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One of many historic posters at Circus World Museum

Baraboo, Wisconsin

getaway-chicago logo This destination is incredible. It’s a place for either a long day trip or a weekend that’s fun and fascinating. The Circus World Museum (circusworld.wisconsinhistory.org) in Baraboo, Wisconsin is easy to get to and a dynamite experience for kids of all ages (from 6 to 60, well maybe a bit older). 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. And Alan? Who knows what Mr. Indecipherable thought! Anyway, their trip to Baraboo in the fall of ‘08 explained a lot about the mythic desire to exchange the humdrum of daily life for the fantastical. Both Neil and Alan were blown away.

Established in 1959, the CWM has welcomed over seven million visitors in 50 years and is the most visited off-site institution affiliated with the Wisconsin Historical Society. baraboo2For those curious about circuses generally, and those specifically interested in the Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey Circus in particular, the CWM is entertaining, yet 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.. The Getaway Guys were overwhelmed. Both had heard about the CWM on numerous occasions, but for reasons neither could fathom they hadn’t visited before. Nor did either understand why there’s a circus museum in a place called Baraboo.

Possibly the least likely place in the U.S. for the creation of a world-wide entertainment empire in the 19th century, Baraboo, Wisconsin is the hometown of the Ringling family. The Ringlings settled there after abandoning Iowa for greener pastures further east (ignoring Samuel Gompers’s advice, “go west young man”). The ancient Romans invented mass entertainment, but the modern circus didn’t arrive in the U.S. until the early 1800s. Not until the Ringlings established a near monopoly of the genre did circuses begin to 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 bordering on the lurid), the brothers brought to every nook and cranny of America not only a source of spectacular entertainment, but also an education. baraboo11Who afterall in Keokuk, Iowa had seen a live tiger or elephant before? While providing thrills and chills annually, the circus introduced millions to animals more often read about than seen. The stuff of story books and encyclopedias, animals from the far corners of the world were on view for the mere price of admission.

In addition to stimulating advances in large scale lithographic printing (today’s billboards), the Ringling organization brought innovative ideas to the railroad industry about rapid loading and off-loading of freight. Because of tightly scheduled show dates and the often long 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. Instead of loading each flat car individually and from its side, why not roll each numbered piece of equipment from back to front in order of need at the next destination? This concept was so effective that the German Army adopted it in its war planning prior to 1914, as did the U.S. later.

To appreciate the popularity (and demise) of circuses, one must understand the rural isolation that 70% of all Americans knew as a fact of life prior to the advent of movies and radio in the early 20th century. The piano (or the Victrola) in the parlor and the occasional touring vaudeville company offered diversion and relief from the ebb and flow of daily life, but the arrival of a circus in town was really, really big. Once America started to move toward a more urban existence and greater worldliness (How You Gonna Keep‘em Down On The Farm After They’ve Seen Gay Paree?), vaudevillians and circuses (the piano and Victrola, too) began to loose their cachet. baraboo9With the advent of television, affordable world travel and other forms of mass diversion, circuses as they once were, were no longer a profitable draw. Additionally, the use of animals as performers began to lose its appeal when animal rights activists cried foul.

The city of Baraboo (11,000+) appears to be a thriving and sustainable community. No longer the winter headquarters for the Ringling enterprises, Baraboo (www.cityofbaraboo.com) is holding its own in a positive way. Centered on a courthouse square and surrounded by typical rural American businesses, this downtown offers a host of antique emporiums, restaurants and coffee houses. It’s a pleasant community devoid of rampant teardowns and apparently conscious of its heritage and willing to forego the temptation of re-inventing itself as something more desirable to outsiders seeking cheap thrills and crass doodads. The Guys really liked it.

Despite their tendency to disagree about things, Neil and Alan were mutually impressed with everything about the Circus World Museum and Baraboo. Of course, of the many, many artifacts on display (wagons, posters, costumes, etc.), Neil and Alan had their own favorites. But neither could argue the merits of one over the other. While on this trip, the Guys ventured a look at the much ballyhooed family summer destination, Wisconsin Dells. A place once visited 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’s like in the summer. However, amongst the gewgaws and fast food emporiums, they found a gem at 215 Broadway: another Wisconsin Historical Society satellite museum, the H.H. Bennett Studio (hhbennettstudio.wisconsinhistory.org). A late 19th century and early 20th century photographer, Bennett and the Bennett family recorded the natural wonders of the Dells, its Native Americans and its visitors for almost 100 years. In 1990 the Bennett heirs donated the studio and archives to the State. A visit here is a must.baraboo1 Another less historically significant site to behold is a full scale replica of the White House upside down and a-tilt. Just south of Wisconsin Dells on U.S. 12, the Guys spotted this topsy-turvy structure and thought it utterly hilarious (given its former residents), but couldn’t quite figure out how to get in!

The Guys had dinner at the Del-Bar Restaurant (www.del-bar.com) on U.S. 12. Deceptively ordinary from busy 12, the Del-Bar is a heck of a place upon entering. Designed by a disciple of Frank Lloyd Wright almost 60 years ago, the ambiance 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 a getaway-chicago.com destination. June 2009

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