‘Let all your days be circus days’ in Baraboo, Wisconsin, birthplace of the Greatest Show on Earth

For almost a century, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus circled the globe with colorful wagons and clowns—but it all started in the Midwest

Dave SaLoutos has been the master of ceremonies at Circus World since 1985. | Photo: Julie Grace Immink

In 1884, the original Ringling Brothers Circus embarked on colorful horse-drawn wagons with its first traveling show from Baraboo, Wisconsin. The seven brothers and their brightly painted wooden wheels quickly expanded to a railroad show and began touring across the U.S. each summer. In 1919, they combined with Barnum & Bailey, touring worldwide until 2017, when the “Greatest Show on Earth” took its final curtain call. 

Ringling Bros. was not the first American circus, but it became one of the largest and most well-known. Central Wisconsin’s Circus World, located in Baraboo, is dedicated to preserving the history of the traveling circus through live shows and the world’s most extensive collection of classic posters, rare photographs, hand-drawn costume sketches, and other circus memorabilia.

Edward J. Kelty’s panoramic images of performers in the 1920s are mesmerizing. Inside the W.W. Deppe Wagon Pavilion, devoted artisans dedicate themselves to refurbishing the museum’s extensive collection of circus wagons. During the summer, daily tours go in-depth behind the origins of these rolling works of art.

For 10 weeks each summer—under a classic red-and-white peaked tent—clowns play novelty instruments, trapeze artists fly past the audience, and a juggler tosses flaming torches from the seat of a unicycle. As the show comes to a close, Ringmaster Dave SaLoutos bellows a farewell salutation to the crowd. “Let all your days be circus days,” he says. “And may all of your circus dreams come true.”

a clown stands in front of a building that says "circus world hippodrome"
Photo: Julie Grace Immink

Mr. Bill stands in front of the Hippodrome, home to a one-of-a-kind musical show with a 100-year-old mechanical organ and novelty instruments. In between shows, you can find Mr. Bill outside the entrance, interacting with families as he pretends to apply temporary tattoos to children’s arms with a big plastic hammer.

a red-and-white-striped circus tent against a blue sky
Photo: Julie Grace Immink

In the summer, visitors can watch the magic unfold under a classic red-and-white striped canvas tent. The venue holds 1,800 guests and every seat feels like a front-row experience.

a man holds a sketch of an elephant wearing a cowboy hat and neckerchief
Photo: Julie Grace Immink

Pete Shrake, lead archivist at the Robert L. Parkinson Library and Research Center, shows one of the collection’s thousands of vintage hand-drawn sketches. For more than 20 years, Don Foote was the wardrobe designer for the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. He created this 1970s Western-themed costume for an elephant. Preserved alongside the sketch are original fabric swatches for the accompanying neckerchief and giant cowboy hat.

a trash can topped with a clown head
Photo: Julie Grace Immink

No detail is spared at Circus World, where even the trash cans have clown heads.

a woman juggles rings in a circus ring
Photo: Julie Grace Immink

Vicki Zsilák juggles rings in the main arena. Zsilák performs a juggling pin routine with her son, Richie; from Budapest, Hungary, they come from a long line of circus performers, and have toured around the world.

boxes in a research library with a red chair
Photo: Julie Grace Immink

Circus World’s Robert L. Parkinson Library and Research Center contains the world’s most extensive collection of circus-related photographs, posters, and artifacts.

a gold circus wagon shaped like a shoe
Photo: Julie Grace Immink

Circus World is home to hundreds of authentic circus wagons. This 24-karat gold-painted float of the “Old Woman In A Shoe” was built in 1882 as part of a series of three Mother Goose nursery-rhyme-themed floats.

a man holds two carved wooden hooves in a workshop
Photo: Julie Grace Immink

Harold “Heavy” Burdick holds his hand-carved wooden replica of a wooden Herschell-Spillman carousel horse hoof inside the C.P. Fox Wagon and Restoration Center. Burdick began working for Circus World when he was 19 years old.

colorful circus costumes including a two-headed mask
Photo: Julie Grace Immink

These vibrant costumes on display are from the Big Apple Circus, a one-ring show that played in New York City from 1991 until 2015. Donna Zakowska, a costume designer for Amazon’s The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, created this double-sided equestrian mask.

a miniature model of a circus theme featuring a snake charmer
Photo: Julie Grace Immink

Jean Leroy’s diorama features a miniature snake charmer drawing a crowd into the sideshow tent. Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey commissioned Leroy in the 1960s to make nine artworks in preparation for the 100th-anniversary tour of the “Greatest Show On Earth.”

If you go

Circus World reopens for the summer season on March 21, 2022.