By Bartee Haile
Ivy Baldwin, hero of the high wire, passed away in his sleep on Oct. 8, 1953 after 87 action-packed years. Who would have guessed that the little man, who lived so dangerously, would die so peacefully?
A Civil War baby boomer born in San Antonio the year after Appomattox, Willie Ivy waited until he was full-grown – five-foot-three and 110 pounds – to leave home. The 12 year-old stayed in town and supported himself like most young runaways by peddling newspapers.
One day the newsboy stopped to watch a tightrope walker strut his stuff. Unimpressed but inspired, the agile adolescent stretched a wire across the San Antonio River and executed “a perfect crossing” on his first try.
Many years later, Willie recalled what happened next. “A circus owner saw me walk and gave me a contract. Before the season was over, I was the best performer and did seven acts a day.”
At 17 he joined the Baldwin Brothers, a top-notch troupe of acrobats, high-wire artists and parachute jumpers. Before embarking on the first of a half dozen trips around the world, he became one of the family by changing his name to Ivy Baldwin.
Paying customers in Japan were promised a death-defying dive into a net from a 150-foot bamboo tower. Several exacting patrons, who had gone to the trouble of measuring the structure, complained Ivy planned to cheat them out of 50 feet. He obliged the critics by raising the column to the advertised height and gave the nitpickers their yen’s worth. His most avid fan in the land of the rising sun was none other than the emperor, who personally rewarded the daredevil with a silk kimono.
Ever mindful of the fact that the slightest mistake could cripple or kill him, Ivy prepared for each performance “with all the care of a matador.” He tried to anticipate every conceivable contingency but never allowed for a drunk on horseback.
Ivy was halfway across the main street in Wichita Falls, when an intoxicated rider came out of nowhere and crashed into a helper holding a support cable. The tightrope went slack causing the tiny Texan to plunge 75 feet onto a pile of bricks breaking four ribs and an ankle.
Three years later in 1890, Ivy gave up his gypsy existence for a permanent engagement at an amusement park in Denver, Colorado. Rising to 1,500 feet in a hot-air balloon, he did high-altitude tricks on a trapeze hanging from the wicker basket and finished with a heart-stopping routine on a slender rope.
As a balloonist for the Army Signal Corps in the Spanish-American War, Ivy was shot down over enemy territory. The experience was hardly harrowing for a civilian whose bread and butter was a duel with death. “I wouldn’t say I was scared. It was like being in a hailstorm. Damaged the balloon some but never touched me.”
On a postwar hike through Colorado’s scenic Eldorado Canyon, Ivy bragged that he would have no trouble conquering the 635-foot wide chasm. The idle boast turned into the “world’s highest tightrope walk” after he sold the owner of the canyon resort on the idea.
A 7/8-inch steel cable was soon in place setting the stage for the fearless feat. The crowded canyon floor 582 feet below was a sea of anxious faces with all eyes on the starting point.
At last Ivy appeared in his work clothes: short-sleeved white shirt, baggy pants, thick leather thigh protectors and camel-hide shoes impervious to moisture. Picking up his 25-foot-long balancing pole, he stepped out into space or so it seemed to the mesmerized multitude.
When Ivy reached the center of the cable, he leaned forward and stood on his head. The spectacular stunt provoked thunderous applause and wild whoops from the astonished spectators, which he acknowledged before calmly completing the six-and-a-half-minute stroll.
Ivy was a ham at heart and enjoyed adding crowd-pleasing wrinkles to his act. Sometimes he straddled the wire and casually munched on a sandwich. On other occasions he actually cooked pancakes and flipped the edible souvenirs to his fans.
The canyon crossing was not always fun and games. To keep from disappointing a large holiday throng, Ivy once lost a race to a summer thunderstorm. Caught out on the wire by a heavy downpour, he hung by his knees for 20 minutes until the tempest passed.
Family and friends finally talked Ivy into retiring in 1926. After all, he was 60 years old and had walked the Eldorado Canyon wire 89 times over two decades. Why should he push his luck?
But Ivy refused to go to his grave without taking one last walk. With his snow-white hair blowing in the wind, he nimbly navigated a wire as long as a football field and 125 feet in the air.
The year was 1948, and Ivy Baldwin had just turned 82.
“Murder Most Texan” is a must read for fans of true crime and Texas history. Order your copy for $24.00 by mailing a check to Bartee Haile, P.O. Box 130011, Spring, TX 77393.