Circus Museum at the Ringling Museum

Posted by on Jan 25, 2012 in Blog | 4 comments

Circus Museum at the Ringling Museum

Circus horse saddle numbers, Circus museum, Ringling Museum, Sarasota, Florida

-  Click on the image to enlarge or purchase  -

The Ca d’Zan Mansion is one of a number of buildings on the grounds of the Ringling Museum.

John Ringling was one of the five brothers who formed the Ringling Bros. Circus in 1884.  John Ringling was responsible for overseeing the route taken by the traveling circus that originally moved around in road wagons until John, in 1890, persuaded his brothers that the transportation should move to rail creating a 100 rail-car show which criss-crossed the country each year.

In 1907 Ringling bros. acquired the Barnum & Bailey circus which made them the dominant force in the American circus scene.  In 1920 John Ringling used some of his wealth from the circus to start buying and developing land on the Sarasota Keys.  The Ringling Museum is on what remains of the land acquired at this time.

John, and his wife Mable, began to acquire a collection of the Old Master paintings which were displayed in their three homes.  They also acquired furnishings, tapestries and paintings from auction houses and the homes of other prominent wealthy families.  Their main love was for all things Italian which they chose to display in the Mansion and also in the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art which is part of the Ringling Museum complex.

In 1927, John Ringling moved the winter home of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus to Sarasota.  The 200 acre site was about five miles south west of the Mansion.  The circus used this site as its winter quarters for 33-years and became a major source of development and tourism in the area.  To enable the public to see a “behind-the-scenes look at circus life, Ringling opened the winter quarters to the public on Christmas Day 1927.  By 1940, the winter quarters had 100,000 visitors in just one season.  Today a historical marker stands at the entrance to the Glen Oaks Estate on Beneva Road at Calliadra Drive marking the site of the winter quarters.

There are two exhibition buildings within the Ringling Museum complex which celebrate the American circus, its history and its unique relationship with the city of Sarasota.  The first building, established in 1948, documents the history of the circus  and includes some of the actual parade wagons, the sequined costumes and photographs of the filming of “The Greatest Show on Earth”, the 1592 Academy Award Best Picture  by Cecil B. DeMille filmed at the winter quarters and throughout the city of Sarasota.  Also in the museum, are some of the support wagons which were needed to keep the circus functioning as the smooth operation that it was.  It was on one of the work benches which folded out from such a wagon, in a very dark corner of the building, that I found the leather number patches which affixed to the saddles of the show horses seen above.

Circus Museum at the Ringling Museum

Wisconsin Rail Car, Circus Museum, Ringling Museum, Sarasota, Florida

-  Click on the image to enlarge or purchase  -

Also on show is the Wisconsin, the private rail car of John and Mable Ringling.  It was purchased from the Pullman Company in 1905 and was used to transport the Ringlings between their homes in Sarasota and New York from 1905 – 1916.

The second circus museum building is the Tibbal’s Learning Center.  On entering, you see an amazing exhibition of circus posters which were plastered everywhere weeks in advance of the arrival of the circus announcing the day it was coming to town.  The main exhibit in the Tibbal’s Learning Center is the world’s largest miniature circus.  The Howard Bros. Circus Model is a replica of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus from 1919 – 1938.  It was created over a period of 50 years by master model builder and philanthropist Howard Tibbal.  It documents the day in the life of the circus from its arrival in town in the early hours of the morning, through the setting up of the site, feeding and preparation of the animals and performers, arrival of the public and their passage through the midway to the actual circus tents, to the show and eventual clear down of the site and return to the rail cars for transportation to the next town.  This model helps put into perspective how incredibly large and efficient the traveling circus was especially to anyone who has read the book or seen the movie of “Water for Elephants” by Sara Gruen.

In my next and final post about the Ringling Museum we will look at the grounds of the museum.

Click here to learn more about John Ringling’s years in Sarasota where he wintered the famous circus and the Ca’ d’Zan Mansion


  1. Excellent series Mark. I never knew that much about the Ringling Brothers and it is certainly an interesting story. Nice images too!
    Len Saltiel recently posted..Ice CaveMy Profile

  2. Fascinating read, Mark. I love this type of historical post, there is always a nice takeaway, something learned. Nice shot of the numbers and that Wisconsin rail car. Great writeup, man. :-)
    Jimi Jones recently posted..Fountain of BouldersMy Profile

  3. Great post Mark…fascinating history. I love that first shot and the way the numbers cast those shadows.
    edith Levy recently posted..The Greatest RemedyMy Profile

  4. Great write-up to go with the wonderful images. I especially like the top image, lots of character to the numbers.
    James Howe recently posted..Help Eric – Please Paint MeMy Profile


  1. Ringling Museum Grounds and Gardens - [...] wealth of photographic opportunities to anyone visiting the Ringling Museum.  As you walk past the two circus museum buildings …
  2. Ringling Museum Grounds and Gardens - [...] wealth of photographic opportunities to anyone visiting the Ringling Museum.  As you walk past the two circus museum buildings …

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