The Ringling Brothers, Showmen

Baraboo Paper, 1915.

Author Unknown

 Ringling Circus Employees in 1910

Ringling Circus Employees in 1910

It was circus day and a circus crowd at Portage, Tuesday, and everybody was happy.  A good part of Baraboo attended either the morning or evening performance of the World’s Greatest, nearly every one owning an auto in this locality making the trip, while many drove to Kilbourn and went the rest of the way by train, and still others made the sixteen mile drive with horse and carriage.  The day was an ideal one and Portage probably never accommodated such a vast throng before, and the way the crowd was taken care of is a credit to the city.  Preparations had been made so well for the policing of the streets and the regulation of traffic that there was very little confusion, while the hotels and restaurants very capably took care of the inner man.

It is twenty years since Ringling Brothers circus last showed in Portage, my- what a change – a score of years the official bill poster of the city states that he put up several thousand feet of bill boards on which to display the flaming posters announcing the coming of the circus; but this year how different, -- the mere mention of the fact that the World’s Greatest circus was coming to Portage spread like wild fire over the country and but little billing was necessary.

And the circus itself—well, most of you have seen it, so why attempt to describe such a stupendous attraction, ---suffice it to say that it is bigger than ever, the spectacle of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba is magnificent, the clowns the funniest ever, the trained animals almost human in their display of intelligence, the acrobats of the best, and the other performers unsurpassed in their line.  At the afternoon performance every seat under the big white top was occupied, extra chairs were also provided and some people contentedly sat upon the ground to see the big show, so great was the crowd.



By Orin Crooker.

If the “Interesting People” department of the February American Magazine appears an account of “Al.” Ringling, the famous veteran showman.  He and his brothers are the greatest powers in the circus world to day.  When they were school boys they ran away from home and started to give a show in a neighboring town.  They now own the Barnum & Bailey circus and many others of the most important shows.  In the article Mr. Ringling is quoted as follows:

“I’ve always been in the show business.  As a school boy I ran away form home with one or two of my brothers and started to give a black-face show in neighboring towns.  We were hardly started when my good father arrived on the scene, the second or third day, and took us home.  He could not get the “circus” out of our systems, and in 1882we started out in earnest.”

“Our first performance was in the jail-yard in Baraboo.  There are lots of people who still remember that performance, largely, I guess, because the seats fell down and almost broke up the show.  Of course it was only a small venture and had little to recommend it save the enthusiasm of the performers.”

“Oh!  Yes.  We all performed in those days, all five of us.  One of us was ring master; another walked the tight-rope; another ate fire;  one was a clown; my own act was juggling and rolling big cannon-balls up and down my arms and around my neck.  Some say that’s why I am a little stooped to day.”

“Did you have any animals then?  Any menagerie?”

“Only three or four horses, a monkey and a hyena, - but this last had a more blood-curdling name, - we called him a “Grave-robbing man-eater.”  As such he was a great success and brought us lots of business.”

“This was in our wagon-show days.  We traveled by wagons for six years before we became a railroad show.  In those times one year was about like another, but when we got on the railroads we began to grow rapidly.”

“I remarked that Mr. Ringling must have seen many changes take place in the circus business.”

“Yes, indeed:” he replied.  “And when I think of the pioneers whose names headed” the greatest shows on earth, “I began to feel like an old man, although I’m only sixty-four.  A reminiscent look came in to the kindly eyes which look out from beneath black, bush eyebrows of marked contrast to the circus man’s silver-gray and close-cropped hair.  “Barnum, of course, has been dead a good many years.  His partner and successor, Bailey, is also dead, and we boys own the Barnum & Bailey show.  The Forepaugh brothers are gone, so are the Sells brothers.  Their combined shows belong to me individually.  There was a time also, when we controlled the Buffalo Bill Wild West.  Come to think of it, I’m pretty near the veteran showman today, although I’ve got four younger brothers associated with me in the business.”

But Mr. Ringling is to all business.  He has a very companionable and human side.  He loves to fish, and can capture the most elusive bass or pickerel when all other fishermen give up and go home in disgust.  He is a man who loves men and whom men love.  In Baraboo, the town which has seen him evolve from a small boy holding “pin-shows” on a Saturday afternoon, to the greatest power in the circus world to day, he is universally respected.  He has built in the heart of this little town a big stone mansion which would house a prince, and from this house no man is ever turned away hungry.  Mr. Ringling believes that the roughest canvassman (sic) has helped him make his show a success, and he never turns any one away for fear that in so doing he might be guilty of an injustice to one of the innumerable roustabouts who for over thirty years have helped make the name of Ringling known throughout the world.  --- Orin Crooker.


The Ringling Brother, Showmen

By R.T. Warner

The foregoing newspaper articles are very interesting to me, as I was raised in Baraboo, Wisconsin, my parents having emigrated from New England in the year 1849, when I was only seven years old.  The schools of Baraboo furnished me all the education that I acquired prior to 1861, when I enlisted as a soldier of the Union.

As a school boy I was deeply interested in snows, and especially circuses.  My memory extends back to the early fifties.  I can remember the first show I ever saw.  It must have been as early as 1854, or perhaps 1853.  I remember the name, Nathans; - or possibly it was Sands & Nathans; - who were the proprietors.  It was a big show.  The biggest show that, up to that time, had ever climbed over the Baraboo bluffs.  I remember how the flaming posters inflamed the imagination of all the small boys of the town.  And there was a menagerie in connection with it.  Their big posters showed all the animals of jungle, and more too.  It was a great aggregation; in fact two great aggregations, a combination of two great shows.  A great circus and a great menagerie.  The children of my father’s family had never seen a circus.  Our parents had not allowed us to attend one.  Orton’s circus, a Wisconsin show, from Madison, had visited Baraboo a time or two before that, but we had never been allowed to attend it.  But this, like Artemas Ward’s, was a “great moral show”, of animals; and as natural history was then considered a very useful branch of education; and as our parents had themselves seen the great Van Amberg’s menagerie, in the East, we were allowed to go.  I remember how we watched and waited for the big show:  and how on the morning of the day they were to be in our town, the rain poured down all the forenoon, and the show wagons; - none of the circuses traveled by rail in those days; - did not begin to arrive before noon.  The show had to cross the Wisconsin river, at Merrimack, and then climb the bluffs.  Before they began to arrive rumors were rife of bridges being swept away by the flood, and of the elephants having broken them down; and of wagons stuck in the mud on the other side of the bluffs.  Things looked pretty blue to us kids about that time.  However, the wagons began to arrive, and the elephants appeared; and although there was no street parade, - it being too late after they arrived, and they barely had time to raise the big tent and get ready for the afternoon performance; - us kids feasted our eyes upon the elephants, the camels, and the tall giraffe, before the show.  All or nearly all of the wagons arrived and although the afternoon performance did not begin on time, the afternoon program was given, we saw the great show, and this was a red letter day for a good many of us. 

During the following year Mabie’s circus came to town, and I had the supreme pleasure of seeing that show.  Of course I had no money to appropriate for that purpose; - kids in those days were not allowed spending money ad libitum.  But where there is a will there is a way, and I found a way to go to the show.  My chum and I were on the ground early, on show day, and stood around looking for an opportunity to offer our services.  And as it happened we did not have very long to wait, until a man came out of the tent and sent us after a pail of water.  We got the water all right and delivered it in the tent, and were passed in to the show.  These were one-ring show.  I think the one-ring circus was the only circus of those old days.

Mr. Ringling says:  “Our first performance was in the jail-yard, in Baraboo.”  Now, unless my memory is greatly at fault, the Ringling boys’ show business was organized long before the Civil War, as early as 1858, or perhaps, 1857.  I think if I were in Baraboo now I could locate the spot, in Peck’s Addition, in a grove of scrub oaks, that was there then, back of my father’s house, where they had a cleared space for their tent; - they had stakes driven, and some kind of canvas walls:  I do not think their tent, or whatever it was, had any roof to it, except the shade of a tree, or trees; - where they used to show on Saturdays, when they were not obliged to be in school.  I never attended any of the performances there; but I used to see the boys going to and from their show past our house, frequently.  I think that this combination included some of the Gollmar boys, who were their cousins.  I knew they had a pony and a dog that took some part in their performances.  They had performing animals.  I am quite certain about that.  The existence of this early show of the Ringling Brothers was well known by all of the small boys of Baraboo, at that early day.  This according to my recollection was the beginning of their “World’s Greatest Shows” whose immense herd of animals consumes 55,000 tons of hay in one winter. 

I do not remember the hail-yard show, in 1882.  I was living then in Dakota Territory; but there was still another earlier show of theirs, that Mr. “Al” Ringling does not mention, that was pulled off while I was away from Baraboo; it was in 1878, or 1879 they gave a ten cent show on the fair ground, at the Sauk County Fair.  It must have been a good show, for a good many people remember it to this day.  My knowledge of it has been derived from persons who attended it.

I remember the Ringling boys in the Baraboo public school, when they were in the primary department.  I also remember they were pupils of the Baraboo Collegiate Institute; - there was a primary department connected with that institution, and two or three of the Ringlings were primary pupils there; - when Prof. Pillsbury was at the head of it.

The Ringling Brothers have certainly made their mark, and impressed their personality upon the people of these United States.  They are good citizens as well as good showmen.  And, although we hope they may stay with us many years yet, and that they may continue to entertain the public in the future as in the past, we may be sure that this old world will be better for their having lived in it.


                                                                                    R.T. Warner