In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the traveling circus was the pinnacle of entertainment in the US. The ‘Greatest Show on Earth’ wasn’t simply a tagline, as it is with today’s circus. It once implied the weird, the exotic, the horrifying, the educational, and the entertaining. It travelled to new settlements and older towns alike, offering the sensation that the entire world came and left the next day.
Today, a living testimony to that era of showmanship stands in Baraboo Wisconsin, situated on the old Ringling Bros. winter grounds. From weather worn buildings that housed live animals to the world’s largest collection of circus wagons, one can witness some of the sights that once captivated American settler’s imaginations.
I, to my disappointment, showed two days after the live performances halted, due to summers end. From May to august, the museum plays host to two live big top performances a day, filled with flying trapeze, circus animals, clowns and more. However, there was a flipside, admission to the museum was half price, being roughly ten dollars rather than the summer session’s twenty for an adult.
I admit, as I wander the museum on a Wednesday afternoon, two days into the fall session, I get the sense of what an awed ten year old would feel a century before, wanting to return to see the sights again after the previous day’s fun only to find a vacant field. The museum feels like a ghost town, except its not a vacant field. Instead, dormant structures and the carousel are visual evidence of a festive spot that no longer endures, much like prowling a closed amusement park.
In the museum’s defense, the kids are returning to school and the weather will soon become colder. Circus season is over. Plus, there are still many historical exhibits left behind in a very up to date and well cared for museum.
The first exhibit is rather in your face, which was probably how they were intended over one hundred years ago. Giant, colorful lithographs hang from the walls, ancient advertisements from across the globe, including posters for Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show and many European Circuses.
Also, as the halls twist and turn, I learn of the Ringling Bros. Circus, as this was the home for the show in the off season. While P.T. Barnum with his sideshow prowess combined with James Bailey and his circus, the Ringling Bros. had a modest start in 1884. Their show included three horses, a hyena, and twenty one people, hardly the greatest show on earth.
There is more, I pass through the buildings that once sheltered the animals in winter, which is known as Ringlingville, such as an elephant house and a horse barn. As I do, I see costumes for clowns, marching bands, trapeze and more. I’m also reminded of the sideshows- the bearded lady, the world’s tallest man and many other freakish humans that awed spectators, whether their conditions were real or a clever disguise, are brought to mind.
And of course there is tributes to the animals of the circus. Giraffes, fearsome gorillas, useful elephants, lions, tigers and more are mentioned with a few memorable ones having their own exhibit . As I gawk at the wagons that once hauled some of these creatures, my imagination is ablaze wondering what a person at the turn of the 20th century would have thought, discovering these beasts for the first time.
The pride of the museum would be it’s circus wagons. There are a lot of them, leaving you to marvel at the artistry and craftsmanship of the woodcarvers. When I hear that a venue boasts the most of anything I feel a churn in my stomach, thinking someone went overboard and amassed a collection of Identical items for bragging rights. That is not true in this case, being a wide variety of interesting and eye appealing wagons to enjoy.
Of course, there were also the train cars of the circus, which was the mode for transportation in the circus’ latter years. As the Ringling Bros. bought Barnum and Bailey in 1906, they became the foremost in Circus entertainment till the end of 1947. Trains brought that entertainment very efficiently across the United States. In that last year, the circus employed 1,377 people, using 46 tents and covering 18 acres.
Captivating miniatures also depict what circuses would have looked like in certain Eras. This includes a large train miniature demonstrating the long line of circus trains. As I gaze at these artistic reenactments, I get lost, imagining a lions roar or an elephant’s wail as I trek in a tent city.
As I left the museum, what I gained most was an appreciation for a different era and what it was to live at that time. Today’s world is saturated with entertainment and media outlets, being everywhere you turn. From Netflix to YouTube, people search for the next thing that would shock and awe a would be audience. The Circus, among some blossoming media outlets such as cinema and radio, brought a world that seemed so far away to those living in in the early twentieth century.
I think of the farmer’s who spent their lives in the fields, the occasional trip to town being the usual source of entertainment. Human cannons, flying trapeze, weird looking clowns and the rest would have dazzled the mind of someone with such a monotonous life. I can only imagine what it would be like to only read or see pictures of my favorite exotic animal, knowing that when the circus came to town I could witness it moving and listen to it roar.
Go see the museum, whether it be in summer, spring or fall. I didn’t see the live shows but they advertise, among other things, elephant rides for kids. For those near Baraboo, or close enough to make the trek more than once, season passes are thirty dollars for adults and fifteen per child(vs. $20 for adults and $10 per child for a day pass during the summer). Experience a little fun, live entertainment and a ton of thought inspiring history.