Wisconsin Circus Days
Wisconsin Historical Society
Published in 1974
Wisconsin has long been known as the "mother of circuses" as over 100 circuses started in this state. The most famous is Ringling Brothers but many others flourished before the circus bowed to television and became an indoor spectacle.
The origin of the circus can be traced back to Greek and Roman times. The first circus to show in the United States was Rickett's, from Great Britain, which played in Philadelphia in 1793. The earliest American circus originated near Brewster, New York, in 1805. Mabie Brothers moved their wagon show from Brewster to Delavan, Wisconsin, in 1847. Within a few years, four shows made their winter quarters in Delavan. Early traveling shows were called "mud" shows because of poor roads and inadequate bridges for heavy wagons. A circus seldom gave a firm arrival date as roads were too uncertain.
In the 1860's a few circuses began to travel by train, but not until W. C. Coup, of Delavan, thought of building special circus-owned railroad cars did shows finally take to the rails. Dan Castello of Racine and Coup of Delavan became partners with P. T. Barnum in the first great railroad circus. "Popcorn" Hall and his family came from Evansville and theirs was the first American circus to perform abroad. Gollmar Brothers of Baraboo also had a popular show.
The Ringling Brothers of Baraboo, especially AI, Alf T., John, Charles and Otto, put Wisconsin on the map as "mother of circuses." Two other Ringling brothers and one sister later joined the circus team. AI, the oldest brother, loved to "play circus" in the yard and became an excellent juggler. In 1882 he and his brothers presented the Ringling Brothers Classic and Comic Concert Company. Equipment from a small wagon show made up their property.
The Lodi Valley News, January 27, 1883, announced "Coming, the Ringling Bros. (Classic and Comic) Concert Company have notified us by postal card that their advance agent will be here about the first of February to make arrangements for playing the company in our village. Save up your quarters for the coming sport." The Ringlings performed under the name of Concert Company for two years before their regular circus started.
On May 19, 1884, on a street corner in Baraboo, the Ringlings gave their first circus show. They used nine wagons, a main tent, a sideshow tent, and a company of about twenty people. The 1936 Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey Routebook shows 1540 employees, 90 railroad cards in four sections and a Big Top as large as two football fields.
In 1890 the Ringling show changed from wagon to rail and traveled to Pennsylvania, later Kentucky, Tennessee and Arkansas. In 1896, after opening in Chicago, the circus went on to the New England area.
The Ringlings were known as the "Sunday school show" as they did not allow pickpockets or shortchange artists to operate among the crowd. The Ringlings managed other famous circuses - John Robinson, Adam Forepaugh, Sells Brothers and Barnum and Bailey, merging with the latter in 1919 after winter quarters were moved from Baraboo to Sarasota, Florida.
In 1929, John, the only surviving brother, secured controlling interest in the American Circus Corporation, bringing under his management six large shows.
Since World War II and the early 1950's, there have been fewer and fewer circuses on the road although shows are still seen in coliseums, over television and in occasional outdoor areas.
Some famous circus performers from Wisconsin were Lillian Leitzel, Milwaukee, high wire artist; the Rooneys, Baraboo, acrobats; the Hollands, Delavan, jugglers and equestrians; Gladys Ramsdell, Madison, ballet; Otto Griebling, Baraboo and Dan Castello, Racine, clowns; the Halls, Evansville--Lou, animal trainer, Mabel, only woman elephant trainer, Jessie, snake charmer; and the Lindeman brothers, Sheboygan, trapeze, equestrian, high dive.
Today the more than 100 circuses that originated in Wisconsin are immortalized in the Circus World Museum at Baraboo. The old-time circus is recreated in glorious sight and sound. Circus parade wagons are on display and live circus acts are performed under the big top along with a sideshow, clowns and blaring calliope.
The Circus World Museum also operates a library of circus posters, advertisements, lithographs and books. Pictures in this folder come from the Circus Research Center of the World at Baraboo and the State Historical Society of Wisconsin, Madison.
This article has 24 large photos.
See our Permissions page for use and copyright information.