Let’s begin with the obvious question: How in the name of Jumbo the Elephant did a south-central Wisconsin town of 12,000 become the circus capital of the world?
It all goes back to five brothers — Al, Alf, Charles, John and Otto — who were raised in Baraboo during the mid- to late 1800s. They had a knack for juggling, telling jokes, performing skits and engaging in general hilarity. By 1884, they had sketched out a routine and pitched a tent to create a show they named the Ringling Brothers’ Classic and Comic Concert Company.
It wasn’t long before the brothers bought covered wagons to take their show on the road, touring with a shorter, punchier name: the Ringling Brothers Circus. Each winter they returned home to Baraboo with their tigers, elephants, wagons and the rest. Little did the brothers know their lark would turn their hometown into a place that continues to live and breathe circus 130 years later.
“It’s not uncommon to see an elephant walking down the street in Baraboo,” said Mary Hultman, who owns Raven House antiques store. “Which is kind of cool.”
Clowns, guns and prom dresses
At the edge of town, an official state marker declares Baraboo the home of the Ringlings; it is likely the only state marker that includes a nod to an animal called the “Hideous Hyena Striata Gigantium, the Mammoth, Midnight Marauding, Man-Eating Monstrosity.”
Just down the road is another marker. In the front yard of otherwise innocuous bank Badgerland Financial, a plaque proclaims it is the site of the first Ringling Brothers performance, on May 19, 1884. Admission was 25 cents.
Modern-day Baraboo was ranked fourth on last year’s “20 Best Small Towns to Visit” by Smithsonian Magazine. An old courthouse, crowned by a clock tower, sits at the heart of the downtown. It is ringed by a drugstore, an antique shop, restaurants and a theater. And an International Clown Hall of Fame and Research Center, which is housed under the same roof as a gun dealer and a store that sells prom dresses.
The museum boasts a fascinating swath of memorabilia, from a 100-year-old costume and makeup kit from Edwin “Poodles” Hanneford, who performed on Broadway and palled around with Charlie Chaplin, to Chester “Bobo” Barnett’s clown car. (“He was a big guy in a little car with seven dogs, a skunk, a trumpet and two suitcases,” said Greg DeSanto, executive director of the clown center.)
There’s a “wall of fame” on the courthouse square honoring circus performers. The theater was built by and is named for Al Ringling. His stone mansion, built in 1905, sits around the corner from downtown. Even the street boxes for the Baraboo News Republic bear an image of a clown.
But the biggest draw sits just south of downtown, on 63 acres split by the twisting Baraboo River: Circus World.
This museum is a real circus
Housed on the Ringlings’ original winter quarters, Circus World is a museum and a living circus. It is home to a mind-boggling amount of history: posters, ornate wagons and a room full of honking, clanging, clattering big-top musical instruments.
Visits begin in a museum just as dazzling to adults as to children. A full day of activities awaits in the park, including a magic show, a performance of those circus instruments and a big-top show.
A circus instruments concert lasted about 40 minutes, taking place in the Ringlings’ former elephant quarters, where rusted steel hooks once used to chain the elephants still hang from the walls. The master of ceremonies seemed barely to take a breath as he chimed out magical blasts of noise from a Hammond organ, bells, a calliope, shaker chimes and rub chimes.
On the way out, we passed a cannon that said “HUMAN CANNONBALL” on the side.
Then it was on to the magic show, followed by a big-top performance. It was a brisk, amusing hour: Czech unicyclists, a leaping dog, a leaping dog with a cat on its back, a contortionist who fit himself into a clear box, a green-haired woman and an elephant that sat on a tiny stool.
At the end of the show, Circus World offered the opportunity to have a photo taken with a long, thick snake. The children seemed far more open-minded about the possibility than I did.