1915 Ringling circus visit remembered
By James Clinton
While the Ringling Brothers-Barnum and Bailey circus performs for the last time this year, the circus made an indelible mark on Red Wing in the early 20th century.
There were at least three instances — in 1888, 1910 and 1915 — of the Ringling Brothers making a noisy and colorful entrance into Red Wing. During this time, the Ringling Brothers troupe members made their winter home at Baraboo, Wis., where the Circus World Museum continues to operate today.
In 1915, the circus captured the attention of children and adults throughout Red Wing, according to Goodhue County Historical Society records.
Like other large circuses, the Ringling Brothers engaged in revolutionary marketing efforts, including covering the sides of rural barns in colorful murals.
Their efforts worked.
Children were willing to take on extra chores and remained on exemplary behavior throughout July in desperate efforts to make a few extra dollars. Children — and adults — woke at the crack of dawn on the day of the circus' arrival to make their way down to the end of Bush and Plum streets to see the famed entrance.
Ross Hankins, in his story, "A Great Day" described the circus' entrance in 1915:
"On reaching the railroad tracks at the foot of Bush Street, I was surprised to see I was not alone, as several others, men and boys, were waiting for the whistle of the circus train as it rounded the far end of Barn Bluff. A whistle blast and the roaring of the heavy train, amidst a chorus of 'here it comes,' and 'there it is now.'"
In their early years circuses would arrive in grand fashion, leading a parade through town showcasing the performers, animals and attractions that would perform beneath the big top.
Parades were most popular between 1872 and 1922, after they could take advantage of railroads, but before the automobile transformed downtown areas across the nation. In particular, the stoplight caused the parade to stop and broke the continuity of the event. By the mid-1920s, parades ceased.
The end of the parade signaled a larger decline in circuses. Other modes of entertainment, like motion pictures and radios, began to supplant the draw of circuses. Red Wing never hosted the Ringling Bros after 1915, although the town would host smaller circuses throughout the 20th century.
The closest Red Wing would get to another Ringling Brothers show was in 1928, when a train carrying the circus derailed on the way to Minneapolis, near Zumbrota. While no one was seriously hurt, many animals were injured and one died from its injuries.
Circuses, like other forms of entertainment are products of their time. While the idea of transporting hundreds of caged animals across the country seems anathema today, the attraction will always have a place in our collective past.
This year, the circus will end its run with performances May 7 in Providence, R.I., and May 21 in Uniondale, N.Y.