—Betty Earleywine, Curator
Adapted from Dorothy Kundert’s “Woodburners to Diesels” text for the 1956 Brodhead Centennial celebration.
The colossus of the circus world – John Ringling North’s “Greatest Show On Earth,” made its debut at Madison Square Garden in New York. In Wisconsin, the state that was the early proving ground for the Ringlings, Wisconsin’s famed “Historymobile,” sponsored by the state historical society, left Madison in early April to go on tour with a new and colorful exhibit, “Sawdust and Spangles; the Circus in Wisconsin.” This season the story has special significance for residents of Brodhead, for The Al Ringling not only “slept here,” but he lived and worked here, and is well remembered by some few oldsters in the community.
Al Ringling was the oldest son of a German harnessmaker who had come from the old country to Milwaukee, where he married, and then to Chicago, where Al was born. From Baraboo to McGregor, Iowa, the family eventually settled down in Prairie du Chien.
The Panic of 1873 resulted in poor business and scarce money. Hard times hit the Ringling family. Al decided to leave home in search of a better job. There seemed no alternative, as the family could use every penny that he might be able to send back.
Antone Durner and Sebestian Laube of Brodhead, owned a wagon and carriage shop, and were well known throughout Green County. It is here that Al Ringling arrived, after a prolonged look for work, and was hired as carriage painter and trimmer. He made leather tops, side curtains and dashboards for carriages and buggies.
In the 1870’s, there were no circuses as we know them today. Several horse drawn wagons occasionally took an unreasonable facsimile of a circus to the larger cities.
Al Ringling loved a circus: he loved juggling and practicing acrobatics. He roomed at “Exchange House,” the present home of Miss Helen Bechvith, just one block from the square. In his room on the third floor, south, he kept his juggling and tight rope apparatus, installed a trapeze and bars. His feats of ability soon spread across the countryside. Sometimes he put on impromptu acts, on the bank corner, or wherever he chanced to be. If he gained an audience of adults along with the children, he sometimes passed his hat. He encouraged the children to put on their own shows, even as he and his brothers had done at home.
Juggling anything handy at first, balls of yarn, or wrapping twine, pan lids, balancing a carriage whip, tools and implements, on his nose or chin, gradually his skill increased. He stretched a tight rope from an old building on the north side of Exchange Street to one on the south side, and his tight wire acts became a regular part of Saturdays, if the weather permitted. The street would be jammed with admiring townspeople and farmers, and he opened up a whole new world for the children. Sometimes Al had piano music along with his acts, furnished by Johnny Hunt, who was also good at sleight of hand. Sometimes he dressed up in pink tights.
One of his most daring stunts was to successfully balance on his chin a 70 pound old fashioned, wooden framed hand plow. On one occasion he carried a small stone half way across the tightwire, then built a fire, cooked his supper,-well, at least a piece of meat anyway,-ate it, and proceeded to the other side. Most assuredly, he was one of Brodhead’s most popular citizens.
Filled completely with a desire to go on the road with his own show, Al had frequently maintained that some day he would have the biggest show on earth. So it was not surprising, along about 1877, that Al took extended leaves of absence from his shop work and went on the road for days. His companion, a stage struck farm boy from near Avon, was a ventriloquist and puppeteer named, Fred White, known professionally as Bob White. Their acts and puppet show “Babes in the Woods,” were shown at school houses mostly, and rural churches. Invariably they came back broke.
His unexpected leaving and returning tried the patience of his employers. Up to 1882 Al had brought out the tight rope each time he returned to Brodhead and his work. The time seemed expedient to make decision as to his future. He left Brodhead in 1882 to form his own show, the story of which is well known to everyone who loves a circus.
Should you care to, you may visit the former Durner & Laube Carriage Shop, standing on East Exchange Street, now owned by John Wish. It is used to store farm implements. Joseph Laube, a former part owner, 83 years old, still lives in Brodhead. It is believed that the spot where Al Ringling carved his name on an interior wall, is still legible.
The first wagon made for the Ringling Circus is said to have been made here. For many years after the big show was on circuit, Al had his wagons repaired at this where he had worked so long ago. Until late in the 19th century, the circus each year showed alternately in Brodhead and Monroe. And finally the inevitable happened. There were not enough sidetracks to bring the circus to Brodhead, Al Ringling’s, local boy, “Biggest Show on Earth.”