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Wisconsin: Home of 'The Greatest Show on Earth'

Wisconsin’s history with the circus dates back before we became a state. During much of the 19th century, Wisconsin was a mecca for circuses and menageries, at one time hosting more than 100 such companies during the winter months. Many of these companies were looking for a place to call home that had abundant land, fresh water, and a central staging spot for the summer season for all of their animals and employees.

"The Midwest had bigger crowds, and if they could find someplace in the Midwest that their animals could thrive during the winter, they wouldn't have very far to travel and they could get a jump on the other circuses," explains Delavan Historical Society President Patti Marsicano.

Some of the most recognizable circus companies that called Wisconsin home include the Ringling Brothers and the U.S. Olympic Circus owned by the Mabie brothers.

Wisconsin's history with the circus began in 1847 when brothers Edmund and Jeremiah Mabie acquired over 250 acres in Delavan for the nation's largest traveling show according to Marsicano. The Mabie brother's dominance in the circus world soon attracted other circus companies and acts to come to Wisconsin and Delavan grew to become known as the 19th Century circus capital of the nation.

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Credit "Images of America: Lake Lawn"
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Romeo the elephant was a circus animal with a bad reputation due to his many attempts at escape and killing five handlers during his lifetime. This statue of Romeo is in the center of downtown Delavan.

"You find that there’s not a lot of pictures of the circus in Delavan because it was an everyday occurrence to see the elephants and the animals walking down the street, and people just didn’t take pictures of it because it wasn’t unusual," says Delavan Historical Society board member Chris Marsciano.

Even though Delavan was once home to over twenty traveling circuses, there's not much evidence of it in town today. Patti Marsicano attributes this to the circus' "ever-evolving" nature and its expansion after the railroad made it much easier to travel.

"Once they became more mobile...and never stayed in one place very long, it changed a lot of things. There were some circus people who retired and stayed in Delavan. Now it's mostly memories," she says. "We have a lot of circus performers buried in the cemetery and we have two statues in honor of the circus, but there's nothing physical that exists today to show what the circus meant to Delavan."

Delavan will be celebrating the 80th tour of the Carson & Barnes Circus this weekend during Delavan’s Heritage Fest.

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Audrey is a producer, host and reporter for Lake Effect. She is involved with every aspect of the show — from conducting interviews, editing audio, posting web stories and mixing the show together.