IAGenWeb Project - Allamakee co. Misc. Historical Items

The Circus in Postville

Mural depicting the 1915 Ringling Bros Circus parade in Postville

This mural is painted on the side of what used to be the Postville locker building.

18,000 See Extravaganza
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 Postville.

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 wagon.

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.

Ringling Brothers circus parade, Sept 3, 1915 Postville
Ralph Green of Postville photographed the elephants in the circus
parade which helped set circus history there Sept. 3, 1915
(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 wagons.

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 air-conditioned buildings.

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 Postville too.

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, outrider.

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 clean."


Editor's note:
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 "circus".

~scan of the mural photo contributed by Kathleen Hash, from a photo taken by her cousin

~source of article & circus parade photo scan: undated newspaper clipping, unknown newspaper; given me by by grandmother, Florence (Swenson) Ruckdaschel.

Florence is the daughter of Arthur W. & Nina (Harris) Swenson. She was born and raised in Allamakee county, and has lived in or near Postville for a century. Grandma was born in 1907, so the circus she is writing about may have been the 1915 Ringling brothers, but on the note she wrote on the clipping, she put "August 1915", so it is possible that she actually saw the Barnum & Bailey circus in 1917 (the Ringling circus was in Sept, not August). Across the top of the article, my grandmother wrote:

"August 1915. I remember going to see this circus unload at the Depot at 4:00 a.m. I was 7 or 8 yrs. Our Dad drove us kids there in the wagon. Don't believe Mother went - as George was only 2 or 3 yrs old. Beautiful sight & Dad loved it too."

~article transcribed by Sharyl Ferrall for Allamakee co. IAGenWeb

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