After 146 years, Ringling Bros. Circus coming to an end

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This photo, courtesy of the McGregor Historical Museum, was taken during the Ringling family’s time in McGregor, from 1860-1871. Four of the Ringling Brothers were born in the community, and it is where they first fell in love with the circus and held their first circus performance.

Brothers performed their first circus in McGregor


By Audrey Posten, North Iowa Times Editor

The curtain is closing on the “Greatest Show on Earth.” After 146 years, the famed Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus will hold its final performance in May, announced CEO Kenneth Feld over the weekend.

Feld, whose Feld Entertainment family has managed the circus since purchasing it from the Ringling family in 1967, attributed the closure to high operating costs and declining ticket sales. Ticket sales, Feld noted in a press release, saw a dramatic drop after the circus phased its famous elephants from shows.

The announcement left many around the country in shock, particularly in Baraboo, Wis., where the circus was founded. But while Baraboo touts itself as the home of the Ringlings, McGregor also holds a place in the Ringlings’ fabled history. 

The family lived in the community from 1860 to 1871, explained Joe Colossa, a former circus employee and co-owner of the Al Ringling mansion in Baraboo, who spoke at the McGregor Historical Museum in November. Four of the boys—Charles, John, Henry and Alf T.—were born in McGregor. The family home still stands at 14463 Walton Ave.

McGregor is where the Ringlings first fell in the love with the circus, where, as boys, they performed their first show.

Colossa recalled the story of how the boys “were down at the riverfront before the sun came up to meet the circus. They heard the calliope music and watched the circus unload. They proclaimed that day, when they grew up, they were going to be in the circus business.”

“Their very first circus and very first parade were right here in McGregor,” Colossa added. “They learned how to play music and did comedy. They put a whole show together. They had a goat and a horse. Al did some trick riding.”

Another circus feature, Colossa noted, was a moving picture show, created by using a candle to illuminate papers with scenes painted on them.

After their time in McGregor, the Ringlings moved on to Prairie du Chien, and eventually Baraboo. There, they connected with cousins on their mother’s side of the family, who helped with the circus business. 

By the late 1880s, the Ringlings had established a popular circus, Colossa said. The venture really took off in the 1890s, when they got a train. After Bailey’s death in 1906 (Barnum was also gone at that time), the Ringlings bought out the Barnum & Bailey Circus. 

The circus will perform 30 shows across the country between now and when it wraps up in May.

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