by Glen Jarmes
Circus history was made back in 1912 at Monona. The
Gollmar brothers, cousins of the famed Ringling brothers,
had one of the biggest crowds in their history when they
sold over 3,000 tickets to a matinee performance - in a
town of 875 people.
However, circus history was soon to be pushed to new
heights, unheard of before 1915, or since. It happened
when the Ringling Brothers' circus performed in
In September, 1915, the show played to almost 18,000
people at a matinee. This record has never been broken,
and it took a small, lively town of only 972 persons to
accomplish the feat.
The Ringling brothers had purchased the Barnum and Bailey
circus from the James A. Bailey estate for $410,000 in
1907 and decided to operate the original Ringling and the
Barnum and Bailey circuses as two separate shows for the
time. The Ringlings voted to put John, the youngest
brother, as head of the Barnum and Bailey show.
There were valid reasons for the Ringling brothers to
take a chance and move their massive extravaganza into
such a small town as Postville. First, it had a great
reputation as a circus town, based on the fine crowds the
Gollmar Bros. show pulled here. Secondly, Postville is
strategically located in the center of Clayton,
Allamakee, Winneshiek and Fayette counties. And,
Postville was at the junction of the Rock Island and
Milwaukee railroads. As the circus would usually play
Oelwein the day before Postville and Anamosa, the Rock
Island to the Milwaukee line to go to Anamosa. The
brothers decided to take a chance.
The first section train pulled into the siding from
Oelwein at 2 o'clock in the morning. It was a short haul
from Oelwein and the show was early for a change. Section
one had 15 flats, two horse cars, two sleepers and 45
wagons, of which 24 were cage wagons.
Section two came in at 6 a.m. and had ten flat cars, six
horse cars, five sleepers and 28 cars brightly painted in
red, green and silver.
Section three arrived at 6:30 and had 13 flat cars, five
horse cars, 36 wagons, two chariots and a police patrol
The final section arrived at 7 with five stock cars, five
horse cars and ten sleepers.
By this time the tracks and side tracks were bulging at
the seams in the little town. As soon as a section was
unloaded, it was switched to the Ridley siding seven
miles east of Postville. The circus trappings were
unloaded by 9 o'clock. Then the circus excursion trains
started to arrive from as far north as the Twin Cities,
as far west as Mason City, as far east as Madison, Wis.,
and as far south as Dubuque.
The town ran out of water, so the circus water wagons
went eight miles to Clermont to replenish the supply.
The tents were up by 11 o'clock, including the Big Top,
which was 520 feet long by 220 feet wide and seated
15,000 people comfortably. Also up were tents for the
menagerie, side show, horses, ring stock, band, dining,
ladies dressing, ballet, two candy stands, and three
small tents. By the time the parade was to start at 11
o'clock and the show was ready, even walking or standing
room was at a premium.
Ralph Green of Postville photographed the elephants in
parade which helped set circus history there Sept. 3,
(Click on the photo to enlarge it in
a new window - 208kb)
The parade was mammoth and beautiful - 27 elephants,
20 camels, 500 horses, five bands, 24 gaily-colored cage
It was a sight out of this world. When the steaming and
belching calliope finally brought upthe end of the parade
and the crowds, followed the parade back to the circus
lot, Postville was a "disaster area."
All reserved tickets had been sold by noon. The brothers
announced they would sell a few thousand more standing or
sitting tickets around the hippodrome track so anyone who
had come many miles by wagons and buggies and who would
have to start home before dark would not be disappointed.
When Prof. Richards started his pre-show concert, there
were almost 18,000 people inthe Big Top, with people
sitting on straw up to the ring curbs. There was no
chance for a grand entry and every act throughout the
afternoon had to file through the throngs to get to the
ring and stages.
It was a great show; a very big show, and the small town
of Postville set a record for the biggest matinee
attendance of all time. It will always stand, for the Big
Show is no more a tented circus, but plays only
The day had no major mishaps except two young couples who
ran their Model T into the Yellow river and had to walk
home and return the next day to get the car in the
daylight. The evening's performance drew another 5,000,
making it a banner day for the Ringlings who were willing
to take a chance on Postville.
Postville didn't let them down.
John Ringling, happy with the results of his brothers'
performance, decided he'd challenge their success with
his Barnum and Bailey Greatest Show on Earth and play
The date was August 9, 1917. He sent his four advance
crews into Postville, and they posted the countryside for
50 miles in each direction.
The Barnum show was exactly the same size as the Ringling
show. On that occasion, however, the show came to
Postville from Mason City, switched to the Rock Island
and went to Oelwein the day after Postville.
The Barnum and Bailey parade in Postville, on that day
included, in this sequence:
Fred Bradna, equestrian director, with a two-horse
carriage, nine mounted buglers, 12 mounted ladies, No. 1
bandwagon drawn by 12 horses, six tableau wagons with six
horses each, an outrider, 12 mounted men, No. 2 bandwagon
with eight horses, four cages with four horses each,
Ten mounted ladies, five cage wagons with four horses
each, chariot with four horses, hippo cage wagon with ten
horses, nine mounted men, No. 3 bandwagon with eight
horses, small tableau wagon with four horses, outrider,
America tableau wagon with ten horses.
Europe tableau wagon with eight horses, rhinoceros cage
wagon with eight horses, nine lady riders and a colored
side show bandwagon with six horses, two cage wagons with
four horses each, and an outrider.
Six cage wagons with four horses each, 20 cowboys and
cowgirls, clown bandwagon with four horses, 27 elephants,
14 camels, one baby camel, two zebras, three sacred
cattle, 21 lady and men riders, Little Folks tableau with
20 ponies and a steam calliope with eight horses.
The matinee crowd numbered 15,000 - not as huge as the
Ringling show of two years before. The night show drew
5,000, the same as the Ringling show.
The writer was a 5 year old in 1915 for the Ringling
performance and 7 when Barnum and Bailey came to town. Of
the two shows, Barnum and Bailey was preferred. To me, it
seemed bigger, the parade was longer and more elaborate.
After we saw the Ringling show in 1915, my folks took me
to the World's fair, the Panama Pacific exposition, in
San Francisco, and I wouldn't have traded either circus
for the whole fair.
The third largest crowd to ever see a circus in Postville
was this writer's circus in 1948. Quoting from the Postville
Herald of the day:
"Glen J. Jarmes returned to Postville Friday
with hs Jarmes Brothers circus and played the evening
performance before an overflow audience of
appreciative hometown folks. The circus was well
received, the entertainment was good and the show was
Col. Glen Jason "Jumbo" Jarmes, retired
circus owner and veteran showman, was born at Monona
in Clayton county. Coincidently, three of the famed
Ringling brothers also were born in Clayton county,
at McGregor. Jarmes put his first circus out of
Monona in 1933, the second in 1934 and over the years
produced six circuses. He lives now in Fairfield. He
has five children, including two who farm near
Postville, a coach at South Milwaukee high school, an
American Airlines pilot and the head of the music
department at Mt. Pleasant. None is