History of Clayton County, Iowa.
Edited by Realto E. Price. Chicago: Robert O. Law Co., 1916.
Ringling Bros. First Show
In the early 1870s there lived in McGregor, a family of six brothers, named Ringling. The father ran a harness and saddle shop. He was an expert workman, noted particularly for his fine saddles. One of his masterpieces was a beautiful and expensive saddle ordered from him by John Buell, of New York. There were many circuses in those days, all of them traveling overland and few of them carrying a menagerie. Barnum was abroad in the land and was giving the people their first lesson in that great American institution, the circus. The Ringling boys undoubtedly attended the overland circuses and the boat shows which came to McGregor and, in some way, Al, as the ringleader of the boys got it into his head that he would like to have a show of his own. Many are still living in McGregor who remember the first performance of Ringling Bros. circus. One of these has contributed the following account of the beginning of the career of these kings of the big top, who are now said to own and control all the great circuses of America. Their cousins, the Gollmar Brothers, entered the business later, being attracted by the success attained by the Ringlings.
The following is the account of the first Ringling Bros. show: "About forty years ago there resided in this same town, McGregor, Iowa, a firm in the harness business known as the Ringling Bros. The firm was composed of quiet young fellows of apparently mediocre business ability, and the last fellows on earth one would suspect of being afflicted, not with the hook worm, but with the show worm. But they were, nevertheless, and what gets into the heart of a fellow is sure to crop out. That is the reason why they gave their first show and that it happened in McGregor, was because they were then here. On a vacant lot in the rear of S. J. Peterson's drug store, they pitched their first tent. It was fully thirty-five feet in diameter, and well filled. There were three star performers. Just three and no more. Two were on the parallel bars, but Al Ringling was the star. He balanced a big plow on his chin, which he borrowed from Lon Boyle for that special occasion. The exhibition was limited to one performance, and this in the evening. The orchestra was made up of one fiddle. George Williams was the one member of the band and he knew one tune. This he played over and over and when he had finished the audience invariably demanded the second verse, but there was no second. It was all first.
George was the local plasterer as well as the violinist. There are men in town who can yet whistle that same tune. "The show went from here to Prairie du Chien. Three flat boats carried the complete aggregation. Boats about the size of those now used for clamming, and they rowed across the river. Who would ever imagine that this was the beginning of the world's greatest shows?
The harness shop owned by the Ringlings stood where the photograph gallery is now located. The tent was held in place by ropes contributed from clothes lines from the neighbors' backyards. The writer knows whereof he speaks for he got in the show on a pass for contributing these same clothes lines to the good of the cause."
A letter from Charles Ringling dated July 11, 1916, questions some of the statements above, although it is not disputed that the first performance, from which the Ringling circus grew, was given at McGregor.
Mr. Ringling's letter is as follows: "The mention of the harness shop of Al
Ringling at McGregor; this is an error. Al Ringling was never in the harness business at
McGregor. August Ringling, Sr., father of the Ringling Brothers ran a harness shop at
McGregor from 1860 to 1872. At intervals during this period several of the older boys
worked in the shop, but only one of the seven brothers actually took an interest in the
harness business. This was A. G. Ringling who followed this trade in McGregor for a time
and also in Elkader and in Garnavillo, joining his brothers only after the circus had been
established for a number of years. There were seven brothers in the family, (in order as
to age) Albert, August (A. G.), Otto, Alfred, Charles, John and Henry. The first three
have passed to the great beyond. The remaining four brothers, now the firm of Ringling
Bros., were born in McGregor. While it is true that the brothers gave a number of amateur
circus performances at McGregor, under tents made by themselves, and that they actually
planned, while mere boys at McGregor, to own and operate a circus, they did not actually
start their first professional show from this point. though the first circus run by the
brothers was small it represented some investment and the necessary funds had to be earned
in some way. For several years the brothers gave exhibitions in halls and small-town
theaters and from the savings of this business they were able in the spring of 1884 to
start their first real circus. The first performances were given at Baraboo, Wis., and it
was not until several weeks later that they appeared at McGregor."