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Sangamon Valley Primary School students watch a sleeping tiger while getting a tour of the Culpepper and Merriweather Circus during their tour stop at the Sangamon Valley Intermediate school in Illiopolis on Thursday.

ILLIOPOLIS — Once upon a time, the circus used its own elephants to help put up the big top.

Nowadays, that work is done by hardworking humans, and it takes a lot of them to pull it off.

In a grassy area next to Sangamon Valley Intermediate School on Thursday, members of the Culpepper and Merriweather Circus placed 150 stakes, pounded them into the ground with sledgehammers, erected pens and shade for the menagerie, and pulled the 110-foot Big Top into place with sheer muscle and determination. The three-section Big Top tent is called a push/pull style because of that.

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Workers set up a tent for the Culpepper and Merriweather Circus as Sangamon Valley students observe in Illiopolis on Thursday morning. The Sangamon Valley Parent Teacher Organization sponsored the circus as a fundraiser.

“When the center pole comes up, let's give them some love, OK?” said Leo Acton, the tour guide and clown, who gave the youngsters from Sangamon Valley's primary and intermediate schools an up-close and behind the scenes look at the circus Thursday morning, prior to the two evening performances the same day. The center poles, two of them, are topped with large American flags because, Acton said, “Circus folks are not known for subtlety.” When the first center pole rose, the kids clapped so politely that Acton joked they must hire them out to clap at golf tournaments. He urged more enthusiasm for the second center pole, so when it rose, the kids cheered, too, and that's what Acton was hoping for, he said.

The circus was sponsored by the Sangamon Valley Parent-Teacher Organization as a fundraiser to help them do the many things they do for the district's schools, said Lacey Wood, a fifth-grade teacher and member of the PTO.

For example, the kids watched the tent and the unpacking from a state-of-the-art playground with soft ground covered with chopped-up tires that will cushion falls. The PTO helped pay for that, Wood said, and the ground cover alone was $30,000. The communities of Illiopolis, Niantic and Harristown that make up the Sangamon Valley district are supportive of their schools, she said.

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From left, second-graders Levi Floyd, Remington Montgomery and Timothy Whitacre keep amused on the playground while waiting to watch the raising of the Culpepper and Merriweather Circus tent at the Sangamon Valley Intermediate School in Illiopolis on Thursday. The district's Parent Teacher Organization raised money to purchase the rubber flooring for the play area.

“I love it,” said second-grader Noah Martin, who attended preschool, kindergarten and first grade in Illiopolis before the district changed to attendance centers, with all primary students in Harristown and intermediate together in Illiopolis.

The PTO recently bought iPads for a class and has helped with school supplies and class trips. When teachers need things, they attend one of the monthly meetings and present their request and if the money's available, Wood said, the PTO provides it.

“I was a student at Sangamon Valley. I graduated from here,” said Jared Leeper, who teaches second grade at the primary building after several years teaching in Clinton. “The PTO has a long history of helping us provide supplies in the classroom we need, and opportunities like this (circus). They're a great resource for Sangamon Valley.”

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Sangamon Valley Primary School students cheer for workers as they set up a tent for the Culpepper and Merriweather Circus at Sangamon Valley Intermediate School in Illiopolis on Thursday.

Primary Principal Bethany Wellbaum said the students had been eagerly looking forward to the circus. 

“The kids are super pumped about it,” she said. “They've been talking about it in the classrooms.”

Culpepper and Merriweather even sent a clown to visit the school last week to talk about what a circus is to prepare the kids who hadn't encountered one before, Wellbaum said.

The company is based in Hugo, Okla., Acton told the kids, and they're on the road 219 days a year, from March 18 through Oct. 21. They take only two days off in that time.

In the off-season, the ponies that give rides — Coco, Diane, Betsy and Calvin — are put out to pasture with Finn the donkey as a companion. Finn protects them from predators, Acton said, just as Finn gave a long, loud bray, making the kids laugh.

The circus includes a menagerie, with an alpaca, a cow, goats, ducks, geese, chickens and a turkey, and a lion and two tigers. Acton led the students up to, but still a safe distance from, the cages with the big cats.

“We pull into town, and we get all this set up and put on two shows a night,” Acton said. “Then we take it all down, get a little rest, and head to the next town to do it all over again the next day.”

Contact Valerie Wells at (217) 421-7982. Follow her on Twitter: @modgirlreporter

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Education Reporter

Education reporter for the Herald & Review.

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