As kids neither Getaway Guy thought of running away to join the circus. Neil thought of running away, but couldn’t figure out where to go; Alan ran away, but only got as far as the local bus terminal. But after their trip to Baraboo, Wisconsin‘s Circus World Museum, they finally understood the folkloric desire to exchange the humdrum of daily life for the fantastical.
Established in 1959, the Circus World Museum has welcomed over seven million visitors and is the most-visited off-site institution affiliated with the Wisconsin Historical Society. For those curious about circuses in general, and those particularly interested in the Ringling Brother’s, Barnum and Bailey Circus, this extensive museum is both playful and serious, with a great deal to see and do. It is stuffed to the rafters with costumes, meticulously restored circus wagons, posters, programs and photographs.
Possibly the least likely place for the creation of a world-wide entertainment empire in the 19th century, Baraboo is the hometown of the Ringling family, who settled there after abandoning Iowa for greener pastures further east (ignoring Samuel Gompers’s advice to “Go west, young man”). Extant since the Roman Empire, circuses came to America in the early 1800s, but not until the Ringlings established a near monopoly of the genre did they reach a vast audience with ever more spectacular exhibitions of exotic animals, clowns, human oddities, acrobats and other highly trained and talented performers. Combining salesmanship and showmanship, and advertised to the hilt with colorful posters (sometimes almost lurid), the brothers brought to every nook and cranny of America not only a source of spectacular entertainment, but also an education. Who in Keokuk, Iowa, had seen a live tiger or elephant before? While providing thrills and chills annually, the circus introduced millions to the stuff of storybooks and encyclopedias, as well as animals from the far corners of the world, for the price of admission.
In addition to stimulating advances in large-scale lithographic printing (today’s billboards), the Ringling organization brought to the railroad industry innovative ideas about rapid and orderly loading and off-loading of freight. Because of tightly scheduled show dates and the distances to be traveled from venue to venue, the Ringlings devised the simple, yet highly productive, idea of loading from the rear of a train instead of from the side.
Once America started to move toward a more urban existence and greater worldliness at the turn of the 20th century, vaudevillians and circuses began to loose their cachet. With the advent of television, affordable travel and other forms of mass diversion, circuses were no longer profitable. Additionally, use of animals as performers began to lose appeal when animal rights activists cried foul.
Now the Circus World Museum recaptures the excitement of those earlier times with excellent displays, both inside and out, spanning both sides of the Baraboo River. Neil most liked the main exhibit in the Visitors’ Center (did we mention almost lurid?); Alan dug the astounding archives in the Library and Research Center (open to the public by appointment). The Guys visited off-season and missed the live hippodrome performances during the summer.
Meanwhile, the city of Baraboo (11,000+) appears to be a thriving, sustainable community and is holding its own in a positive way. Centered on a county courthouse square and surrounded by typical small-town businesses, its downtown offers a host of antiques emporiums, restaurants and coffee houses. It is a pleasant community, devoid of rampant teardowns, conscious of its heritage and willing to forego the temptation to reinvent itself to outsiders seeking cheap thrills and crass doodads. The Guys really liked it.
The Guys ventured a look at the much ballyhooed Wisconsin Dells, too. A place once known for its natural wonders, Wisconsin Dells has become the Coney Island of Wisconsin. Ghastly in the off season, the Guys could only imagine what it is like in the summer. Amongst the gewgaws and fast-food bazaar, however, they found a gem at 215 Broadway: another Wisconsin Historical Society satellite museum, the H.H. Bennett Studio. A late-19th- and early-20th-century photographer, Bennett and his family recorded the natural wonders of the Dells, its Native American inhabitants and its visitors for almost 100 years. In 1990 the Bennett heirs donated the studio and archives to the state.
Finally, the Guys had dinner at the Del-Bar Restaurant on U.S. 12. Deceptively ordinary from the busy highway, the Del-Bar is a heck of a place upon entering. Designed by a disciple of Frank Lloyd Wright almost 60 years ago, the ambience is first-rate and the menu and food are superb. This very pleasant and affordable restaurant probably has the best fare encountered in Wisconsin by the Getaway Guys for getaway-chicago.com.
Editor’s Note: The authors maintain a free website, www.getaway-chicago.com, which offers recommended outings to nearby destinations that are often overlooked, but of genuine interest and delight.