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City of Cascade

Historical Society


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The Ringling Bros and Cascade History

The “Greatest Show on Earth” owes its beginning success to the generosity of the citizens of Cascade, Iowa. Cascade reached out to the Ringling Brothers in their time of need and as a result, the brothers never forgot the community and did not pass on any opportunity to show their gratitude.

The Ringling family consisted of seven brothers, five of whom eventually became the famous “Ringling Brothers” who made circus history. The family originally lived in McGregor, Iowa but moved to Baraboo, Wisconsin when the brothers were still young.

As children, the Ringling boys enjoyed playing circus and they were a talented bunch. A few were musicians and they enjoyed performing gymnastic stunts and providing other entertainment as well. Five of the brothers held a special interest in the circus. Eventually their pretend circus became good enough to perform in the town’s opera house in 1879. This provided the boys with the encouragement they needed and they decided to take the show on the road. The brothers acquired a team of horses to haul the equipment and even the horses were trained to perform a few amateur tricks!

The circus played to small towns in the surrounding area but as they grew, they ventured out a little farther. The circus life was a difficult existence. The performances made just enough money to pay for expenses. In 1880, the circus made its way to Onslow, Iowa. The troupe encountered problems along the way, but their biggest misfortune occurred when a nasty storm blew their tent down nearly ripping it to shreds and ruined their already meager equipment. They had made no money since they were unable to perform, but the circus animals still needed to be fed. Because they were unable to pay for the feed they had already purchased, the feed store owners kept some of the animals until payment could be made.

Disheartened, the brothers gathered what animals they had and the belongings that were still usable and trudged 15 miles through muck and mud to Monticello, Iowa. They entered Monticello bedraggled and penniless, but the Ringling Brothers were still hopeful that with a show to one good crowd, they could get back on their feet.

Their hopes fell flat in Monticello because they had no money to purchase the license which the city required in order for the circus to perform.

The Brothers had heard rumors that Cascade enjoyed good performances, so Al Ringling, the producer of the show, made his way over the muddy roads to Cascade. When he reached Cascade, Al Ringling immediately met with and made friends with two prominent Cascade citizens, Isaac W. Baldwin and RJ McVay. Isaac Baldwin held two prominent positions; he was the mayor of the town and the publisher of the town’s newspaper. RJ McVay did Cascade’s banking privately as there was no formal bank at the time.

The mayor issued the permit for the circus performance without requiring payment of a fee. He then printed handbills in his printing establishment to advertise the show. He extended credit for his services until after the show. Mr. McVay advanced the money necessary to finance the transportation, feed and other expenses. Several Cascade boys offered their assistance in helping the company get through the muddy roads from Monticello to Cascade. They distributed the advertising through-out the countryside along the way.

After a couple days of preparation, the tent was set up, a lemonade stand erected and in record time that tattered old tent held a full house for the afternoon circus performance in Cascade. The Ringling Brothers were pleased, but there was more to come. A crowd swept in from the countryside to see the much advertised evening performance. So many people came that there simply wasn’t room for them all.

The receipts from the Cascade performances were enough to pay the bills with money left over to give them a fresh start. From that point on, the Ringling Brothers Circus prospered.

It was not long before the circus took to the railways for travel. That meant that the circus could not return to Cascade as Cascade was served by a narrow gauge rail; standard rail cars could not travel on the narrow tracks. Years passed and all would have thought that the Ringling Brothers would have forgotten about the little town which they would never visit again.

Several years after the Cascade performance, a group of Cascade friends, “Shorty” Parrott, Ad Severence and Frank Snowden went to see The Ringling Brothers Circus performance in Monticello. They listened as Al Ringling captivated the crowd with his extravagant depiction of the wonders of the circus. They were startled as Al suddenly interrupted his speech to exclaim “Why, there’s Shorty and some of the boys from Cascade. Come up here on this platform!” He enthusiastically shook their hands and described to the crowd how Cascade helped the circus. Al Ringling said, “Anyone from Cascade is free to this show anytime. These boys will be at the door to identify anyone from Cascade and pass ‘em in. That goes for any place we may show on this earth. Anyone from Cascade has the run of the grounds wherever we are.”

The Ringling Brothers Circus continued to expand, acquiring the Barnum and Bailey Circus, and became known as the “Greatest Show on Earth”. Through the years, the circus has remained true to their word and citizens of Cascade have been able to attend the circus free of charge wherever the show has performed.