Column: Warming up to long-ago visits by the circus

WORTHINGTON -- "Write something about summer," a woman said. She was shaking a finger at me. "I am sick and tired of winter. You tell a summer story."...

WORTHINGTON -- "Write something about summer," a woman said. She was shaking a finger at me. "I am sick and tired of winter. You tell a summer story."


Roses in bloom? Picnic? Walk around the lake?


Now and again this column has focused on circuses. Circuses are summer. There was one column lately that told of the Western states' delegates to the Republican national convention of 1892 coming to Omaha and then stopping at Worthington on their way to Minneapolis. Those same trains that brought politicians brought circuses. There is a lot of circus in Worthington history.


Barnum & Bailey put their circus on a train for the first time in 1872, the same year the first train arrived at Worthington. The next year, Barnum & Bailey came to town -- rolling from Minneapolis to Omaha. They marched creatures to Lake Okabena to water them.

The Barnum show even then was billing itself as "The Greatest Show on Earth." Earlier it had been "P.T. Barnum's Traveling World's Fair."

No one challenged the Barnum & Bailey claim of being the greatest. The Ringling Brothers of that time did not have a circus. They were a vaudeville troupe. They called themselves, "Ringling Brothers Classic & Comic Concert Co." The five boys played instruments, sang funny songs, juggled plates, danced and told jokes in rented halls. For all the fact that they did not have a circus, Ringlings did have a parade.

There is quite a wonderful old book -- "Life Story of the Ringling Brothers" -- printed by Alfred Ringling in 1900. Alfred describes the Ringling boys on parade:

"At about noon we paraded the streets of the small villages with our little band. We had five mouthpieces and a bass drum. Alf and one of the amateur associates we had engaged played the cornets; the other played a bass horn. John pumped out after-beats on an alto horn that threatened disaster to the store windows, and I must have tried to disturb the very foundations of the stores with a long and brassy trombone. Al beat the bass drum ..."

The Ringlings' first big expense was fancy clothing. "... The boys arrived in a Minnesota village dressed all alike in shining silk hats and Prince Albert coats ... villagers looked on in silent admiration. As proud as peacocks the brothers strutted on parade, their broadcloth reflecting the sunlight and their high hats fairly dazzling the spectators."

The Ringlings weren't very good. (Or, the Ringlings were very bad.) They decided they would survive only if they brought concerts to places where no one else went, where no entertainers otherwise were seen.

"In the little depot, beside a roaring fire, the boys consulted several maps. They concluded they had to play still smaller towns ... as Otto Ringling facetiously expressed it 'avoid every bailiwick that boasts of either sidewalks or gaslights.' Charlie said, 'Nothing but tall-grass towns in the future.'" They focused on northern Iowa, southern Minnesota and Dakota Territory.


Worthington met the Ringlings' criteria but, because of the railroad, Worthington was getting top-notch shows. It is not clear if the Ringlings brought a show to Nobles County -- maybe Dundee, maybe Bigelow -- in the time before they put their circus on a train. It would have been a joy to see them.

Ringlings bought spring wagons, put wooden hoops on them and stretched canvas over the hoops. Then they painted their wagons red and painted bold circus scenes and legends on the canvases.

The brothers' first exotic animal was a hyena which they identified as: "Hideous Hyena Striata Gigantium, the Mammoth Midnight Marauding Man-Eating Monstrosity ... Prowling, Grave-Robbing Demon" with "Hideous, Blood-Curdling Laughter ... Wails of the Dying Are Music to His Ears ..."

Ringlings' procession of wagons moved across the region's prairie at night. Often there were no roads. Alfred wrote, "... there was something distinctly charming in the line of wagons ... each with its crude kerosene torch lighting the way for the drivers and their teams."

"The flaring torches" made "fantastic figures against the black backgrounds of night, now looking like a huge serpent of fire lengthening out ... when the ascent was long and steep, and again coiling into fiery folds ... as more level ground was reached."

How is that for summer?

You forgot March for a minute?

Ray Crippen is a former editor of the Daily Globe. His column appears on Saturdays.

What To Read Next
Get Local