping "the preacher would pray fast" as the weight of the casket was straining the ropes that held Aunt Ella above the grave and they were creaking loudly in protest.


After Aunt Ella's death, all of her circus memorabilia and costumes were donated to the Circus World Museum in Baraboo. All that remains to our family are our memories and the photo album I keep.


From an Article Pat Gelhar Grahn wrote for the History Channel Magazine.


*(There have also been two stories about how she came to be in the circus.  One was that she heard that Alice from Dallas had died and sent in a photo to RB/BB Circus.  From that pictures alone she supposedly got the job.  The other story is that she was on the beach in Sarasota, Florida and a circus recruiter approached her there.  The truth is that she was in Hot Springs, Ark, "Taking the waters" to lose weight, when she was approached by someone from the circus about being the fat lady).

 

**(My Aunt Ella was known as an outstanding seamstress, so she sewed her own costumes for the sideshow.  I have been told by several people that she put more gathering into her dresses so she would look even larger.  So the story of the Doll Family midgets sewing her dresses is all "hype").

 

***(I have also confirmed though research that it was 10 pallbearers and not 12 like we thought.)

 

Corrected information provided by Pat Gelhar Grahn - Ella Mills Niece

Pat Gelhar Grahn lives in Winneconne, Wis.

 

All photos and text posted here with the permission of Pat Gelhar Grahn 2008 copyright all rights reserved

 


Articles

The Fat Lady and the Thief

Ringling Bros. Famed Fat Lady Dies

 

Big Top Not the Same

 Fat Lady is Now Retired

Sheboygan Casket Mfg. Co., Inc . . . .

 

Biggest Circus Attraction

Moves to Montello

 

 


Pat Gelhar Grahn is researching for an upcoming book about her Aunt Ella Mills -

If you have information - Stories - Photographs - Etc.  Please email her by clicking here 


 

Pages from History

A collection of historic Images - Ella Mills

 

 


 

 

Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Baileys Circus Sideshow 1956

 


Click On The Photos Below To View Full Size.


Ella Mills & Friends Ella Mills & Other Performers Ella Mills Inside the Show Inside Lecture

Acts Bill Durks Bill Durks Bill Durks

Blow Torch Blow Torch Fire Eater Sword

Ella Mills Pitch Card Ella Mills Ella Mills Ella Mills

Ella on the Inside On Stage Ella with Friends Proof Photos for Pitch Card

Proof Photo A Proof Photo B Proof Photo C Proof Photo D

 

 

Pitch Card Ella at Trailer House Aunt Ella ELLIE - FAT GIRL

 

 

 

 

 

Clyde Betty Cole Bros

Note Ellie in Front Row

 

 

 


Information and Images courtesy of  Pat Gelhar Grahn

 

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