When it comes to the circus, no town is more steeped in that rich history than Baraboo, Wisconsin. Baraboos’ circus history started in 1884 when five Ringling brothers (Albert, Otto, Alfred, Charles, and John) from Baraboo established a circus and gave their first official circus performance in a field under a 45 x 90 ft. tent. They entertained the crowd with a traveling wagon and a rented horse – it was a vaudeville-style show and nothing like the spectacle that would morph into the Greatest Show on Earth.
Circuses grew in popularity in the late 1800s and soon other circuses popped up. In its heyday, Baraboo was home to 11 circuses, and it was appropriately dubbed “Circus City.” With an accolade like that, we thought Baraboo sounded like a pretty interesting place to visit.
Circuses were portable and had to move to the people, which presented a couple of challenges. Two things were needed for a traveling circus show – a place to perform and a way to get there. In 1825, the portable event tent was invented and gave the circuses the theater they needed. Next came the challenge of moving the circus to town. In the beginning, wooden “circus wagons” were used to transport animals, performers, and equipment. Wagons adorned with elaborate carvings and eye-catching colors paraded through town intending to spark intrigue and attract audiences. There were band wagons playing jovial tunes, and animals had special wagons so they could be seen and to accommodate their unique needs, such as an open-air cart for the giraffe and those with shallow pools for the sea lion and hippopotamus.
With the expansion of the railroad across the United States, the circus blossomed – now they could move more performers, animals, and tents and travel to farther reaches of the country. By 1914, the Ringling Brothers had 1,000 employees, 335 horses, 26 elephants, and countless other animals requiring 92 rail cars to move the menagerie. They would pull into town, unload, perform, and pack up and head to another city for the next show. The operation was such a marvel of organization that the U.S. Army studied one circus operation to learn how to improve troop and equipment movement.
The circus brought mystique of the natural world and magic to towns large and small with never-before-seen animals, human oddities, death-defying feats, and entertaining characters. But attracting audiences to the big top was no easy task, especially with so many competing circuses. Enter the circus poster – that dazzling colorful display that sparked the interest of onlookers and depicted some of the best acts a circus had to offer. Circus owners knew a picture could be worth a thousand words, and printed posters were the advertising trick they used. Posters garnered the attention of onlookers with their illustrations of the circuses’ spectacles, such as ferocious tigers snarling at trainers, a human cannonball, monkeys riding bicycles, and elephants balancing on one leg. Could these feats be real? The only way to find out was to buy a ticket and see for oneself.
Another circus powerhouse, Barnum & Bailey, had emerged on the East Coast. The ambitious Ringlings bought Barnum & Bailey in 1907 after the death of James Bailey in 1906. The two circuses remained separate until 1919, at which time they performed together, and the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus became known as The Greatest Show on Earth. It was to become the largest outdoor amusement enterprise the world had ever known.
Every winter until 1918, the circus returned to Baraboo to prepare for the next season’s show, repair equipment, build new props, and house their animals. Residents of Baraboo remember the days when it was common to see camels, giraffes, or elephants walking on city streets, getting their exercise, or bathing in the Baraboo River.
In 2017, The Greatest Show on Earth took its final curtain call in New York, and the long, rich history of the Ringlings’ circus was over. The decision to pack up the tent a final time was due to dwindling ticket sales and the high cost of moving the circus around the country. An earlier blow came to the circus in 2015 when they stopped using elephants in live performances due to criticism from animal rights groups. A longtime circus performer said not using elephants is “like getting rid of Mickey Mouse if you’re Disney.”
But, the long history and excitement of the circus lives on at the Circus World Museum in Baraboo. Circus World, which opened in 1959, is located at the original home of the Ringling Brothers Circus. The museum complex is devoted to all things circus and is a delightful and entertaining place to be.
Historic buildings that once housed circus animals now feature exhibits about the circus and memorabilia, including sequined costumes; elephant headpieces; circus posters; musical instruments; circus wagons; and much, much more. If it is the excitement of walking into the big top and live entertainment that you want, you will want to visit during the summer when live performances take place daily.
We spent four hours wandering through the exhibits and reading the history, and we were in total awe of the historic circus wagons. Our stay in Baraboo was early in the season and the live performances had not started for the season. But needless to say, we are so glad we saw it all and were totally entertained. This meant that our ticket price was reduced, but we missed out on lots of live circus fun. When the season is in full swing, you could easily spend a whole day here watching jugglers, trapeze artists, and clowns and listening to the band wagon, riding a carousel, eating cotton candy, and taking in all the splendor that is the circus. (A note about the elephants at Circus World: they currently have two elephants that perform in shows and give rides to the public. At the end of the 2023 season, they will be retired from performing and go to a facility that houses and cares for retired circus elephants.)
What is a circus without clowns? Clowns have always been an integral part of the circus, providing a source of amusement with their entertaining antics. For more about clowns and clown history, check out the International Clown Hall of Fame and Research Center (ICHOF) while in Baraboo. The facility is dedicated to the preservation and advancement of clown art and achievement, and the ICHOF pays tribute to outstanding clown performers, operates a museum of clowning with resident clown performers, and maintains a national archive of clown artifacts and history. Pictures, videos, props, costumes, and posters entertain you while telling the story of the history of clowning.
The name Ringling is everywhere in Baraboo, and it is apparent the city is proud of its famous circus history. There is a Ringling Theater, the Ringling House Bed and Breakfast, the AL. Ringling Brewery, murals, and countless other reminders that the most popular, longest-running circus was born in this town. We loved walking around Circus Town, which has plenty of nice shops, restaurants, and historic sites to marvel at.
|Nancy Walters and Dr. Betsy Dresser are the co-authors of RV-A-GOGO, a blog they started in 2011 to chronicle their travel adventures living full-time in an RV. They retired from wildlife conservation careers and, after traveling the world, are now crisscrossing America seeking out everything there is to explore, from natural wonders and historic landmarks to quirky attractions and divey restaurants. Their blog provides readers with information about travel destinations, “must-see” attractions, the RV lifestyle, recipes, campground reviews, and more.|