If you’ve ever wanted to quit life and run away to the circus, then RV’ing might be right for you. And if RV’ing away to the circus is right for you, then Baraboo, Wisconsin, is your destination. This tiny town with a fun name is the location of Circus World Museum, a non-profit paying homage to the long-ago and far-away entertainment escape that is as American as apple pie.
Why Baraboo? That’s because it was the winter home of The Ringling Brothers Circus for 34 years from 1884-1918, growing to be the world’s largest circus enterprise.
Although the Ringlings left Baraboo in 1918 (first to the east coast, later to Sarasota, Florida), many of the original Baraboo structures remain and became a fascinating and fun museum.
Circus World has a variety of daily demonstrations, shows, and (of course) an actual circus – although a mini-version of the three-ring, big top spectacle many of us of a certain age remember from our youth.
Of course, popcorn, clowns, hyped-up children and weary adults are in full supply at Circus World, as are elephants (which I thought they no longer used in circuses, but what do I know?). These are the same elephants that you can ride for $10 after the show, or kids can ride a “unicorn,” which is a pony wearing a stuffed horn.
The most spectacular display at Circus World are the collection of breathtaking parade wagons, the world’s largest collection at 250+. When the trains pulled into town, bringing the circus to the entertainment-starved residents of towns across the US, these wagons would disembark and make their way to the big top, providing not only transportation but also advance hype.
Many were recovered after laying dormant and forgotten in sheds and garages and barns across the midwest for decades. All of these wagons have been, and continue to be, meticulously restored at great cost. Especially if that wagon must be restored using 100% gold leaf!
We ducked under a semi-open garage door into the restoration area where this guy has been restoring wagons for 40+ years, and he enthusiastically answered our many questions.
You can tell these circus wagons are really old because many still have racist overtones that would never fly today! If Aunt Jemima can no longer exist on a pancake mix, then oppressed Java and Tartary wouldn’t make the cut either.
Also in Baraboo, the A.I. Ringling Mansion is the former home of one of the seven Ringling Brothers. It has only recently been made available for touring, having been purchased by two relatively recent Ringling employees, a former trainmaster and his wife Carmen Valles, who was part of the family that rode motorcycles in the round wire cage.
When A.I. Ringling died and his wife moved out in the early part of the century, the mansion was basically boarded up, fell into disrepair, was vandalized, and then the Elks Club bought it to use as their clubhouse for decades. The owners now live on the top floor with their family, while the ground and 2nd floors are being slowly restored to their former opulence and are available for touring.
Like all good works-in-progress, construction is slow and expensive, with or without Covid-based shortages and delays. Even in historic mansions owned by famous former showmen! This made us feel better about lack of progress on our ongoing remodel.
The former carriage house has been made into a microbrewery where they serve beer made from an “old Ringling family recipe” (>>insert skepticism here<<) found inside a metal box in a bathroom wall when it had to be ripped out due to water damage. (Philip and Jeff’s assessment of the oh-so-special recipe: “tastes like Coors.” Take from that what you will.)
The brewery also has a extremely valuable and impressively restored calliope (as did Circus World), which still plays at deafening volumes. A calliope is a musical instrument that sends gas or air through large whistles, originally from trains, and there is no way to vary the tone or loudness.
In downtown Baraboo, a temporary art installation, “Parade of Elephants,” celebrates the famous circus pachyderms with 15 of them scattered throughout town. The first one is called “Elly-Font,” with the words printed in different fonts (get it?). No Comic Sans font to be seen, however. Even circus people have their limits.
They were painted on all sides and it was a fun scavenger hunt throughout town.
These installations are similar to other fun statue hunts related to other small towns and their iconic critters, like bison in Custer, South Dakota ….
Bears in Cherokee, North Carolina outside Great Smoky Mountains National Park …..
and most recently (like, a month ago), big Ice Cream Cones in LeMars, Iowa — “Ice Cream Capital of the World.”
One of the Baraboo elephants paid tribute to the town’s International Crane Foundation, a world-renowned conservation center, the only one in the world to feature all 15 species of cranes. Though we ran out of time, we’re told it’s a must-visit when in Baraboo!
An entirely different kind of circus is south of Baraboo at Dr. Evermor’s Sculpture Park. This free-to-visit property is home of (assume sci-fi, heavy reverb voice here) “The Forevertron,” the largest scrap metal sculpture in the world, standing 50 feet high and 120 feet wide, and weighing 300 tons.
According to their website, the sculpture includes two Thomas Edison dynamos from the 1880s, lightning rods, high-voltage components from 1920s power plants, scrap from the nearby Badger Army Ammunition Plant, and the decontamination chamber from the Apollo 11 spacecraft. The creator, Tom Every, was a demolitions expert and collector of just about every kind of scrap-anything you can think of.
He was also maybe a little touched, declaring that he designed the Forevertron to launch himself “into the heavens on a magnetic lightning force beam.” Perhaps this piece below is the backup vehicle, or maybe the megaphone to announce his impending arrival.
Much of the art is whimsical, fantastical, artistical, and (dare we say it?) just plain crazy!
This bus serves as a makeshift “office” and “store” for small metal sculptures.
Everywhere you look are interesting and fantastical sculptures.
Our favorite was the 50+-piece symphony bird orchestra, made of all different types of musical instruments and complete with a conductor.
You have to look closely to see what many of the sculptures are made of. For instance, a huge ladybug just might be made of …..
…a rocket escape hatch …
…massive bent screws …
…and surveyor markers!
If you like old, rusty junk on big, rambling properties (and really, who doesn’t?), don’t miss reading our posts about Lakenland in Michigan ….
…or Old Car City USA in Georgia!
While in Baraboo, we stayed at Devil’s Lake State Park, Wisconsin’s most popular state park, with the state’s most unlevel RV camping sites. Some 30 miles of hiking trails offer beautiful views from 500-foot quartzite bluffs created by glacial activity over 15,000 years ago when the Wisconsin Glacier blocked both ends of the Wisconsin river gorge.
The quiet lake is great for swimming, picnicking and paddling. One of only 77 Last Great Places in the world, according to the Nature Conservancy, Devil’s Lake also included some devilishly steep hikes to natural creations like Devil’s Doorway, and Balanced Rock.
If you haven’t got your fill of pachyderms from all those Baraboo elephants, stop by poor nearsighted Pinky The Giant Elephant, part of a Shell Station in the middle of open fields in DeForest, Wisc.
Pinky is a roadside attaction meant to attract visitors to the adjacent Shell Station. She (he? — unclear) is one of several that existed in the 1960s and beyond, but the only surviving member of the herd. It reminded us of the only remaining Shell Station shaped like a shell, located outside Winston-Salem, NC, and similarly designed to attract customers.
All that circus’ing in Baraboo made us thirsty, so we went to stick an elephant’s-trunk-sized drinking straw into some craft beverages at Driftless Glen Distillery, right next door to Circus World, and to get ready to move to our next stop, on the coast of Lake Michigan in Manitowoc, Wisconsin!