Baraboo, Wis., the circus is always in town. Here, a
view inside the International Clown Hall of Fame.
Wis. — Let’s begin with the obvious, and most
pressing, question: How in the name of Jumbo the Elephant
(he’s real — look it up) did a south-central Wisconsin
town of 12,000 become the circus capital of the world?
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 that they named for themselves: The
Ringling Brothers’ Classic and Comic Concert Company.
wasn’t long before the brothers bought covered wagons to
take their show on the road, touring southern Wisconsin
and much of Illinois with a shorter, punchier name — The
Ringling Brothers Circus. Each winter they returned home
to Baraboo with their horde of tigers, elephants, wagons
and the rest. Little did the brothers know that their lark
would turn their hometown into a place that continues to
live and breathe circus 130 years later — and proudly.
not uncommon to see an elephant walking down the street in
Baraboo," said Mary Hultman, a Baraboo resident for
15 years, who owns Raven House antiques store. "Which
is kind of cool."
makes clear upon arrival that you’re entering a special
place. At the edge of town, beside broad Wisconsin
cornfields framed by rolling Wisconsin hills, an official
state marker declares Baraboo the home of the Ringlings;
it is likely the nation’s only state marker that
includes a nod to an animal called the "Hideous Hyena
Striata Gigantium, the Mammoth, Midnight Marauding,
down the road is another important marker. In the front
yard of otherwise innocuous small-town bank Badgerland
Financial, a plaque proclaims it is the site of the first
Ringling Brothers performance, on May 19, 1884. Admission
cost 25 cents.
Baraboo is much like any charming Midwest town and 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 the usual small-town businesses:
a drugstore, an antique shop, restaurants and a theater.
And, in this case, an International Clown Hall of Fame and
under the same roof as a gun dealer and a store that sells
prom dresses, the International Clown Hall of Fame was
founded in 1986 in Delavan, Wis. After a brief stop in
Milwaukee and three years in storage, it reopened in
Baraboo in 2010.
whole community has been so overwhelmingly
supportive," said Greg DeSanto, a performing clown
for 29 years who is executive director of the
International Clown Hall of Fame (which is 72 inductees
strong). "They’re supportive of anything circus
museum boasts a fascinating swath of memorabilia, from
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," DeSanto said) to a
100-year-old costume and makeup kit from Edwin
"Poodles" Hanneford, who performed on Broadway
and palled around with Charlie Chaplin.
think we have the largest collection of clown artifacts in
the world," DeSanto said. "In Baraboo, it’s
very welcomed and appreciated — probably more so than if
we were anywhere else."
of the town’s circus roots lie in all directions. There’s
a "wall of fame" on the courthouse square
honoring circus performers who have lived in town. The
theater on the square was built by and is named for Al
Ringling. His stately stone mansion, built in 1905, sits
around the corner from downtown. Even the street boxes for
the local newspaper — the Baraboo News Republic — bear
an image of a clown.
the biggest draw sits just south of downtown, on 63 acres
split by the twisting Baraboo River: Circus World.
on the Ringlings’ original winter quarters, Circus World
is both a museum and a living, breathing circus. It is
home to a mind-boggling amount of history — thousands of
posters, wonderfully ornate wagons from across the decades
and the globe and a room full of honking, clanging,
clattering big-top musical instruments.
begin in a museum just as dazzling to adults as to
children, which includes one of the horse-drawn wagons
that the Ringling brothers used for travel during the
first six years of their show. A full day of activities
awaits in the park, including a magic show, a performance
of those circus instruments and a big-top performance.
day began with the fast-paced circus instruments concert.
Lasting about 40 minutes, it takes place in the Ringlings’
former elephant quarters, where rusted steel hooks once
used to chain the elephants still hang from the walls.
true circus style, the master of ceremonies seemed barely
to take a breath as he hopped from massive instrument to
massive instrument, chiming out magical blasts of noise
from a Hammond organ, bells, a calliope, shaker chimes and
the way out, we passed a cannon that said "HUMAN
CANNONBALL" on the side.
it was on to the magic show, where the illusionist
executed a bevy of familiar and entertaining tricks,
including a relatively convincing version of the
main show was the big-top performance, which made for a
brisk, amusing hour of what you’d expect from a big top:
a family of Czech unicyclists, a leaping dog, a leaping
dog with a cat on its back, a contortionist who fit
himself into a disturbingly small clear box, a
green-haired woman and an elephant that sat on a tiny
the end of the show, Circus World offered the opportunity
to have a photo taken with a long, thick snake. The
gap-toothed children seemed far more open-minded about the
possibility than I.
a 15-minute drive from the Wisconsin Dells, Baraboo fits
easily into a trip to south-central Wisconsin, especially
with kids. Highlights include Circus World (550 Water St.,
608-356-8341, circusworldbaraboo.org), where the summer
performance schedule, which began Saturday, features a day
of activities, including a magic show, a concert of circus
instruments and a big-top circus performance. Inexpensive
and unfussy lunch food, such as hamburgers and sloppy
Joes, is available on the grounds. Admission during high
season costs $19.95 for adults, $17.95 for adults 65 and
older and $9.95 for children 5-11. Children under 5 get in
International Clown Hall of Fame and Research Center (102
Fourth Ave., 608-355-0321, theclownmuseum.com) is a
fascinating look at clown history. Summer hours begin
Friday, when it will be open 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday
through Saturday. After-hours tours can be arranged.
Admission is $8 for adults, $5 for kids under 12.
of the town’s biggest events of the year is Baraboo’s
Big Top circus parade (bigtopparade.com), which will be
July 26. Tours of Al Ringling’s stately mansion (623
Broadway St., 608-448-7455, ringlingmansion.com) are
available by appointment only.
info: 800-227-2266 or baraboo.com