Saving the Circus World – Wisconsin Examiner



The mystery-laden offices of the fabulous Ringling Bros. Circus de Baraboo have just won $ 500,000 for restoration and preservation. This is the good news.

The bad news, and the first of many mysteries: Why does a modest house-like structure – a national historic monument – require the hefty sum of $ 500,000 for repairs? Its interior is only 1,680 square feet, not counting the porch, cellar or – another mystery – the adjoining 240 square foot circus vault.

“To save the Ringling Bros. office of 1901 from irreparable damage, efforts are needed to stabilize its rapidly deteriorating foundation and to rectify the extensive structural damage caused by water, mold and age,” according to the Wisconsin Historical Societyis recent announcement of its Save America’s Treasures grant, administered by the US National Park Service.

After generations of neglect, plans are being made for an urgent rescue of the original Ringling offices. The Circus World Museum acquired the property in 1991. | Photo by Jay Rath

“Without swift action to save one of the The circus world most historically important buildings, a piece of circus history will be lost â€, announced Angela Titus, Deputy Deputy Director and Head of Programs at the Wisconsin Historical Society, which owns and operates the 60-acre museum.

Ringlingville today
Ringlingville today | Jay rath

The site was the seat and winter home of “The World’s Greatest Shows” starting in 1887. Locals have nicknamed the Autonomous Community “Ringlingville.” In 1918 the circus merged and moved in with its main competitor, Barnum & Bailey’s, based in Bridgeport, Connecticut (In 1927, the corporate headquarters moved to Sarasota, Florida, where the circus suspended operations in 2017. Rumors of his return were first reported by The Wisconsin Examiner in 2021.)

The entire project, supplemented by state contributions and private donations, is expected to cost $ 1.5 million, including a historic structures report, documenting every aspect of the seven surviving winter quarters buildings.

But there are perhaps even more pressing concerns.

Deppe Pavilion in Ringlingville |  Jay rath
Deppe Pavilion in Ringlingville | Jay rath

During a recent tour, The Wisconsin Examiner documented what appeared to be more than a dozen fire safety issues, including open electrical junction boxes, dangling wires, extension cords plugged into inaccessible outlets, a canister unclogged gasoline and a fire alarm pull. that was blocked. All were in the museum’s 1969 WWDeppe pavilion, potentially threatening at least 50 historic circus wagons on display there.

The back of Ringling's offices today.  To the right is their gigantic safe, later turned into a garage.  |  Jay rath
The back of Ringling’s offices today. To the right is their gigantic safe, later turned into a garage. | Jay rath

On Tuesday, Baraboo Fire Chief Kevin Stieve responded to a request from the Examiner, stating that following an investigation into Deppe Lodge, he discovered that “the violations were unfounded and / or in course of correction “. (Director of Le Monde du Cirque Scott O’Donnell said earlier that he was aware of the issues, that the building had passed its fire inspection on May 15, and fixes were underway. In August, plans for a $ 1.6 million sprinkler system and mold reduction program were unveiled.)

“It’s an exciting and frustrating time,†says O’Donnell, director of the museum since 2013. It came just as Governor Scott Walker, the legislature and his joint finance committee embarked on a three-way fight on the funding, operation and placement of the Circus World facility, primarily on the organizational chart of the Wisconsin Historical Society.

It all worked out to Circus World’s greatest benefit, thanks to a last-minute “either†from Walker at Joint Finance, O’Donnell says. But the lean years followed. Even today, Circus World has only seven full-time employees.

Fire alarm pull, almost inaccessible, just to the right of the circus car.  |  Jay rath
Fire alarm pull, almost inaccessible, just to the right of the circus car. | Jay rath

There is no doubt that the interview has been postponed. Much, as in the case of the Ringling office, occurred under other owners; Circus World did not acquire the building until 1991. Progress was made thanks to the reorganization and the merger with the Historical Society. Then came COVID-19 and the economic downturn. Seasonal museum attendance – and revenue – fell 97%.

But daily attendance this summer has surpassed pre-pandemic levels. In addition to the historic structures report, an aggressive master plan is being developed. “These two documents will help us in our future investment projects and to secure funding from the state, federal and private donors,†says Titus. “We are also anticipating sponsorship opportunities on the road. “

Planning already calls for the half of Ringlingville, used for storage never before open to the public, to finally blossom with interactive exhibits and live interpretive performances. And the big grant is the best news yet.

“There have been so many challenges to overcome during the year, but it really feels like we are on the verge of substantial investment, growth and rejuvenation of – not just this institution. , but, by proxy, the art form she forged, â€says O’Donnell, sounding a bit like a Ringling Circus poster.

“We are talking about a return to a youth circus program, engaging young people with all of the circus arts. It’s exciting, â€says O’Donnell. “When we talk about a redesigned and reactivated Ringlingville, with interactive activities, it’s also exciting. When we talk about a future performance building throughout the year, it’s exciting.

The Greatest Show on Earth |  Jay rath
Ringling Bros. Circus: The biggest show in the world | Jay rath

But it all starts with the historic Ringlingville. “Without a doubt,†said O’Donell. “I mean, that’s why Circus World is here. It is because of these buildings. They are the only remaining assembly of purpose-built buildings that created the greatest spectacle on earth, and truly helped this art form become the predominant American form of entertainment of its time.

For more information on the history of Ringling’s Baraboo Winter Quarters, see “Ringlingville United States”, by Jerry Apps, published by the Wisconsin Historical Society Press.


Does this unidentified Wisconsin Historical Society photo show the Ringling Bros. office.  ?  Although the historic Baraboo building is due to undergo a $ 500,000 renovation, returning it to its 1915 appearance, no one knows what its interior looked like.  | (Photo: Historical Society of Wisconsin: 71336)

Does this unidentified Wisconsin Historical Society photo show the Ringling Bros. office. ? Although the historic Baraboo building is due to undergo a $ 500,000 renovation, returning it to its 1915 appearance, no one knows what its interior looked like. | (Photo: Historical Society of Wisconsin: 71336)

Looks like a haunted house. And as far as we know, the interior of the Ringling Bros. office. has never been otherwise.

That’s because no one has a clue what the interior of this modest Queen Anne-style building, built in 1901. Yet, it was the heart of a huge entertainment empire.

“We have pictures of the exterior, but none of the interior,†says Scott O’Donnell, director of the Circus World Museum in Baraboo.

Today, broken plaster litter the floors, and the ceilings are raised by 2x4s. The tour peeks between the torn wallpaper. The stairs creak frighteningly – frightening not because they look like ghosts, but because of their obvious weakness. The massive safe now looks like a garage – in fact it was transformed sometime after 1927. Granted, cars were smaller back then, but a a safe so big that you can park in it?

“Over a billion dollars went through this building,†says O’Donnell, “one nickel at a time.


You might think “Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey” is a mouthful, but before it left Baraboo to merge its operations and names with its main competitor, it was officially “Ringling Bros. United Monster Shows, Great Double Circus, Royal European Menagerie, museum, caravan and congress of trained animals.

Was it bragging? Maybe not entirely. From the few small rooms of the frame house, in 1913, the seven brothers sent their circus on 82 railroad cars. Humans and animals, tents and equipment, were to be divided into four separate trains. To communicate with the road management of their 1,200 employees, the Ringlings have used the Internet of their time: very, very long telegrams.

“The scale of logistics that has come out of here is unlike any other today,†says O’Donnell.

What did he have to look like, to coordinate all this? Circus World needs your help to find out.

The building will undergo a $ 500,000 restoration to restore it to its 1915 appearance. Either way. Somewhere, in an attic in Wisconsin, could be the safe of a family ancestor and a Ringling employee. Maybe it was a dressmaker who made costumes. Maybe he swept the stable. Perhaps one of them stopped by the office on payday and posed for a visitor’s camera. Circus World needs such photos – if they exist.

One photographer who worked with the Ringlings was Ephraim Burt Trimpey of Baraboo. He took the portraits of the brothers and his circus car photo sets are a favorite with circus fans.

We found two photos of Trimpey’s unlabeled Baraboo in the Wisconsin Historical Society collection. They seem to represent a room exactly suited to Operation Ringling: four desks, two typewriters, organized but crowded, with many framed photos of artists on the walls. The insulated power cord is plugged into a ceiling outlet. A miniature train sits on the fireplace.

Ringling’s offices had to look like this. But we may never know – unless you can help us. If you have an old photo, drawing, or even a verbal description, please contact us.


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