As news spread Sunday that the vaunted Ringling Brothers & Barnum and Bailey Circus will end its more than 130 year run in May, there was only one place for me to go, the Circus World Museum in Baraboo, Wis., about 2 hours west of Trains’ world headquarters. This place is hallowed ground for circus history -- the town of 12,000 today where five brothers in 1884 came up with the idea for the show that would go worldwide, the place that was once Ringling’s circus headquarters, and since 1959, the museum’s home. It is dotted with historic buildings where performers practiced and animals trained.
On Sunday, the museum was closed and silent, a blanket of snow tucking it in for the long Wisconsin winter. But Executive Director Scott O’Donnell and Performance Director Dave SaLoutos were hovering in the lobby, fielding a constant stream of television reporters and phone calls from print and web journalists. “That was the Wall Street Journal,” O’Donnell called out to SaLoutos between hurried bites of a Subway sandwich. “We’ll get back to them.” Ringling’s demise was as much of a surprise to them as it was to the rest of America. It is a big deal. It’s an American icon on the same level as baseball and Coca-Cola and older than both of those institutions, O’Donnell said.
The museum is about all American circuses, and Wisconsin is prominent in that story as the launching point of Ringling in Baraboo, P.T. Barnum in Delevan, and almost 100 other circuses across the state. Railroading, of course, plays a major role, O’Donnell said. Railroads replaced wagons and buggies in hauling the Ringling circus about 1890, and it made it possible for circuses to cover greater distances between shows. Circuses brought the world to cities from coast to coast – everything from giraffes and cotton candy, to performers from as far away as China and Hungary, and much more. America responded: businesses closed and schools shut their doors when the circus arrived. “It was like live Google search came to your town,” O’Donnell said. As many as 16,000 watched a circus show in a single day. The first inkling folks knew that the circus was coming was when a special advertising car arrived in advance of the show to plaster cities with poster-quality ads.
Barnum came up with the idea of circus trains, and his business partner W.C. Coup perfected the logistics. The switch to railroads made it possible for the circus to become a big spectacle, although most in the stands never thought about the significant task of moving performers, show animals, and equipment, but others took notice: The federal government visited Ringling on the eve of World War I to find out how the circus moved people and equipment so efficiently, and Nazi spies shadowed the train during World War II. The performers turned in the spies before they could return to Germany.
When Ringling’s circus reached its pinnacle in 1947, the set up traveled in four sections. That year the circus traveled 13,346 miles with a show that required almost 1,400 workers. It was also the final year for Ringling’s six-pole tent, yellow stock and flatcars, and red coaches. The next year, the train was painted silver, a tradition that carries on to this day.
The 64-acre, multiple-building museum houses an amazing HO-scale model of that 1947 train, and preserved rolling stock. Two advertising cars (one a former U.S. Army hospital car; the other a heavyweight), what’s believed to be the last wooden livestock cars for the draft horses that set up and tore down the show, and two equipment flatcars with ramps to demonstrate the term “circus loading” – drive on-drive off, crossing from one flatcar to another with plates between the cars. Inside a building filled with colorful circus wagons are three flatcars and trailers from the 1953 Ringling train that have been preserved just the way they were 64 years ago. At a nearby 20-acre satellite yard, a 600-foot-long wooden building with three tracks houses an entire circus train. Until 2003, some of the flatcars were used to move circus wagons to Milwaukee for the Great Circus Parade.
O’Donnell hates to see the circus close. He believes it to be the largest private intercity railroad passenger operation in the U.S. “Most people don’t have any idea how they move all that tonnage,” he said. “If you did it with buses and tractor trailers that would be an astronomical caravan.” He says the museum would welcome rolling stock from the current train to bring the story to 2017 and the end.
As I left Sunday, I thanked O’Donnell and SaLoutos for the generosity of their time. Another TV news crew was just arriving. The museum will reopen to the public in April, just before Ringling’s last show closes in New York State and the train returns to its Florida headquarters for the last time. I tossed my backpack, Nikon, and video camera in the trunk and remembered what O’Donnell said during our interview. Ringling will soon be gone, but the history lives on. “It has and always will be,” he said, “the greatest show on Earth.”