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.
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.
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.
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. 😉