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Inside Circus World—
Where the History of the American Circus Survives

by Bob Brooke

Who loves the circus? You’d probably say everyone, but if animal rights activists and others have their way, the circus, as thousands of people know it, may soon be a thing of the past. But there’s hope for preserving the history of this unique form of entertainment.

What began 56 years ago as a grouping of six old circus wagons on less than an acre of land, has become an internationally recognized and respected museum of the American Circus, sprawling over 64 acres in Baraboo, Wisconsin, with 30 permanent structures, including seven winter quarters buildings, plus the Ringling Brothers Circus Train shed complex. Circus World is, to say it mildly, a National Treasure.

The Beginnings of Circus World
As the glory days of the great railroad circuses began to fade, John M. Kelley, personal attorney for the Ringling brothers, who had retired to Baraboo, realized that someone needed to preserve the remnants of the colorful American circus before it faded into history. So he joined forces with members of the Gollmar Family, first cousins to the Ringlings and circus owners themselves. The team incorporated Circus World Museum as a historical and educational facility in 1954. Following Circus World’s opening on July 1, 1959, Kelley and the Gollmars deeded the site debt-free to the State Historical Society of Wisconsin.

They chose Baraboo as the home of the new museum since it was also the home of the Ringling Brothers. It was from there in 1884 that they began the first tour of their new circus. Over six seasons, the circus expanded from a wagon show to a railroad show with 225 employees, touring cities across the United States each summer. Baraboo remained the circus's headquarters and wintering grounds until 1918, when the Ringling Brothers Circus combined with the Barnum and Bailey Circus, which the Ringling Brothers had bought out in 1908.

In 1960, Charles Phillip “Chappie” Fox became director of the fledgling museum. He knew there were hundreds of 19th and early 20th century circus wagons lying in disrepair across the United States and Europe, so he set out to acquire, preserve, and restore them.

What to See at Circus World
The non-profit Circus World Museum Foundation operates the museum, which features not only circus artifacts and exhibits, but also presents daily live circus performances throughout the summer.

The site on which the Museum now stands on the former wintering grounds of the Ringling Brothers Circus and includes eight of the ten remaining Ringling buildings. Circus World Museum holds one of the largest collections of circus materials in the world, including old circus wagons, posters, photography, and artifacts used by shows from all over the United States. The museum also has smaller collections of Wild West show and carnival equipment and memorabilia.

Ringlingville consists of the remaining buildings of the original wintering grounds of the Ringling Brothers Circus, a National Historic Landmark, and includes the Ring Barn, Elephant House, Animal House, Baggage Horse Barn, Winter Quarters Office, and Wardrobe Department. Tours of Ringlingville present information on the history of the Ringling Brothers Circus, as well as offering behind the scenes glimpses into the efforts taken by the circus while preparing for shows.

The Irvin Feld Exhibit Hall is the museum's largest building and houses exhibits on the history of the Ringling Brothers Circus, as well as other exhibits relating to general aspects of circuses and circus history.

Visitors can watch daily circus and magic show performances in the Hippodrome, the Museum’s permanent big-top. The W.W. Deppe Wagon Pavilion houses a collection of 50 restored antique circus wagons.

The Museum uses the C.P. Fox Wagon Restoration Center to refurbish Circus Wagons, and visitors can view wagon restorations in progress.

The Great Circus Parade
In 1963, with help from Ben Barkin, and with sponsorship by the Schlitz Brewing Company, Chappie Fox established The Great Circus Parade® to spotlight the Museum’s collection of circus wagons and to fund acquisition and restoration, and to promote Circus World. The Parade raises funds for the Museum and makes possible the purchase of additional land and exhibits.

When held in Milwaukee, the parade entails a two-day journey by train across Wisconsin, from Baraboo to Milwaukee, making brief stops at cities along the way. An encampment for several days prior to the parade at Veteran’s Park on Milwaukee's lake front allows visitors to view the circus wagons up close, take elephant, camel, and zebra rides, and view historical circus artifacts. The parade, itself, takes two hours as it traverses a three-mile route through downtown Milwaukee. It stopped for three years and resumed in Milwaukee in 2009.The 2009 parade showed off 50 circus wagons, between 250 and 400 horses, and 30 bands.

Today, Circus World is revitalized by a spirit of cooperation and renewed interest. The design, construction, and installation of new exhibits, plus the restoration of original Ringling structures, and exciting live programs continue to celebrate America’s rich circus heritage.

For more information on Circus World, click here.

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