History of Circus World

Circus World: 1940’s – Today

As the days of railroad circuses began to fade, John M. Kelley, personal attorney to the Ringling brothers, retired to Baraboo. He saw the necessity to preserve the history of the circus and joined with members of the Gollmar Family, the Ringling’s first cousins who also owned a circus. They incorporated in 1954 as Circus World Museum and began raising funds to open a historical and educational facility at the original Ringling winter quarters. Following Circus World’s opening on July 1, 1959, the site was deeded debt-free to the State Historical Society of Wisconsin.

In 1960, Charles Phillip “Chappie” Fox became director of the tiny Baraboo museum. Knowing there were scores of 19th and early 20th century circus wagons laying in disrepair across the United States and Europe, he championed the acquisition, preservation and restoration of these vehicles. With help from Ben Barkin, and sponsorship by the Schlitz Brewing Company, The Great Circus Parade® was established to both shine a spotlight on the wagons and Museum, plus fund acquisition and restoration of still more wagons.

Succeeding Circus World directors, ardent donors, and dedicated staff advanced Circus World by acquiring spectacular collections, original Ringling structures and land. Summer circus performances, along with other programs help interpret the colorful stories of the American circus; bringing the glorious traditions of this art form to life.

Today, Circus World is revitalized by a spirit of cooperation and renewed interest. New exhibits are being designed, constructed, and installed, original Ringling structures are being restored, exciting live programs celebrate rich circus heritage, and electronic media offers opportunities for Circus World to reach globally.

What began with less than an acre of land, six old circus wagons and a trainload of passion, has now become an internationally recognized and respected institution encompassing 64 acres, 30 permanent structures, seven winter quarters buildings along Water Street, plus the Ringling Bros. Circus Train shed complex, and over 260 spectacular wagons. Circus World has been called Wisconsin’s National Treasure.

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