Visiting the circus [Circus World, Part I]

1895 Ringling family: [rear] Al, Alf T., Gus, Charles and Otto [seated] John, Salome, Augustus, Ida and Henry

Before video games, before the Internet, before TV and radio, and even before Hollywood, there was the circus.

Initially circuses had a reputation for fraud and crime.  But five of the surviving six sons of Wisconsin immigrant Augustus Ringling, were performers who created a circus known for honesty and family fun.

Al, the oldest, organized the brother’s concert hall acts and made enough money to start their own circus in 1884 in Baraboo.  For the next thirty four years, the Ringling Brothers Circus made Baraboo its winter headquarters, and those buildings now house the Circus World museum.

Brother Otto was an advance man and master of financial detail.

Alf T., an artist, came up with the elaborate art work and advertising.

Charles, a virtuoso musician, later managed the combined Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey Circus with his brother John and became one of the richest men in the United States.  He created a Florida retirement community for former circus performers.

John, the youngest, started as a teenage clown and was perhaps the most brilliant.  He worked as an advance agent, led the Ringling decision to move from wagons to railroads and devised the purchase of the Barnum and Bailey Circus in 1907.  After the death of Charles, he controlled the circus alone.  John’s former home in Sarasota, Florida is the site of another great circus museum.

The Circus World Museum is well worth a visit, but it naturally focuses on the Ringling brothers who took the circus to its greatest heights and popularity.  The Ringlings, however, were building on groundwork laid by others.

The first two decades of the 20th century saw the “golden age” of circuses.  But for hundreds of years, traveling entertainers and minstrels roamed Europe.  The first circus in the New World began in Philadelphia in 1793 with strongmen and acrobats.  The first show in a tent was in 1825.  Jules Léotard, whose surname is synonymous with tights, created the trapeze act in 1859.

These early shows were viewed by many as immoral [Imagine the scandal of women wearing leotards.], and many were  a rewarding field for pickpockets and other thieves.  Entrepreneurs, seeking to overcome this reputation, reached out to families with children by adding animals.  Remember there were few zoos in 19th century America, and most people had never seen an elephant or a monkey.

It was the age of unbridled capitalism, the age of growth through competition.  Adam Forepaugh was a businessman first and only incidentally an entertainer.  He created the two-ring circus to fit more people in larger more profitable tents and charged separately for people to visit his huge menagerie.

In 1872, P.T. Barnum and his more retiring but equally brilliant partner W. C. Coup put their circus on railroad cars enabling it to travel quickly to larger population centers.

James A. Bailey [taking his surname from his circus mentor] and his partner James Cooper took their circus on an international tour including Australia, Java and South America.  In 1879, they were the first to install electric lights – at the time, still a wonder to most people.

Barnum and Bailey merged in 1880 and created the three-ring circus in the largest tent of all.

Although there were about 50 circuses at the time, Barnum and Forepaugh dominated.  Barnum was the ultimate showman, but Forepaugh had more animals and paid higher salaries to bring in better acts.

In 1884, the Ringlings were known as the “Sunday School Showmen” because of their clean operation and strict rules for performers.  But they were still minor players, taking their circus to small towns in wagons.

In 1890, Forepaugh sold some of his rail cars to the Ringlings and died during a flu epidemic not long after at age 58.  Barnum died the next year at age 80.  The Ringling Bros. Circus took off and, under the leadership of John, bought the Barnum and Bailey Circus, bringing truth to Barnum’s hyperbole, “The Greatest Show on Earth.”

Click on photos to enlarge.

Next week’s post will feature just a few of the over 200 circus wagons on display.

Date of our visit: 7 September 2018

Posted in Travel Logs | Tagged , , , , , , , | 12 Comments


My most recent post was on the International Crane Foundation.  This photo has nothing to do with cranes but was taken while visiting there using the telephoto zoom — and I regard it an amazing stroke of luck.

Posted in Travel Logs | Tagged , | 4 Comments

Whooping it up in Wisconsin

Crane City breeding Facility

A brochure in our motel in Baraboo, Wisconsin for the International Crane Foundation caught our attention.  It calls itself “the only place on Earth where you can see all 15 of the world’s crane species.”

Stopping in on our way back from Wisconsin Dells, we were too late for a guided tour.  It is open, however, for self-guided tours from April 15 to October 31.  Wild Sandhill Cranes nest in a marsh on the property in early summer, but until I learned more, my impression was just of cages with cranes.  But I did learn more; there is much more to it.

At the time of our visit, there were three exhibit areas: Spirit of Africa; Johnson Exhibit Pod; and Whooping Crane Exhibit and four nature trails.  New exhibit areas are under construction.

Much of their work involves education.  Founded in 1971, the Foundation works with partners elsewhere in the U.S. and China, Cambodia, India, South Africa and Zambia.  11 of those 15 crane species are facing extinction.  Foundation employees and volunteers work with a network of specialists in 50 countries to safeguard environments and promote the growth of the bird populations.

Habitat is being destroyed.  Birds are hunted illegally.  Farmers who see them as pests need to be shown how to coexist and profit from them.

Alie was particularly moved to see the Whooping Cranes, the tallest bird in North America with a 7-foot plus wingspan.  Estimated to once number over ten thousand, by 1941 there were only 21 in the wild and 2 in captivity, and it seemed almost impossible to breed them in captivity.   We recall George Archibald, a co-founder of the Foundation, in the late 70s or early 80s demonstrating on TV or in an article how he dressed like a crane to help the cranes imprint on their species, not humans.  Through his and the work of many organizations, the population has grown to a recently estimated 800.

The program, however is still far from success.  If you are interested in reading more about the problems faced, there is a Wikipedia article on the subject that goes into much more detail.

Click on photos to enlarge.

Date of our visit: 6 September 2018

Sandhill Crane and Whooping Cranes are the only cranes native to North America. We saw this wild Sandhill in Florida.

Posted in Travel Logs | Tagged , , , , , | 5 Comments

A ride back in time at Wisconsin Dells, Wisconsin

Originally a man made this leap to stand rock but this dog did it in 2018 just as a dog did when I visited in 1964

Scenery in the Wisconsin Dells did for the town what Dolly Parton did for Pigeon Forge, Tennessee.  Both towns grew up kitschy, tacky, wonderful for kids and fun.  The Dells, however, are just beautiful and worth a visit by anyone.  As we have seen before, the efforts of a few far-sighted people made the difference.

The Wisconsin River flows for seven miles through gorges and cliffs carved out when an ice age dam burst.  Wisconsin comes from First American words meaning “dark rushing waters,” and dells refers to a word French trappers used, dalles, which depending on who is translating means the “layers of rock” or”trough” or “narrow passage”.  Over time, however, the forests were logged, the river was dammed, and it looked like the riverfront would be over-developed and bland.

Henry Hamilton Bennett’s photography popularized the area in the 19th Century.  George and Nellie Crandall began acquiring and reforesting the land on the river.  Their descendants transferred that land to the University of Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, and it is now controlled by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.  As a result, we now can enjoy the river’s natural beauty.

Boats have been taking tourists up the river since the last half of the 19th century.  It was a first and long-desired visit for Alie, who once represented Wisconsin state government in Washington, D.C.  The trip was much as I remembered from 1964.

Click on photos to enlarge.

Date of our visit: 6 September 2018

My photo from 1964 made on a $25 “Robin” camera was better.


Posted in The power of one [or a few], Travel Logs | Tagged , , , | 5 Comments

The creek rises: North Freedom, Wisconsin.

An American phrase dating to the 18th century says “God willing and the Creek don’t rise” meaning the person will do something unless extreme circumstances prevent it.  Growing up, I thought “Creek don’t rise” meant flooding, but later learned it originally referred to rebellion by Creek First Americans.

When we drove back roads to Baraboo, Wisconsin this fall, the water rose. We took frequent detours because bridges were washed out and roads were flooded.  When we reached Baraboo, we saw a sign for the Mid-Continent Railway Museum in North Freedom.  Undaunted by another flooded road, we found a way to see it.  But when we arrived, we were greeted by an astonished employee who told us the museum was closed.  It is a small working rail yard.  When things are going well, they run excursion trains as well, but now men were scrambling to move equipment and tools to higher ground.  The Baraboo River flooded the week before causing much damage.  Now it was rising again at four inches per hour.  We were invited to walk around to see what we could but cautioned not to take too much time or we might not get back to Baraboo.

We walked around and tried to stay out of their way.

It did flood again, but as I write this, they were reopening.  That is a wonderful accomplishment for some 500 volunteers that are the backbone of this organization.  Operating for 57 years, the museum is clearly the work of some very dedicated people, the sort of volunteer operation that is often over-looked by U.S. social critics who urge us to be more like foreign models whose governments “do so much for their people.”

Click on photos to enlarge.

Date of our visit: 5 September 2018

Posted in Travel Logs | Tagged , , , , , , | 8 Comments

Big things for Casey, Illinois

You can ring their chimes.

Signs in Casey proclaim “Big Things In A Small Town.”  Pronounced “kay zee,” it is another place like Helen, Georgia and Columbus, Indiana, where people acted to transform their hometown.

A farming community, Casey struck oil in the early 1900s but the fields played out by the 1940s.  In more recent times, Jim Bolin, a businessman whose family developed an oil and gas pipeline maintenance business, watched one after another Casey businesses close or move.  He decided to give the town the world’s largest wind-chimes, a natural fit for Bolin Enterprises.  Then they created the world’s largest golf tee for the Casey Country Club.  Bolin and Mike Bohannon, President of the Club, thought this might be a good way to promote the town.

The ideas just kept coming.  Not everything is the “world’s largest.” but seven are.  Someone actually knitted with the world’s largest knitting needles, and you can mail a letter in the world’s largest mailbox.  A representative of the Guinness Book of Records was due to come shortly after our visit to measure the teeter-totter.

The promotion became a phenomenal success, and the town had to lower speed limits to protect gawking tourists.

We didn’t photograph them all.  I noticed the yardstick on the way out of town; my photo of a pencil was blurry, I must have been looking the other way when Alie saw the gavel, and I wasn’t aware of some like the balsa wood airplane inside the Casey Municipal Airport.  When you get to Casey, be sure to stop in the workshop where we saw a mouse trap and golf club in progress.

Click on photos to enlarge.

Date of our visit: 3 September 18

Posted in The power of one [or a few], Travel Logs | Tagged , , , , | 6 Comments

Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta 2018

One of many “zebras,” the person who controls the flight takeoffs, talks to Dave

Fellow Red Cross volunteer Dave Bobel became a hot air balloon pilot in 1973 when there were only four other licensed pilots in Indiana.  This was Dave’s 39th year flying at the Balloon Fiesta [started 47 years ago] in Albuquerque, New Mexico.  He said he is going to be back next year, but we were going west again this year, so we made our Albuquerque reservations early.

Always the first full week of October, this year’s event had 547 registered pilots, 96 “special shape” balloons, launched from a 78 acre field, balloons from 16 countries, and get this – 375 port-a-potties.  It is estimated that 887,970 guests attended in 2017 [it is still going on in 2018 as I write this].

We noticed Dave’s balloon appeared in photos with others on everything from calendars, to soda cups and was on a book page describing balloon parts.  But he seems to take the most pleasure in giving rides to friends and relatives of his “crew” who help with launching and recovery.

He asked if I wanted a ride.  I did not hesitate a moment even though it meant meeting him at his hotel at 5:00 a.m. to get to the field for the pilots’ briefing.

Hot air balloons cannot be steered, but skilled pilots can find winds at different directions and speeds depending on their altitude.  Albuquerque, in addition to having great weather, has an occasional “Albuquerque box.”  When this occurs, the pilots can go out a long way at one level and then raise or lower to another level and catch a wind that brings them back to the launch field.

Among the features we saw were a “mass ascension” when the air is filled with many balloons all at once, a “special shapes” rodeo featuring almost a hundred balloons created as fantastic objects, a “dawn patrol” where pilots took off before sunrise, fireworks and professional skydivers, and a competition where pilots attempt to drop markers closest to targets on the ground.  In 2007, our friend managed to take an envelope off the top of a pole, an amazing example of skill.  Several such envelopes were available with prizes up to $3000, but after he landed and everything was packed away, he was surprised to discover he had won a truck.  The donors were probably surprised anyone could get that envelope off a pole.

Click on photos to enlarge.

Date of our visit: 10-11 October 2018

P.S.  I am solely responsible for this post and hope David will correct me if I got anything wrong.

Posted in Travel Logs | Tagged , , , , | 19 Comments