History of the Ringling Brothers Circus in Baraboo, Wi


An 1898 lithograph poster from Courier Lithography Co. | Photo via Wiki Commons

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World Circus Day is Sat., April 16 + we couldn’t pass up the opportunity to explore the history of a local circus. The Ringling Brothers Circus.

One of the longest-running circuses in the world, The Ringling Bros. performed their first circus in Baraboo, Wisconsin on May 19, 1884 under a 45 x 90 ft. tent. The five brothers — Albert, Otto, Alfred, Charles, and John — entertained the crowd with a traveling wagon and rented horse, vaudeville-style.


A 1909 train arrives with elephants. | Photo via Library of Congress

The early circuses

The first years of the circus were much smaller than the modern-day spectacle. The brothers toured regionally with their wagon for the first six years — until moving to the railroads — making the whole country their stage. By 1914, the brothers had 1,000 employees, 335 horses, and 26 elephants — all in 92 rail cars. Admission for adults was 50 cents. Tickets for the final 2017 show sold for $2,000+.

Barnum and Bailey enter the big top

By the 1890s, two major circuses had emerged in the US. Barnum and Bailey + Ringling made an agreement to divide the US in two, avoiding competition. Barnum and Bailey stayed on the east coast while Ringling had a strong hold in Chicago. With the hard economic times of WWI, the two merged in 1919 into the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Combined Shows – The Greatest Show on Earth.


Over-the-top posters were extremely important for advertising. | Photo by 608today team

The end of an era

In 2017, the greatest show on earth was officially retired, taking its final curtain call in NY. But the show’s not quite over yet. The Wisconsin Historical Society runs a museum in Baraboo — Circus World Baraboo. The original wintering buildings remain on the museum property, hosting information about the circus, as well as shows under the tent during the summer, so you can experience the magic up close.

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