How many of you remember the excitement of hearing that the circus was coming to town? There was something special about the anticipation of seeing the non-stop excitement associated with the three rings of pageantry. The flow of entertainment captivated us, as performers flew through the air or galloped across the ring. The smell of cotton candy and popcorn filled the air, while the clowns elicited laughs from the crowd. These memories are ingrained in our hearts and heads, but where did the circus go in the winter? We traveled to Circus World Baraboo, their winter headquarters, to learn about the origins of The Greatest Show on Earth. Let’s dive headfirst into the magic of the Ringling Brothers World’s Greatest Shows.

We want to thank the Wisconsin Dells CVB and Circus World for hosting our visit. Rest assured all opinions are our own.

The Fantastic Five

In the 1800s it wasn’t uncommon to have large families. Being a mostly agricultural-based society required a lot of hands to complete the chores. The Ringling (originally Rüngling) family included seven boys. What started as a small group of touring performers would become one of the most recognizable attractions in America. After witnessing a traveling circus in McGregor, Iowa, five of the seven brothers decided to venture into the entertainment business. By late 1882, they had launched their vaudeville-style show. The profits from this endeavor would be funneled back into the business.

Early Days

By the late Spring of 1884, the Ringling brothers opened their first circus. We can imagine that it was quite small, but residents of farming communities would have still been intrigued to see it. Within a couple of years, they had expanded to include their first animal acts. By now, the other two brothers had joined them in this family endeavor. In 1887, the show was renamed “Ringling Bros. United Monsters Show, Great Double Circus, Royal European Menagerie, Museum, Caravan, and Congress of Trained Animals”. We can imagine that this type of bravado would have drawn quite the crowd.

Coming to Town

With each brother bringing their specific talent into play, the circus would continue to expand. Crafty planning ensured the brothers avoided clashes with competing carnivals and circuses. They would often focus on small, neglected villages and towns, where the lack of entertainment meant bigger turnouts. While we have seen circus wagon trains portrayed in movies, we never got to witness one in person. It must have been quite a sight to observe the pageantry proceeding down Main Street, with amazing music, performers, and fantastic creatures in tow.

Wild West meets Circus

By the turn of the century, the Ringling brothers had built one of the largest traveling shows in America. Their largest competitor, Barnum and Bailey, was purchased by the brothers but kept separate for a while. They continued to expand both circuses, until the start of World War I. With attendance diminishing, the brothers combined the two circuses into “The Greatest Show on Earth”. In the meantime, there were still plenty of other sideshows competing for entertainment dollars. Circus World Baraboo has a large warehouse filled with wagons from various circuses and traveling sideshows. As we wandered through the collection, I saw many familiar, and lots of unfamiliar, names. One that I think would have been amazing to witness was Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show.

Changing Perspective

When we hear the word circus, a certain set of images arise. Most involve human and animal acts performed under the big top. In the early days, there was another aspect to the traveling shows. Many included sideshows that showcased human oddities or disfigurements. Often referred to as “freak” shows, they were a secondary form of entertainment. Assembled under their own tent, hawkers would call out to the passing crowd in an effort to pique curiosity. Sometimes the exhibits were artificially created and touted as something like a mermaid mummy. We saw quite a few examples of these during a visit to the Uranus Sideshow Museum. Over time, the public’s opinion of these types of acts changed, laws were enacted to prohibit them, and they disappeared from the circus.

Clowning Around

While we were touring Circus World Baraboo, some of the staff members informed us that their daily circus was scheduled to begin soon. In fact, one was kind enough to offer us a ride over to the big top. Once there, we made our way inside to witness the magic. It wouldn’t be a circus without clowns and sure enough, there were a couple of acts included in the schedule. While we adults enjoyed the comical humor, it was the children in the audience who were enchanted by the hilarity of their actions. Many acts are fairly simple in design, but the smiles they elicit are timeless.

Majestic Acts

The circus is a truncated version of the three rings we witnessed as children. They still include some thrills and chills. Seeing the elephants marching around the ring reminded us of the intelligence of these giants. In the earlier days of Ringling Brothers Circus, the staff would have been tasked with caring for nearly 30 of these creatures. Of course, there were also 500 horses, 15 camels, and a menagerie of lions, tigers, and other animals. That is why there were 25 structures that made up the winter headquarters of Circus World Baraboo. Another exciting display of talent came from the air. While it wasn’t on the scale of a full-blown trapeze act, it was still thrilling for the audience.

Circus World Baraboo

We enjoyed our visit to Circus World Baraboo and found it to be quite intriguing. While we have enjoyed the circus in the past, we hadn’t given much thought to the amount of work required to keep it running throughout its busy season. When we learned that the winter headquarters were in Wisconsin, it really surprised us. I suppose that facing a cold winter would help you focus on the tasks at hand since there would be fewer distractions. Wandering through all of the exhibits can keep a visitor busy for quite some time, so be sure to allot plenty during your visit. This family-friendly attraction is a good way to see how the public’s perspective of entertainment has changed, yet some parts are still just as thrilling.

the authors signatures.

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