Ringling Brothers Circus sign (DHP photo, 1975)
Ringling Brothers Circus Headquarters (WHS Archives Baraboo.40)
Ringling Brothers Circus Winter Quarters
Water Street, Baraboo, Sauk County
Dates of contributing buildings: 1884-1915
In 1882 five Ringling brothers formed the Ringling Brothers Classic and Comic Concert Company. What later became the "The World's Greatest Show," opened in Baraboo in 1884 as a small wagon show with no bandwagon, no menagerie, and no wild animals. The Ringlings' circus grew quickly. In 1890 their traveling circus filled 18 train cars and had a collection of animals, including leopards, kangaroos, a zebra, and a hippopotamus. In 1905 the circus needed 44 cars and was traveling nationwide.
By 1907, the brothers had assembled the largest circus empire in the United States. In the early twentieth century the brothers acquired the controlling interest in the Forepaugh-Sells circus and purchased the Barnum and Bailey Circus, as well as its slogan "The Greatest Show on Earth."
The growing circus had a large economic impact on the Ringlings' home city of Baraboo. In addition to employing people within the circus, the show also provided work for local trades people and supported local businesses. To house the circus during the winter months, Ringling Brothers constructed wagon shops, animal barns, a rooming house, offices, and other specialty shops. The first building constructed for circus purposes was the "Ring Barn," built in 1884 to house performing horses. Additional property was purchased along Water Street and new buildings constructed through 1915.
Separate from the circus office and barn buildings, near the main bridge into the city of Baraboo, is a second complex related to the traveling circus. This area contained the railroad workshop and the storage barn built to house the circus train.
The brothers consolidated the Ringling Brothers and the Barnum and Bailey shows in 1919 and moved the winter headquarters to Bridgeport, Connecticut. The Ringlings sold most of the Baraboo buildings to local businesses. In the 1950s Circus World Museum began to reassemble the circus holdings and opened a museum owned by the Wisconsin Historical Society. The Circus World Museum is now operated as a state historic site and its circus-era buildings are a National Historic Landmark.
Some of the Ringling buildings are open to the public as part of the Circus World Museum, while others remain privately owned. Please respect the privacy of the owners.