The Ringling Bros. are an Indelible Part of Iowa History
Last weekend, a friend and I spent some time taking a guided tour on the Mississippi River. Maiden Voyage Boat Tours in Marquette, IA offered a lot of wisdom and rich local history. One of the most interesting takeaways was that a group of siblings who revolutionized circuses around the world got their start in Iowa: those men were the Ringling Brothers.
The Ringling brothers are indispensable to the history of circuses both classic and modern. They took their small convoy of touring performers and turned it into one of the largest circuses in the United States by the early 1900s. You can't tell that story without mentioning Iowa.
The four Ringling brothers — Alfred, Charles, John, and Henry — were born to parents who lived in McGregor, IA, the neighboring river-town of Marquette. The family would reside in McGregor from 1860 to 1872 before packing up and moving to Prairie du Chien, WI, and then eventually Baraboo.
Following the births of the four brothers, two more would follow in Al and Otto. As a collective, the six siblings would form the Ringling Bros. Circus. McGregor served as their breeding ground for the idea. After attending a circus as kids, the boys gave their first "pin and penny" circus show in McGregor.
The Ringling brothers' fledgling circus operation would play small towns in the area, such as Cascade, Monticello, and more. Armed with a couple horses, some performers, yet very little money, the brothers scratched and clawed their way to success. Whatever money they made from the circus itself went back into the business, eventually traveling to Onslow, IA by 1880.
If you take the Maiden Voyage Boat Tour, you're able to get a glimpse of the Ringling Brothers' stomping grounds. You once were able to see the original childhood home of the siblings, but unfortunately, the house — located at 11643 Great River Road in McGregor — caught fire in December 2021. The McGregor Hook & Ladder Fire Department declared the home, which was inhabited by a mother, two kids, and three dogs at the time, a total loss.
Unlike their childhood home, the Ringling Brothers' Iowa roots didn't go up in smoke. Various plaques and monuments exist in the McGregor area, including one located near their childhood home. The plaque commemorates both the town and the brothers with two brief paragraphs. The paragraph on the Ringling dynasty reads:
The Ringling Brothers' Circus' foundation was laid when Augustus Ringling's sons gave penny shows here. The Ringling home still stands at the bottom of the hill on the way to Pikes Peak.
In 1919, the entrepreneurial brothers merged their operation with America's other pioneering circus troupe, Barnum and Bailey, ultimately creating the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, which operated for 98 years, until 2017. The show has since been on hiatus, however, Feld Entertainment, the current operator, announced a return in 2023, albeit without their trademark animals such as elephants, tigers, and lions.
McGregor, IA is only about an hour and ten minutes from the Tri-States. It resembles Galena, only with a slightly saltier, more rustic edge. It's perfect for a day trip, and ideal for a staycation, as the neighborhood is quaint and offers people many activities during the day and night.