Jess Takes on Circus World

Experience the Thrill That Never Grows Old

Preface:  I recently finished reading Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen and learned that she did some of her research at the Circus World Museum in Baraboo, Wisconsin.  So this Memorial Day Weekend, my best friend and I, took a two hour road trip TO THE CIRCUS!!!

History:  Set on the grounds alongside the Baraboo River, the Circus Museum is where the Ringling Brothers grew up and also where they rested and repaired their acts during the winter.  The museum is set up in a series of buildings as well as the circus grounds themselves.  Eight out of ten of the original winter quarter buildings are part of the museum.  Originally begun by the Ringling Brothers attorney, John M. Kelley, and then signed over to the state of Wisconsin, the museum has been open since 1959 and is now operated by the Wisconsin Historical Society.

Gruen’s setting of the traveling circus set during the depression is a very realistic depiction.  The time between 1880 and 1930 is considered to be the golden age of the American Circus.  When the Depression hit, the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey show was the main circus to survive.  Commissioned by the army for WWII recovery, they had tents made by the canvas department.  The army also studied the circus for its efficiency in packing the train cars, everything always going into the same car in the same sequence so everything was accounted for.  Circuses kept up morale, so the RBBB show was excluded from the wartime restrictions on rail travel.

Circus Posters:  The first room you enter in the museum is the history of the circus poster.  Examples of original wood cut and lithography are shown.  What surprised me the most about the posters is the strange images and shows they advertised.  I had no idea how exotic some of the first shows were.  There are posters depicting Burmese Long Neck Women and animal charmers from the African forests.  No wonder shows like RBBB had crowds of 10,000 people and three rings entertaining simultaneously.  Where else would you be able to see such things?

Spectacular, Spectacular:  The second half of the room gives you the history of the Ringling Brothers and their top performers.  Lillian Leitzel is considered to be the Queen of the Circus, performing trapeze acts never accomplished again.  She was only 4’9″ and 95 pounds which makes me love her all the more.  She tragically died during a performance in Copenhagen.

If you’re traveling with kids, you won’t be disappointed by the Spectacular room.  There are costumes!!!  I so would have been in one, but we got there with a massive group and everything was swiped.  Kids of all ages will have fun checking out the parade wagons and glitzy costumes on display here.  And one whole wall is a recreation miniature circus.  You can see the whole overview of the three rings, animal tent, sideshow tents, rail cars, etc.  Really cool to visualize what the whole set up looked like.

Meet Tiny:  Next up, my friend and I crossed the bridge that led to the circus grounds.  First stop, go meet the elephant!

Tiny, a female elephant, was rescued when she was about six months old.  Her parents were poached for the ivory in their tusks, and she was left behind.  She lives most of her days at an animal reservation in Florida with her human family.  She used to be allowed in the house when she was little, and now she taps her trunk on the upstairs windows and pokes her head inside for treats and toys.  Her owner grew up in the circus and his family does the act with Tiny in the Hippodrome.  Tiny is such a part of the family that she doesn’t need to be chained up.  She roams the paddock and is funny and gentle in the home she’s come to know.

Having a moment with Tiny.

I Jess, I Strong Man

Look, the Benzini Brothers! Just like in the book!

Wagons:  Two of the buildings at Circus World are for wagons.  One room houses a vast collection of over 200 circus wagons, the largest and most significant collection in the world.  The second allows you to view the wagon restoration process and see inside what a personal rail car would look like.

Sideshow:  There’s also a history of the sideshow.  One tent houses replicas of the most famous freaks of the RBBB show.

The Fire Eater, the Snake Charmer, the Tattooed Lady

Major Mishap:  Ladies and Gentlemen, next up at Circus World witness Jess take on the Animal Cage in a fearless stupor of enthusiasm!

Yep, that’s right, I had a little accident at Circus World.  The museum is full of wonderful photo opportunities, funny cut outs, animal rides, rich historic wagons, costumes, and memorabilia.  One of the attractions included an open animal wagon you could go inside.  I should tell you, the whole day I had been running around the house crying “I’m going to Circus World, I’m going to Circus World, Freaky and Fabulous can be found at Circus World!”  At this point in my friend’s and my trek, we had fed and pet an elephant, and learned all kinds of cool things about the history of the circus and what a big role our state played in one of the greatest shows on earth!

So, we’ve got this animal cage, right?  You walk up the steps, go into the cage, grab the bars, growl or smile for a picture and walk out.  Simple?  Should be…but if one has the anticipation and excitement of kid let loose in a world of sequins, big animals, onion rings, cotton candy, and an upcoming circus performance, it’s not that easy.  All I ask, dear reader, is that you show a little sympathy, but I understand if you laugh at my injury induced enthusiasm.

You’re familiar with the expression “Walk, don’t run?”  Mmm, should’ve listened more.  I RAN up the metal stairs into the metal wagon whereupon I HIT with a thunderous bang my FACE on the doorframe.  Families walking down the path cried out, “Are you ok?”  *Shake it off, don’t make a scene*

The following is a re-enactment of the dialogue between my friend and I:

“Are you ok?”

“Yah, I’m fine.  Take my picture!”


“What’s wrong, am I bleeding?”


That’s right, ladies and gentlemen, I hit my face so hard, not only did I have a gash, and I mean gash, on my nose dripping blood, I also had a gusher of a bloody nose, and one bad headache.  My friend ran off to get paper towel, unbeknownst to me couldn’t find a bathroom and the one volunteer she ran into was the girl’s first day and she hadn’t a clue.  So, if we’re taking notes here, that would leave me BLEEDING IN A CAGE IN THE MIDDLE OF CIRCUS WORLD, FRIGHTENING LOTS OF CHILDREN!

“Here’s some paper towel.  Let’s clean you up.”

“Is it bad?”

“Um a little bit.  But look at you, not a drop on your clothes!”

“My arms are covered in blood!”

“Can you make it to the bathroom?”

“Do I look like Carrie?”

“Let’s use my water bottle first.”

You know you’ve got a true friend when they help you clean blood off your face.  Despite the baseball size lump on my forehead and the 3/4 inch chunk of skin missing from my nose that bled all day and forced me to make period stops in the restroom to clean my face up, I demanded with the same enthusiasm that we STAY AT THE CIRCUS!  I put my sunglasses on and some tissue in my purse, and we headed for the hippodrome.

Circus Performance:

Instantly excited because she looks like an extra in Strictly Ballroom. "Who's Tina Sparkle?"

Yes, yes that is a great dane driving a wagon full of pekingese and a baboon holding a shot gun. I'd have got a better picture but I was in shock from a blow to the head/believing what I was seeing.

These two were my favorite, Slava and Kristina. They did balancing acts, juggling, hoolahoops, and were just really FUN to watch!

Tiny makes her stage showcase!

So, one road trip, and one ER visit/tetanus shot later, I’m a bit puffy, there’s an unattractive cut on my nose, and I’ve now earned a black eye, but I highly recommend you all HEAD TO THE CIRCUS!  I had a freaky, fantastic time!

What story should I tell everyone at work tomorrow?

Leave your suggestions in the comments!  I’ll need all the help I can get.  😉

38 responses

  1. Wow Jess, and here I thought the woods were the most dangerous place for you (sorry, not laughing at you but with you, really) 😀

    An excellent trip, thinking my daughters and wife would enjoy this as well. Thanks for the great over view.

    1. Oh I absolutely say take them! Despite the swelling in my face, I loved Circus World! Very fun. Your kids would love meeting the elephant, and depending how little they are there are pony rides and a really cool old wooden carousel.

  2. What an adventure. At least you will always remember Circus World. I loved the story of Tiny and the pictures of the performing animals.

    At times, I fantasize about including a traveling carnival or side show in one of my stories. I don’t know if I’ll ever do it or not, but seeing your post about Circus World definitely gave me some ideas for avenues of research.

    1. It honestly was a lot of fun and very interesting. I would absolutely go back, I’d just walk a little slower and look where I was going. It’s funny you want to include this in your book somehow because while I was there I kept thinking this would be such a great book! Oh yah, Jess, Water for Elephants, you just read it. But there’s so much more. What a really cool world to be invited into for a day. Great setting for a book. I would love to travel with the family that owns Tiny and see how the rest of her days are spent. Or even to relate the life story of the acrobats and trapeze artist. How does the initial training for that look? I’m completely with you, so fascinating!

  3. Except for the beating-yourself-to-a-bloody-pulp part, that sounds like a great way to spend a day! Only one thing would have made it even better: a canteen filled with wine. (Would have helped you get over the pain and embarrassment from your mishap, too).

    1. You know me so well. (Shh, drinks were served once we made it home. Believe me I needed it.)

  4. Kevin Gilbert | Reply

    Well its obvious really mate…while at the circus a tiger got loose and was seconds away from hurting a small child….Jess leaps into action and distracts the escapee tiger and with a skill and at great risk to personal safety instantly tames the wild beast…so much so that you the tiger is no longer a threat and becomes a great big soft pussy cat…you are teaching it to give high fives when disaster strikes and a wayward attempted high five catches you in the face thus causing the gash to the nose and black eye….such a clearly plausible story that only a stranger to your life would fail to believe!

    1. Reminds me of a really bad, old Disney movie I used to watch called Exodus, I think. Corey Feldman is in it! He’s walking in the jungle and he makes up a bio for his memorial page in the yearbook which will read, “Eaten by Tigers.” Random, but that’s what your story reminds me of.

    1. Only me, right, Emily? I’m just so lucky. LOL.

  5. Good history lesson of the circus! Thank you. I love elephants and enjoyed your story.

    1. Thanks Patti! I really do want to go back and talk with the people more. After the circus let out, i was still happy, but completely done with photo ops. LOL. I’m very interested in learning more about the people that live the circus life.

  6. The am-I-bleeding-yes-you-are section had me laughing!

    1. Not that being injured is funny or anything…. 😉

      1. You would so be the co-worker I would hate to face the next day with my gash and black eye. *Glares from underneath ice pack* LOL

        1. I really hope you are feeling better. I’d also be the colleague making an emergency trip to Starbucks for you.

          And yes, then I’d have a chuckle. Hopefully shared!

          1. Ok, if you bring me Starbucks, you are instantly forgiven! What’s your drink of choice there?

  7. […] thing about fracturing your nose is you have a lot of time to spend at home.  And since I spent the whole holiday weekend watching […]

  8. Things to bring when hanging out with Jess Witkins: a first aid kit, a compass and a map (GPS could work, too) and a cell phone. 🙂 Hope you’re better.

    The elephant is Tiny? That should be called Biggy. 🙂

    1. Well, seeing as you’re all packed, I’ll start planning an adventure for us. But it could be hot and humid out, so may I suggest you leave your bag in the car and we continue on foot? 😉

  9. Oh dear, Jess…I’m so far behind! So sorry about your nose, but it sounds like something I would do! Love the circus photos too…I wish we had a museum like that around here!


    1. Despite the blow to the face, I had a great time at Circus World! Meeting Tiny was a really cool moment.

  10. Excellent post, Jess, and great pictures, too. I think the saying, “The show must go on,” originated with the circus. You certainly exhibited that spirit. Glad you’re okay!

    1. Don’t think I’ll be taking over for the trapeze artist any time soon.

  11. I love your enthusiasm and stick-to-it-ness – you’ve got gumption, bloody face and all!

    1. We were there to see the circus!

  12. Stopping by from Clay’s blog – thanks for reposting your story. I’ve never been that close to an elephant, but they are such complex creatures I can imagine meeting one would be amazing. The story of how you got hurt made me cringe in sympathy – mainly because I can totally imagine that happening to me. Ouch!

    1. I loved meeting Tiny. Definitely a cool experience. And despite the fact that my FACE hurt a lot, I thoroughly enjoyed the circus. I even hope to go back!

  13. Being a clumsy misfit of epic proportions, it always does my ego some good when I read about someone else disfiguring themselves for a change. Thank you for that.
    “Do I look like Carrie?” Hilarious!
    The rest of the post was very interesting, too. Love the pictures of Tiny. Elephants are awesome.
    (Here via educlation’s blog)

    1. You and Leanne! LOL. So happy I could boost your own confidence through my disfigurement. I did feel like Carrie! haha Thanks for stopping by!

  14. […] into author’s research behind their books (need I remind you just how far I go, see here and here).  Other than her personal account, Stockett says she did interview one white woman and her maid […]

  15. Wow Circus World seems AWESOME so I can tell why you’d get carried away with enthusiasm. At least bad accidents make great stories 🙂

    1. Well of course my fellow scar-maker would find the positive side of this tale. LOL. But Circus World was totally awesome; I’d definitely go back. I’d just walk quickly instead of run at full speed.

  16. […] I would say that anytime you add a physical scar to your face, it qualifies as a miss.  Learn the history of the Circus and how I managed to run into an animal cage in Jess Takes on Circus World! […]

  17. This post completely delighted me. I would LOVE to go there. But this is the second best thing to being there. Your commentary is hilarious.

    1. I knew I’d make your day with this, EllieAnn! We just love the circus!

  18. […] older Jacob in 2011′s film version of Water for Elephants, a movie and book I enjoyed so much I smashed my face into a circus wagon to prove […]

  19. […] that, and we know I have a soft spot (read: scar) for circuses.  […]

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