The circus will always be alive: Part One

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This photo, from 1864, shows the Ringling family during their time in McGregor. Pictured (front, left to right) are Otto, baby Charles, Gus; (back) Alf T., mother Marie Salome, father August and Al. The Ringlings lived in the community from 1860-1871. It was in 1871 that the brothers held their first “real” circus performance. (Photo courtesy of McGregor Historical Museum)

Ringling Bros. Circus roots run deep in McGregor

When word of the impending closure of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus broke Jan. 14, many in McGregor were saddened by the news. But what may be the end of the circus, to many in this small river community, is also a new opportunity to share McGregor’s special connection with the Ringlings, who, as boys, performed their first circus in the city. This two-part series will spotlight that connection. Part one will focus on the origins of that first circus, while the second will detail the community’s plans to keep the Ringling story alive.

— — —

By Audrey Posten, North Iowa Times Editor

“Far reaching, but soft, came the melody of a popular air—the old river calliope made music that was sweet.”

This set of chromatic whistles, explained Alf. T. Ringling to his nephew Henry Ringling North for North’s 1960 book “The Circus Kings,” distinguished circus boats from the other myriad vessels that docked in McGregor, off the Mississippi River, in the mid-19th century.

That day, in the summer of 1869, Alf T. and his brothers waited, ears straining, in the pre-dawn air for the steamer to nose into the bank. At the time, little did the Ringling Brothers know that day was about to change their lives, forging a dream that, over 146 years, would bring people “The Greatest Show on Earth.”

— A serious business —

“The Ringling Bros. Circus actually had its roots in McGregor, Iowa,” remarked Diane Malcom, with the McGregor Historical Museum. “The Ringlings, along with many other citizens, is what makes the McGregor story so much fun to talk about.”

The Ringling family—father August, a skilled harness maker, mother Marie Salome and sons Al, Gus and Otto—moved to McGregor in 1860. Four more sons, Alf T., Charles, John and Henry, were born in the community between then and 1871, after which the family moved across the river to Prairie du Chien. There, the Ringlings’ only daughter, Ida, was born.

“The story of the Ringlings is an all-American success story that almost didn’t happen,” Malcom explained.

Their hopes of seeing the circus on that summer day in 1869 were nearly dashed.

The Ringlings lacked the money to attend, noted Joe Colossa, owner of the Al Ringling Mansion in Baraboo, Wis., who spoke at the McGregor Historical Museum in November. 

Luck was in their favor, though. An acrobat, originally from McGregor, was traveling with the circus. He knew the Ringlings’ father, August, and asked him to repair a harness, Colossa shared. When August refused to take compensation for the repair, the acrobat instead offered tickets for the family to attend the circus.

The performance, North noted in his book, “with its color, splendor, music, lights, feats of skill and the antics of the clowns, were beyond imagination...The next day, the Ringlings were full of enthusiasm and had decided to put on their own show.”

In North’s account, the Ringling Brothers held several small circuses in 1870, charging people a penny to attend.

Former resident Mrs. Andrea Hofer Proudfoot, in a letter to McGregor historian Lena D. Myers, recollected such a show in a shed by the Ringlings’ home in Walton Hollow: “We all attended and even helped out with acts, playing caged animals to make the sessions a bit longer. How we all saved our pins to pay the entrance fees, and played jewsharps and harmonicas as to fill in the band.”

The Ringlings’ first “real” show came in 1871.

“The tent was pitched on a vacant lot back of Peterson’s Drug Store,” recalled Lou Kramer, a neighbor of the Ringlings as a child, in a letter to Myers. That would have been behind the pharmacy on Main Street, near where the circus wagon currently sits at the corner of A and Ann Streets.

According to Alf T., “McGregor was notified of the event by a fife, bugle and harmonica and the booming of an ecstatic drum. Rushing to porches and storefronts, they saw the parade, headed by a ‘Democrat wagon’ painted in gaudy reds and yellows, drawn by a desiccated black mustang pony with superb harness by A. Ringling and a red, white and blue sheep’s wool plume nodding from his head. Driving the wagon was Al Ringling, who also played the bugle, while four of his brothers, all wearing plumes like the pony, made up the band. It was followed by a small boy carrying a sign that read: ‘Ringling’s Big Circus.’ 

“Next in line came Otto, leading a battle scarred goat known as Billy Rainbow, which he had trained to perform a few tricks and reclassified as a ‘hippocapra.’ This was followed by the whole juvenile population of McGregor. Indeed, many of the adults joined the fun following the Ringlings to the vacant lot where the circular tent was pitched. From the center pole floated an American flag. Over the entrance was a sign: ‘Ringling Circus, Admission 5 cents.’”

By Alf T.’s estimates, over 100 McGregorites enjoyed the circus, which included tumbling acts by all the brothers, trapeze and ring performances, and juggling by Al, who broke a number of plates, much to the delight of the crowd. 

Alf T., dressed as King of the Sandwich Islands in a Union officer’s old dress uniform, a cape made from a crazy quilt, and a gilt paper crown, was butted in the rear by Billy Rainbow, who escaped the feeble hold of 5-year-old John.

The goat later redeemed himself, though, Alf T. told North, by performing tricks with Otto’s help.

Charlie capped off the show with some trick riding on the mustang pony, which resulted more in him falling off the animal than actually performing tricks.

“The McGregor people may have regarded the show as a joke, but to the Ringlings, it was a serious business, in which they took enormous pride,” wrote Myers in her column in the North Iowa Times on May 5, 1966. “This is shown by the fact that, in all the years ahead, they numbered their seasons from that five-cent circus.”

In the years ahead, the Ringlings would move on to Baraboo, where they officially launched their traveling circus in 1884. They bought out the Barnum & Bailey Circus in 1907.

“This nuclear family of brothers took on a great risk in show business,” Malcom said. “They had to get along and persevere through depressions and economic hardships, bad weather and fire, and they still rose to the top to become the greatest show on earth.”

McGregor resident Connie Reinhardt, who owns the house on Walton Avenue in which John Ringling was born in 1866, attributed a lot of the Ringlings’ success to the work ethic they learned as boys.

“The boys learned how to make things from their dad,” she said. “They were not rich in money, but they were rich in talent.”

“They didn’t start with a lot, but they had a dream,” added Michelle Pettit, from the McGregor Public Library.

That dream brought the Ringlings back to the area a time or two. Newspaper advertisements from the circus’ earlier days show stops in a number of area communities. 

“Charles Hinsch told me once that the Ringlings had a show in Farmersburg in a hall owned by Charles’ father,” shared Myers in the Times on June 16, 1966. “This was during the period the show was of the vaudeville type. He took tickets and was so small he had to stand on a barrel.”

Writer John R. Adney, in his memories of McGregor’s Sullivan Opera House in the 1920s, noted: “McGregor’s native sons, the Ringling brothers of circus fame, amused audiences with miniature versions of the ‘Greatest Show on Earth.’”

— A wonderful dream —

On Jan. 14, Feld Entertainment, which purchased the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus from the Ringling family in 1967, announced the circus would close in May, after 146 years.

CEO Kenneth Feld cited higher operating costs and declining ticket sales—especially after the circus phased out its famed elephant act—as reasons for the closure.

The announcement left many in and around McGregor shocked and saddened.

“Kids will lose that magic,” shared Danette Hollopeter, now a Marquette resident, but who spent one year, from 1980-1981, traveling with the circus.

“I was a show girl. I rode the elephants,” remarked Hollopeter. “You didn’t have to have a lot of experience with [elephants]. You just had to be able to walk up to them and not be afraid.” 

“You don’t realize how bristly they are. They are very coarse and scratchy,” she continued. “It’s a different experience when they put their trunk around your leg. It takes a high level of trust. They’re gentle, but if you show fear, they take advantage.”

Hollopeter, who traveled on the circus train with her daughters, described the circus as a family. 

“We watched each others’ kids,” she said. “Everyone was there to help when you were sick or hurt.”

For Pettit, it’s hard to imagine the Ringlings’ dream coming to an end.

“It was a wonderful dream,” she mused. “It feels so strange now that it is ending. I never thought it would end.”

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