The Ringling Brothers Circus began in Baraboo in 1884 and continued to use the site for its winter quarters until 1918. The Circus World Museum, opened in 1959, gives visitors the opportunity to examine circus memorabilia as well as to enjoy live circus acts.
Circus World Museum
550 Water Street
Baraboo, WI 53913-2597
ph.: (608) 356-8341, 356-0800
fax: (608) 356-1800
Web site: www.circusworldmuseum.com
Almost seven million people visited the Circus World Museum between 1959 and 1999. The museum is owned by the State Historical Society of Wisconsin and operated by the nonprofit Circus World Museum Foundation. It is recognized worldwide for its unrivaled collection of circus wagons, its educational programs, and its archival collection devoted to the history of the American circus. Designated a National Historic Landmark, the Museum preserves eight buildings and barns that once were a part of the original quarters.
Albrecht (Al) Ringling was the oldest son of a German immigrant who operated a modest harness shop in the small community of Baraboo. After Ringling observed a circus in his youth, he and four of his brothers began giving amateur performances for the local citizens, and he obtained a job traveling as a juggler and a ropewalker. A person with both strength and dexterity, Ringling’s specialty was the innovative balancing of a heavy plow over his head. In 1882, he and his four brothers organized a variety show, the Carnival of Fun, which toured the small towns of the Midwest.
In 1884, the brothers joined with Yankee Robinson, a retired circus operator, to establish a small circus with a tent that would hold six hundred people. On May 19, the troupe gave its first show, in Baraboo. They had twenty-one performers, including Al Ringling’s wife, a snake charmer. Their summer tour of southern Wisconsin was moderately successful. Each year, the performances became bigger and more spectacular. The purchase of their first elephant in 1888 was a milestone. By 1890, they were operating a railroad train of eighteen cars. The next year they expanded from one ring to three rings and took the name The Ringling Brothers World’s Greatest Shows.
By the turn of the century, the circus was giving shows primarily in the larger cities of North America, and it no longer played in Baraboo. Its only serious rival was Barnum & Bailey. After James Bailey died, the Panic of 1907 forced his widow to sell the circus to the Ringling Brothers for the small sum of $41,000. For the next decade, the brothers ran the two shows separately. The Barnum & Bailey circus had its winter quarters in Bridgeport, Connecticut, while the Ringling Brothers Circus continued to have its winter quarters in Baraboo. With its many animal shelters along the Baraboo River, the circus was one of the largest employers of the region.
By the early 1900’s, the brothers were quite wealthy, and they owned large houses in Baraboo. Al Ringling continued to be devoted to the city, but his younger brothers preferred to spend most of the winter in Florida. Ringling built an opera house, which he intended to donate to Baraboo. In 1916, however, he died before signing the will, and his brothers decided not to make the gift.
In 1918, the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey merged into a single operation, which they called “The Greatest Show on Earth.” This was was very bad news for the community of Baraboo, because the brothers decided to make their winter quarters in Connecticut. Nine years later, the great circus moved from Connecticut to Florida. For its fiftieth anniversary in 1933, the circus held a performance in Baraboo, the first such performance in almost forty years. By this time, all the brothers but one had died.
By the 1950’s, circus shows were becoming much less common than before. John Kelley, an attorney for the Ringlings, had the idea of establishing a location to preserve as much of the past as possible. He suggested that the most logical location was Baraboo. The idea was enthusiastically supported by the city, its local organizations, and the state historical society. In 1959, the Circus World Museum held its grand opening. Since then, the museum has assembled the world’s largest collection of antique circus wagons, including many that cannot be seen anywhere else.
In 1965, the Robert L. Parkinson Library and Research Center was added to preserve the paper, photographic, and sound materials which had been donated to the museum. The mission of the library is to collect, preserve, and interpret circus history. Its holdings have grown to more than fifty thousand photographs, eight thousand posters, three thousand books, six hundred films, and thousands of other items related to the history of the American circus. The professional staff includes an archivist and a curator of artifacts. The library is free and open to the public the entire year.
Also in the late 1960’s, the museum erected the Moeller Hippodrome in order to present live circus performances. In 1972, these were expanded to include big-top performances with international award-winning casts. In 1985, the museum presented its first magic show. In 1998, visitors were first allowed to observe circus wagon restoration. Each year about 200,000 people visit the museum for a family experience that is both fun and educational.
Conover, Richard. The Circus: Wisconsin’s Unique Heritage. Baraboo, Wis.: Circus World Museum, 1967. Especially appealing for people interested in the local history of Wisconsin. Eckley, Wilton. The American Circus. Boston: Twayne, 1984. An excellent general introduction to circus history, with an excellent bibliography. Jansen, Dean. The Biggest, the Smallest, the Longest, the Shortest: A Chronicle of the American Circus from Its Heartland. Madison: Wisconsin House, 1975. The best source for the role of Wisconsin in circus history. May, Earl Chapin. Circus: From Rome to Ringling. New York: Dover, 1963. A very interesting historical work, with much information about the Ringling brothers. North, Henry Ringling, and Alden Hatch. The Circus Kings: Our Ringling Family Story. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1960. A personal account from a member of the family. Plowden, Gene. Those Amazing Ringlings and Their Circus. Caldwell, Idaho: Caxton Printers, 1967. An interesting and informative book with many anecdotes about the Ringling brothers and their career.