Baraboo, Wisconsin is near the Wisconsin Dells and while the Dells I admit has much to offer, I am totally amazed with the local circus history. A few years ago I visited the Circus Museum there and watched acts, rode an elephant and enjoyed the beautiful wagons, posters and enjoyed the museum all it had to offer with the enthusiasm of a 12-year-old. This same enthusiasm propelled Jane Elliott and I to visit the Al Ringling mansion on our last visit to Baraboo while there for the Badger Steam & Gas show.
As a farmer’s wife, I found it interesting that the roots of the Ringling Brothers began with an agricultural connection. The father of the Ringling Brothers was August Ringling, a German immigrant and harness maker. August married French immigrant Marie Salomé Juliarco and together the two had seven sons and one daughter. Al was one of the five famous Ringling brothers and The Ringling Bros. Circus was at its peak when he built his beautiful Edwardian style in 1905. Al Ringling settled here in this mansion with his wife Eliza “Lou” Ringling. Together they also opened the Al Ringling Theater which is currently undergoing renovations. The theatre is another stop I want to make sometime in the future on a return trip.
Joe Colossa, Proprietor of the Al Ringling Mansion, explained that after Al Ringling saw the performance, he decided he didn’t want to go into the harness business but wanted to be a circus man. He convinced his brothers Al T., Otto, Charles and John to form an act with him. The Al Ringling Theatre website tells the story, “Al. Ringling was a 23-year-old carriage finisher when the August Ringling family settled in Baraboo in 1875 after brief stays in various towns in Wisconsin and Iowa. In his free time, Al. practiced circus acts and organized the local children into a little performing troupe. The first actual Ringling performance, where all five show-minded brothers took part, was presented as a vaudeville-type show in Mazomanie, Wisconsin, on November 27, 1882. Two brothers danced, two played instruments, and one sang. Albert was to become a juggler, John a clown. With their first profit of $300, the brothers bought evening suits and top hats.”
Lou came into the picture while Al was still in McGregor Iowa. Street Scenes from Ringling Road, states, “Albert met a young widow, Eliza Morris. Albert shared his dreams of the entertainment world with her, she listened, and together they collaborated and turned their dreams into a success with the help of his brothers. On December 19, 1883, Albert Ringling married Eliza Morris.”
She played many parts in the circus from snake charmer to wardrobe changer. Joe said that Al Ringling became famous as a showman for his act where he balanced a plow on his chin! In 1889, the brothers made the move from animal-drawn wagons to railroad cars and they became the first circus to truly travel the country. By 1900 they were one of the largest shows on the road, and began absorbing other circuses. The theater website adds, “By the time they were able to buy out James A. Bailey’s show, the year after Bailey’s death in 1907, they had under their control the largest circus in America: The Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus. The Ringling Brothers portion of the circus maintained its winter quarters in Baraboo.”
Al. Ringling passed away from Bright’s disease just after noon on New Year’s Day, 1916. After his death, Lou didn’t stay long in the mansion. The two didn’t have any children and the house must have seemed empty without Al. Joe explained, “Lou moved out after his death. She moved to wood frame house next door that is still here.”
On October 14, 1941, Lou Ringling died at her home in Baraboo after a long illness. The house after Lou moved out had been given to Al’s sister Ida sister who lived there until she moved to Sarasota to be with John her other surviving Ringling sibling.”
Sarasota was the location of the circus winter headquarters at that time where John Ringling had established his own dynasty. After Ida’s move to Florida, the home was empty until in 1936 when the Elks needed a lodge. “They owned the house for 78 years,” Joe said, “until my wife Carmen and me and a friend (a New York Business owner) bought it.”
The Elks then bought the home and had it for 78 years until the Colossa’s and a New York businessman purchased it and renovated it from the ground up.
The Colossa family has converted the servant’s quarters into their living space and shows this lovely home and rents it out for weddings and events. They have been restoring the mansion from the bottom up and their work and passion for the house and the lives of the Ringlings is clear in the tour and stories Joe portrayed.
Joe and his wife both have circus roots as well. “I am from Connecticut,” Joe said. “I was the Ringling train master and my wife is from Paraguay and was a motorcycle rider in the globe of steel.”
This young couple have their own circus history and today they are bringing a bit of it back to life for visitors like me!. For more information, log onto www.ringlingmansion.com or call 608-448-7455