Written by Amy Bizzarri
Imagine you live in a small, sleepy Midwestern town and suddenly, one day, a big, red tent pops in the town square and a man in a tall hat beckons, "Come one, come all, to the Greatest Show on Earth!" It's a scene that repeated itself countless times from the mid-1800s throughout the 20th century when the circus was one of the largest entertainment industries in the U.S.
When a circus came to their town via riverboat, seven brothers from Baraboo, Wisconsin, were inspired to create a barnyard show of their very own, showcasing acts among the hay to their peers. In 1890, Al, Otto, Charles, John, Alf, Henry, and Gus Ringling launched a mega circus that traveled railways across the country, employing hundreds of cast and crew members.
Learn more about circus history and see the people, places, and things that defined the "Greatest Show on Earth" with these 7 stops on a Wisconsin road trip.
Circus World's Hippodrome is a permanent, 1,800-seat venue capped with a big top that hosts world-class circus shows during the summer season.
More than 260 magnificently restored, authentic antique circus wagons circle the W.W. Deppe Wagon Pavilion, also located at Circus World. The collection includes expertly carved early wooden wagons to the baggage wagons that once held all the performers' elaborate costumes and props. Don't leave without visiting the C.P. Fox Wagon Restoration Center, where visitors can see wagons as they are carefully restored to their original vibrance.
Note that Circus World is currently closed until March 21, 2022.
From their quarters located along the Baraboo River, the Ringling Brothers prepped for the upcoming new season, designing and building stage props, sewing new costumes, and contracting and training new performers. The circus animals wintered here as well; by 1916, the Ringling Brothers owned 500 horses and ponies, 29 elephants, and 15 camels in addition to tigers, lions, monkeys, and an ostrich. Out of the original 25, 10 buildings remain today including the elephant house, horse barn, and wardrobe department.
Circus World's Robert L. Parkinson Library and Research Center is a renowned research facility, home to a vast collection detailing the history of the circus from the late 1790s to the present day, including artifacts from more than 2,000 American circuses. Looking for a circus performer from yesteryear? More than 300,000 names of performers and crew members are profiled in the center's searchable database. An online library catalog makes it easy to search the library's archives and book and photo collections from afar. The library is open to the public when staff is present (call ahead for availability) and is free of charge for visiting circus scholars and enthusiasts.
Billed as “America's Prettiest Playhouse,” Al Ringling built this magnificent theater in downtown Baraboo in 1915 for $100,000, a whopping amount of money at the time and a testament to the Ringling Brothers’ wealth. Early stars, including Lionel Barrymore and Mary Pickford, found a home on the elegant stage, surrounded by an interior designed to resemble the Palace of Versailles. The vibrant theater still hosts a wide range of movies and performances and tours can be scheduled in advance.
This Romanesque Revival, red stone mansion was the home of the oldest of the legendary circus brothers, Albert Ringling, and his wife, Lou. Later it became the home of Ida Ringling North, the brothers’ only sister. Set off on a guided tour to see original furnishings, amazing hand-carved woodwork, Tiffany glass, ornate murals, and hand-decorated ceilings.
The International Clown Hall of Fame and Research Center (ICHOF) houses a searchable collection of artifacts related to the most compelling clowns in history. Red Skelton, Lou Jacobs, Emmett Kelly, Mark Anthony, Felix Adler, and Otto Griebling were the first inductees when the center was established in 1989. The center also bestows a "Lifetime of Laughter Achievement Award" to people known for bringing smiles to the world. Award recipients include Willard Scott, who played both Ronald McDonald and Bozo on TV before becoming The Today Show’s weatherman. ICHOF is open by appointment only and typically closed in the winter season; call ahead to schedule a visit.
Built by German immigrant craftsmen George and Carl Isenberg for Charles Ringling in 1900, this charming mansion is now a cozy bed and breakfast. Owners Julie Hearley and Stuart Koehler bought it from a Ringling heir and turned it into an inn, the perfect place to stay while exploring Baraboo. The home still features some original Ringling furnishings, including a dining room table, a grand piano, a gilded mirror, a Victrola record player, and one of Charles’ circus trunks. Each room dazzles with period decor and is dedicated to a member of the family who once stayed at the home. Tours of the Ringling House are free of charge for those who have booked a room, but anyone is welcome to take a guided tour of the house for a small fee, by appointment only.
Banner Photo Credit: Travel Wisconsin