Circus World is an historical site in Baraboo, Wisconsin that preserves circus history and educates the public. Circus World is home to a museum of circus related artifacts including circus wagons, posters, and historic structures. During the summer circus performances entertain guests and promote attendance at circuses throughout the world. The campus spans 64 acres, and includes the Ringling Brothers train complex as well as over 30 buildings, seven of which are the historical winter quarters for the Ringling Brothers circus.
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Permanent exhibits at Circus World include a display on the history of the Ringling Brothers Circus and the Gollmar brothers, who were cousins of the Ringlings and the first to operate a circus from Baraboo, Wisconsin. The Gollmar Brothers circus ran from 1891 through 1916. At its peak in 1903, the Gollmar show was a railroad circus traveling on 22 cars. The Museum houses a rare collection of original posters from a P.T. Barnum Side Show, as well as backdrops from big-top performances such as the Ringling Brothers’ 1916 Cinderella Spectacle. A highlight of the collection is a miniature replica circus designed and made by Lottie and Mel Romeis over a 40-year period.
The Chappie Fox Wagon Restoration Center houses circus parade wagons and displays the intricate wagon décor, hand carved from wood that once graced the sides of wagons that have since been lost. The displays are accompanied by vintage photographs that illuminate the grand history of circus wagon parades. In 2014 an exhibit was added that tells the history of the Henry Moeller and Sons Wagon Works, a Baraboo-based circus wagon builder that operated in the early 1900’s.
Circus World’s Pfening Gallery hosts rotating exhibits of posters, art and memorabilia from the museum’s permanent collection. At the Irvin Feld Visitor's Center Theater guests may see a collection of circus related films.
History: Circus World was founded by John M. Kelley. Kelley, who had retired to Baraboo, was the personal attorney for the Ringling brothers, founders of the world famous circus. Kelley partnered with the local Gollmar Family who were circus owners themselves, to open the Circus World Museum in 1954. In 1959, the Museum was deeded to the State Historical Society of Wisconsin. In 1960, under the direction of Charles Phillip “Chappie” Fox, the Museum began to furiously collect abandoned circus wagons from across the United States. They began The Great Circus Parade® to raise funds for the wagons’ restoration and repair. Since, the collection has expanded to include additional circus artifacts, posters and memorabilia, as well as live performances, and the incorporation of new technology to reach wider audiences. The Circus World Library opened in 1965 to better store and protect the documents, photographs and paper works in the collection. In 1991, the library was renamed to honor Robert L. Parkinson, who served as its director for over 25 years. Today, Circus World is owned by the Wisconsin Historical Society, while its collections are managed by the Circus World Museum Foundation, an independent non-profit organization. 2018 celebrates Circus World’s 60th season.
Ongoing Programs and Education: The museum’s buildings and gift shops may be self-toured throughout the spring and fall seasons. The summer season offers additional live entertainment. A 1950’s Big Top themed circus entertains guests with acrobats, clowns and performing animals daily. The Kid’s World Circus is an interactive performance during which children may participate in creating their own Big Top show. In Music World, the live accompaniment of the circus shows is highlighted and guests enjoy a demonstration of instruments in the museum’s permanent collection. Circus world is home to 100-year old musical organs in addition to a variety of novelty instruments used in parades and sideshows.
Past and Future Exhibits: Visiting performers for the 2018 summer season include the Tiger Adventures show, which showcases Royal Bengal Tigers under the direction of trainer Ryan Holder. Nothing But Nonsense will offer a daily comedic slapstick performance.
What’s Nearby: The Robert L. Parkinson Library and Research Center is located nearby at 415 Lynn Street. The facility is operated by Circus World and is the foremost authority and research center on the history of the circus in the United States. Open by appointment only, the library contains rare posters, photographs and circus related documents, as well as a small collection of materials related to carnivals and Wild West shows. The library maintains a database of the names of over 300,000 circus employees and performers from over 2,800 American circuses dating back to 1793.
550 Water St, Baraboo, WI 53913, Phone: 608-356-8341