History of Circus World

Circus World: 1940’s – Today

As the glory days of the great railroad circuses began to fade, John M. Kelley, personal attorney for the Ringling brothers, who had retired to Baraboo, saw the need to preserve the colorful history of the circus. To this end he joined forces with members of the Gollmar Family, first cousins to the Ringlings and circus owners themselves. The team incorporated Circus World Museum as a historical and educational facility in 1954. 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 shine the spotlight on these rolling masterpieces once again, fund acquisition and restoration, and create excitement and visitation for Circus World.

Succeeding Circus World directors, ardent donors, and dedicated staff have advanced Circus World by acquiring spectacular collections, original Ringling structures and land. Summer circus performances, along with other programs, tours, and demonstrations help interpret the American circus and drive attendance; bringing the glorious traditions of this entertainment medium 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 new audiences. That includes this newly redesigned website, carrying our message throughout the world.

What began in 1959 with less than an acre of land, six old circus wagons and a boatload 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. Circus World is Wisconsin’s National Treasure.