The Ringling Bros. Humble Beginnings

Photo from

Photo from

Most of you have probably heard of the Ringling Brothers. After all, they are pretty important guys, even now, years after their deaths. They brought together performers and circuses in a series of revolutionary shows. As one of the world’s first shows to use trains as a mode of transportation, they traveled across the country, occasionally buying out other smaller shows as they went. And in 1907 they merged with Barnum and Bailey, forming America’s most influential circus, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Combined shows.

So what might surprise you is that the Ringling Brothers started out from a pretty humble place. They were the sons of a German born harness maker, and their names were Alfred, Albert, Charles, August, John, Henry and Otto Rüngeling (later simplified to Ringling). In 1870 a small, one ring circus came to their hometown of McGregor, Iowa. Five of the Rüngeling brothers were present as it unloaded its equipment out of a steamboat at the local docks. They were fascinated by the sights and sounds of circus. However, they came from low class family, and couldn’t afford show tickets. Later in the day a man walked into their father’s shop. He was a performer in the visiting circus and need emergency repairs to his equipment before the evening show. It turns out that this performer was not only a McGregor native, he was also well respected by the Rüngeling family. Therefore, the Rüngeling brothers father refused payment. Determined to give them something, the performer got the family free tickets. By the end of the night, the children of the family were inspired to start their own circus one day.

Twelve years later, in Mazomanie, Wisconsin the brothers really did perform a show. But it wasn’t circus just yet. It was known as the Ringling Brother’s Classic and Comic Concert Company. It was a vaudeville style show, in which the Ringling brothers sang, danced, and played musical instruments. They hosted these shows in the second floor of a small building known as Schmitz Hall. They used the profits from their first show to buy themselves matching suits and hats, which became their costumes.

In two years, by May of 1884, the Ringling brothers had enough money to get started on their own circus, this time choosing Baraboo, WI as their location of choice. To this day there is still a large amount of circus and circus history in Baraboo, including Circus World Museum, and the Al Ringling Theater. At first it was an exceedingly small show, traveling by wagon and having to rent out a horse. Their show expanded very slowly, but their reputation grew quite fast. By 1886 they were being called “ the kings of the circus world”. By 1887, however, their expansion speeded up, and they changed their official name to Ringling Bros. United Monster Shows, Great Double Circus, Royale European Menagerie, Museum, Caravan, and Congress of Trained Animals. Apparently people back then thought long names were cool.

The Ringlings were skilled managers and their circus thrived. They divided up the work so that each brother had their own specialty. They began to travel by train and buy out other circuses ruthlessly. As they expanded, they made an uneasy truce with Barnum and Bailey: Barnum and Bailey could do shows in New England, and the Ringling Bros. could have the rest of the country. Then in 1906, the Ringling Bros. had enough money to buy Barnum and Bailey. This was a huge deal because the Ringling Bros. now had no wealthy competitors. However they opted to keep the two circuses as separate shows under their original names. It was only as WWI began and audiences declined that they consolidated into the Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Combined shows, the Greatest show on Earth.

An authentic Ringling Bros. Circus wagon at Circus World Museum. Photo by Juniper

An authentic Ringling Bros. Circus wagon at Circus World Museum. Photo by Juniper

When I started researching, I barely knew anything about the Ringling Bros. I had fun finding out how they started a lifelong career as a poor family with free tickets. I am also a bit shocked by how much of their life was shaped by simple good luck. I keep thinking about how it could have turned out differently. What if a circus had never visited the Rüngeling brother’s home town? What if the performer had chosen a different shop to fix his equipment? What if the Rüngeling’s hadn’t known the performer?  It’s for sure that the Ringling Bros. brought something special to the circus and I, for one, am certainly glad that they were able to fulfil their dream of owning a circus.

~ Juniper ✰

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