Wisconsin Historical Society Press
Ringlingville USA: The Stupendous Story of Seven Siblings and Their Stunning Circus Success
By Jerry Apps
280 pages, 135 b/w photos & illus., 3 maps, 8 x 9"Buy
The Ringling Brothers began their business under the most modest of circumstances and through hard work, business savvy, and some luck created the largest, most famous circus in the world. They became wealthy men, one 50 cent admission ticket at a time.
"Ringlingville USA" chronicles the brothers' journey from immigrant poverty to enduring glory as the kings of the circus world. The Ringlings and their circus were last studied in depth over four decades ago. Now, for the first time, the brothers' detailed financial records and personal correspondence are available to researchers. Jerry Apps weaves together that information with newspaper accounts, oral histories, colorful anecdotes, and stunning circus ephemera and photos, many never before been published, to illuminate the importance of the Ringlings' accomplishments. He describes how the Ringling Brothers confronted the challenges of taxation, war, economic pressure, changing technology, and personal sorrows to find their place in history. The brothers emerge as complex characters whose ambition, imagination, and pure hucksterism fueled the phenomenon that was the Ringling Brothers' Circus.
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Jerry Apps is the author of more than thirty-five books on Wisconsin and U.S. history. He is especially known for his histories of rural and country life. He has won numerous awards for his writing from such organizations as the Wisconsin Library Association, the Wisconsin Council for Writers, the Robert F. Gard Foundation, the Upper Midwest Booksellers Association, and the Wisconsin Historical Society. In 2001 Jerry received the Barnes and Noble Pride of Wisconsin Award for Excellence in the Field of Regional Literature. He splits his time between his home in Madison and his farm, Roshara, in Wild Rose, Wisconsin.
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2005 Choice Magazine
Outstanding Academic Title
Fred D. Pfening Jr., Editor of "Bandwagon: The Journal of the Circus Historical Society"
"Jerry Apps diligently searched the most extensive circus archives in America before writing about the Brothers Ringling. He covers the lives of the Ringlings and provides extensive examples of family correspondence. He details financial records of their circuses, proving their financial success. Best of all, 'Ringlingville USA' is historically correct."
Paul T. Ringling
"Congratulations to Jerry Apps for 'Ringlingville USA'. This is an excellent historical story about my grandfather, Alf T. Ringling, and his brothers. Ringlingville brought bittersweet memories of my days with the circus, 1937 through 1941, and the lullaby of the wheels."
"Midwest Book Review"
"'Ringlingville USA' is the fantastic true story of seven brothers' odyssey from immigrant poverty to immortality as the creators of an enduring circus world. Recently and for the first time, the brothers' financial records and personal correspondence have become available to researchers; Wisconsin and U.S. history specialist Jerry Apps consolidates information from a wide range of sources to offer an unmistakably human portrait of the Ringling Brothers and their personal challenges amid taxation, war, economic pressure, technological advances, and individual tragedy. An amazing saga of real-life legends, illustrated throughout with vintage black-and-white photographs, 'Ringlingville USA' is a must for students of Big Top history and a "must" for all Wisconsin school and community library collections."
Fred Dahlinger Jr., longtime director of historic resources and facilities at the Circus World Museum in Baraboo, Wisconsin, wrote the foreword to this beautifully produced book, thereby guaranteeing its authority. Newly discovered primary materials enrich the book, and circus historians Dahlinger, Stuart Thayer, Fred Pfening Jr., Fred Pfening III, and Richard J. Reynolds add their insights to Apps's text. Starting at a time before electricity and automobiles, the Ringling brothers (residents of Baraboo) created what became the world's largest and most successful circus organization. Until the end of WW I, they wintered their show in their hometown, where their continually expanding facilities were known as Ringlingville. Apps organizes the book chronologically, adding such thematic chapters as "The Circus Comes to Town," "Women and the Circus," and "The Circus Parade." He dedicates the book to "Fred Dahlinger, Jr., and Circus World Museum, National Treasures," which is ironic because shortly before this book was published, financial exigencies forced the museum to dismiss Dahlinger and cut back the research facilities that made the book possible. Ringlingville includes extensive notes and illustrations.
Summing up: Highly recommended. Collections supporting study of popular culture, the performing arts, American business and American society; all levels.
This book feature by William R. Wineke appeared in the "Wisconsin State Journal" on Sunday, December 19, 2004
Tracing The Circus' Role and Roots
The arrival in town of the circus is a Wisconsin memory that, today, is confined only to the elderly and soon will be as foreign to young people as stories of pioneers in covered wagons.
That's too bad because for those of us who do remember the colorful circus trains lumbering by, the exciting parades down Main Street and the thrill of entering the "big top" to see exotic animals, trapeze performers and, of course, squads of clowns, the circus will always be a source of amazement and nostalgia.
Madison author Jerry Apps recaptures some of that thrill and reminds us of the Wisconsin circus roots in Baraboo in "Ringlingville USA: The Stupendous Story of Seven Siblings and Their Stunning Circus Success" (Wisconsin Historical Society Press: $45).
The Ringling family arrived in Baraboo in 1855 but later moved to McGregor, Iowa, and it was in McGregor that the family's sons first experienced a "Circus Boat" coming to town. It spurred their imaginations, and they soon started staging their own "circus," charging 10 pins for admission on Saturday mornings.
One thing led to another, and on Nov. 27, 1882, the brothers mounted their first professional show in Mazomanie. They attracted 59 patrons who spent a total of $13 to see their show.
That was the beginning and the Ringlings went on to become America's greatest circus promoters. Their home was Baraboo until 1918, when the Ringling and Barnum & Bailey circuses combined shows, possibly because World War I put a limit on the number of locomotives the circuses could use. The show moved to Connecticut and its headquarters never returned to Wisconsin.
Apps provides a rich history of the Ringling brothers, their circus and their feuds.
But perhaps the biggest treat of his book (the paperback edition is only $24) is found in the numerous circus photographs and illustrations.
One poster proclaims the Ringling Bros. Circus had the "Only Giraffe Known to Exist in the Entire World" and said it had been procured at "the cost of a FORTUNE." The claim was, Apps notes, "a huge exaggeration."
The traveling circus was an enormous affair and, Apps notes, it had its own community. Workers ate in a huge dining tent, had their own post office, and lived as something of a huge family.
Apps helps his readers understand the role the circus played in American life for so many years. It was not only a source of entertainment, but also of education.
Many people perhaps most people would never see an elephant, or a giraffe, or a hippopotamus unless they saw one at a circus. Apps says some conservative religious leaders who opposed the circus as entertainment nevertheless encouraged their members to visit the circus menagerie for education.
Finally, an irony of sorts. Apps reports that a 350-acre farm owned by Alf Ringling and used to grow hay for his circus animals is now owned by the Aldo Leopold Foundation, an organization as opposed to hype and hoopla as the Ringlings were devoted to the same.
This book feature by Janet M. Davis of University of Texas at Austin appeared in the Spring 2005 issue of "History Book Review"
In 1869 a group of rag-tag brothers began playing "circus" on Saturdays for their friends. Charging ten straight pins (and later a penny) for admission, the brothers put on their own puny show using stray animals, a borrowed horse, and a jar of tadpoles. Their father was a struggling German immigrant harness maker. Their mother, who was born in Alsace, France, gave birth to eleven children, eight of whom lived to adulthood. One neighbor remembered that this family "... up the Hollow have just another baby. There isn't a second sheet for the mother's bed, nor a stitch of clothing for the new babe" (5). Yet over the next twenty years, seven of these siblings Al, Alf T., Charles, Otto, John, Gus and Henry Ringling would grow up to become the fabulously wealthy owners of the nation's largest circus combination in history. Historian Jerry Apps has meticulously crafted a terrific account of the Ringlings' rise from poverty to great wealth.
Using an extraordinary range of primary sources, including correspondence, oral history, accounting ledgers, newspapers, circus route books, photographs, and maps, Apps provides the first comprehensive examination of the Ringling brothers in over forty years. Although other recent works have focused on the better known P.T. Barnum, or the circus as a broader cultural metonym, Apps provides a fresh analysis of "Ringlingville" as a social and business community both at home in Baraboo, Wisconsin, where the Ringling circus wintered during the off season until 1918, and on the road from March to November. In thirteen chronologically organized chapters spanning the mid-nineteenth century to the mid-twentieth, Apps demonstrates that the brothers' early poverty made them frugal and practical businessmen; fiercely loyal and cooperative, each brother worked without a contract and each held a separate area of responsibility within the gargantuan transcontinental traveling railroad circus composed of 1,200 performers, scores of laborers, and hundreds of animals. The brothers strictly maintained a respectable, family-friendly "Sunday School" environment, free of graft.
The physical structure of the book in many respects resembles a circus: richly illustrated with photographs, lithographs, and sidebars on multiple (and often humorous) topics such as "Sacred Ox Goes on Rampage." Occasionally, this three-ring style interrupts the flow of the narrative, but this is a minor criticism. As the first scholar to use newly available research materials on the Ringlings, Apps has created an eminently accessible, fascinating tour de force a powerful testament to the rich primary sources located in the research center at Circus World Museum in Baraboo. The sad irony here is that this exemplary library has now been virtually closed. One can only hope that this wonderful book will persuade short-sighted administrators to reopen this national treasure.