Circus History
Some local angles

Circus History – some local angles
Stevens Point Daily Journal Sept. 8, 1979

"This is a typical one-horse town, with no street cars, and the worst kind of sandy streets." (Excerpt from the route book of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show on its visit to Stevens Point on Sept. 4, 1896.)

Portage County has a small share in Wisconsin’s rich circus heritage, according to Robert Parkinson of the Circus World Museum, Baraboo.

Parkinson spoke Friday afternoon at the University Center during the second annual meeting of the Wisconsin Folklore and Folklife Society.

One name, Ringling, naturally came up more often than others. But names such as Mabie, Castello, Coup and Gollmar are also prominent in circus lore, and they had Wisconsin connections too.

Well over 100 circuses have been based, wintered or organized in Wisconsin, more than in any other state, said Parkinson.

Plover, he said, was the home of the Engford Family Shows, a small motorized circus that operated in the 1920s and ‘30s.

The only Wisconsin-based circus still in existence is the Franzen Brothers based near Nelsonville. Wayne Franzen, who once taught at Stevens Point Area Senior High School, founded it in 1974.

"Though very small, it has gained a substantial reputation for the tremendous quality of its performing animals," said Parkinson.

The circus as we know it, he said, originated in London in about 1769 and came to the United States in 1793. In 1847, the Mabie Brothers Circus, based in New York, ventured to the Midwest and established winter quarters in Delavan, starting the Wisconsin circus tradition.

Circuses traveled from town to town by wagon until 1869, when Dan Castello, a Racine based entrepreneur, took his circus to the West Coast via the Union Pacific in 1869.

Then he teamed up with a Delavan circus man, William Cameron Coup, and together they formed the first true railroad circus in 1872. It was Coup, said Parkinson, who devised the sophisticated techniques that allowed circus to load and unload with remarkable speed.

Meanwhile, about the time the Mabie circus was settling in Wisconsin, Europe was torn by revolution. To escape military service in Germany, a harness maker named August Rungling came to the United States. He wound up in Baraboo, changed the spelling to Ringling and fathered a circus dynasty.

Circus titans such as Forepaugh, Barnum, Sells Brothers and Coup were struggling for supremacy by the 1880’s, but the unlikely winner turned out to be the Ringling show, founded by five of August’s sons in 1884.

Parkinson said the Ringling circus was excellent, but no better than the others. The brothers succeeded, he said, "because they were the first circus proprietors to convince the American public they had done away with grift," meaning pickpockets, cardsharps and the like.

They went so far as to hire Pinkerton detectives to accompany their circus and point out con artists to the local police.

By 1907 the Ringling brothers, who now numbered seven, had bought out their principal rivals.

They continued to make Baraboo their winter home until 1918. With hundreds of horses to feed, said Parkinson, it was cheaper for the circus to buy coal to heat buildings in fodder-rich Wisconsin than to go south and import hay.

Parkinson said the heyday of the circus ended about 1939 or 1940. In that era, Ringling Brothers, Barnum & Bailey played under a big top that seated almost 12,000 people and covered nearly as much area as two football fields. It had 1,400 employees.

A disastrous fire hit the big top in Hartford, Conn., in 1944, and since 1956 the Ringling circus has only played indoors.

"I’m delighted that I was able to experience the circus heyday, and grieved that most were not," Parkinson told his audience.

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