Rhonda's View Rendezvous: Circus found popularity, home in Wisconsin

10:59 AM, Feb. 25, 2013  |  Comments
Rhonda Whetstone
Rhonda Whetstone
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"The circus is coming to town!"

If there was a phrase of more delight to children around the turn of the last century, I would be hard-pressed to think of it.

A fact many of you might not know is that Wisconsin was the home of nearly every circus ever formed in those years. In 1847, even before Wisconsin was a state, there was a circus headquartered in Delavan, right where Lake Lawn Resort now is located.

Wisconsin was a favorite spot because of easy access to water and grazing land. In no time, there were 26 circuses there. In fact, more than 150 clowns, trainers and entertainers are buried in Delavan's cemeteries according to "Forgotten Tales of Wisconsin" by Martin Hintz.

While plenty of circuses came to the area back then, the most frequent was the Gollmar Brothers Circus, out of Baraboo.

The name was not quite as famous as that of the seven brothers who formed the Ringling Brothers Circus, but the five Gollmar brothers, who were cousins to the Ringlings, did just fine in their own right. The circus' name and reputation eventually became so well-known that it was leased to other circuses over time.

Records for Gollmar Brothers Circus, located at Circus World in Baraboo, show the increasing size of the circus during the years and how the owners had to hire specialized workers.

As the circus grew, so did attendance at its shows. In 1905, they brought in more than 2,000 people.

In 1910, the Gollmar show had a menagerie of 15 caged animals, seven elephants and seven camels. At one performance here, there were 4,000 attendees.

That same year, Paul Daemmrich of Pittsville even got to run off and join the circus when he was hired as a clarinetist for the circus band.

In June 1916, it was noted that the circus would be held on the sand hill outside of town. Sometimes Grand Rapids would not issue a license for the show, and owners would hold it outside the city limits or in Nekoosa instead, drawing nearly as many from Grand Rapids and other towns.

While smaller circuses appeared in smaller venues, Ringling Brothers was upping the ante by putting on extravagances beyond circus performances, such as the summer of 1916 when it had 1,000 people working on a performance of "Cinderella" in Appleton.

The original Gollmar circus ran from 1891 to 1916. According to the Grand Rapids Tribune, in December 1916, the Gollmars sold their trappings and stock and took over a retired circus - the Forepaugh-Sells show.

One interesting story from the Grand Rapids Leader, July 1908, told of a clown with Gollmar whose job it was to seat the ladies who showed up outside the tent. He escorted the pretty young ladies to a seat as if their beau, and took small children by the hand and showed them and their mothers to seats as if he were the father.

The crowd inside and out laughed and loved his antics, but the real laughs came when the clown took the hand of a young child and the mother instantly thrust her baby in his other arm, and he had no choice but to find a good seat under "the big top" for the little family.

In 1917, the larger circuses started using trucks for transport, making it easier than train travel.

The circus, introduced in the United States in 1793, still exists, but mostly in a different form than we think of it and certainly not the circus of yesteryear.

In August 1918, a reporter for the Grand Rapids Daily Leader said the circus "is as much of an institution as the Constitution and will go on forever."

Sadly, the circus that used to be went the way of the dinosaur. I guess we will have to see about the Constitution.

Rhonda Whetstone is a columnist for Daily Tribune Media, News-Herald Media and Stevens Point Journal Media. Rhonda's Twitter ID is TribRendezvous, if you wish to follow her musings there. You also can get previews to upcoming columns by clicking "like" Rhonda's View Rendezvous on Facebook. If you have story ideas of a historical nature, email her at Rhonda.Whetstone@gmail.com.

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