Ringling Bros. United States Bandwagon
by Joseph Bradbury
( 1903 – as found in the Bandwagon – December 1961, Page 2 )
(1) During the years as a wagon show and after the show went on rails in 1890, Ringling Bros. World’s Greatest Shows had depended mainly on their home town cousins, the Moeller brothers of Baraboo to provide them with the various baggage, tableau, and cage wagons needed to load the circus. Of course some wagons had been purchased from Forepaugh and John Robinson but the Moellers nearly always received the order for any new construction of wagons. During the winter of 1902-03 the entire circus world awaited the return to the United States of Barnum & Bailey’s Greatest Show on Earth which had been in Europe for the five previous seasons. To make 1903 a grand and glorious tour, James A. Bailey had placed a large order for a set of new parade wagons with the Sebastian Wagon Works of New York City. The Ringling Brothers felt they must do something to counter this gigantic new street parade so they proceeded to make plans to put their own parade on par with this one Bailey was to spring. They by-passed their Moeller cousins for the first time and went to the Bode Wagon Co. of Cincinnati, Ohio, where they placed an order for four huge tableau wagons and a glass enclosed snake den.
The wagons ordered from Bode were costly but there were to be none finer anyplace. The wagons and their prices were as follows:
United States Tableau, $1,500.00
Great Britain Tableau, $1,500.00
Russia Tableau, $1,900.00
Germany Tableau, $1,900.00
Snake Den, $850.00
By 1903 standards these prices were tremendous, but the wagons were all large, heavily carved, and were as fine as any ever built. Unlike some of those newly built for Barnum & Bailey, all of these were of large box type construction and were designed so they could also carry a baggage load.
Following the 1920 season the combine Ringing-Barnum show discontinued the street parades and the parade equipment was stored at the Bridgeport, Conn., quarters. The United States wagon was never sold after being stored at Bridgeport and was shipped to the new quarters in Sarasota in 1928. This wagon along with the old Five Graces Bandwagon and the Bell Wagon were the only three parade wagons retained by the Ringling-Barnum interests to be shipped to Sarasota. All the remainder of the once vast number of bandwagons, tableaux, and calliopes owned by Ringling-Barnum had either been sold to Fred Buchanan, George W. Christy, Floyd and Howard King and others during the 20’s when they were no longer required for street parades, or had been dismantled and destroyed in that period at the old Bridgeport quarters.
( 1930s – Joseph Bradbury Album # 51 – photo # 23B – late 1930’s in Sarasota WQ – US Bandwagon beside ring barn – Gordon Jones collection )
After the U. S. Bandwagon got to Sarasota it seemed to remain a symbol of the old time street parade. In 1934, the Five Graces and the Bell Wagon were sent to Peru to appear in the giant Hagenbeck-Wallace street parade being put on that year leaving the U. S. wagon all to itself. As early as 1939 there was a movement on to preserve it, and the columns of the Billboards in the period 1939-42 had a steady stream of comment deploring the fate of the wagon. Some even suggested it be renovated and carried by the big show and placed in the menagerie top as a remainder to all of the great days of the street parade. But nothing was done to save it and it will profit nothing here to mention the oft-lamented phrase that the few feet of shelter that could have saved it was never provided. Perhaps it would have been better for the sentimental circus wagon lover had the Ringling management just poured gasoline on it and applied the torch to it as they did the magnificent old Sparks Circus tableaus and calliopes at Sarasota about that time. But the wagon remained, just sitting out in the open, on through the 40’s and on through the 50’s. While it could still be moved it was constantly shifted about the quarters but by the early 50’s its rolling days were over.
( 1951 – Joseph Bradbury Album # 13 – photo # 23F – Feb. 21, 1951 in Sarasota winter quarters – Joseph Bradbury photo )
The wheels were sold off to circus fans who took them and patched and painted them into fine sunburst wheel momentos. When the Circus Hall of Fame started up in the mid 50’s they acquired part of the wagon carvings. At one time it was thought an entire side panel could be restored but later it was found that too many carvings were missing and that the job would be impossible. Under the skillful hands of Dr. H. C. Hoyt, the curator at the Hall of Fame, several carvings have been restored and made into attractive panels. The horse and rider from the front carving, the statue of Columbia, and the Indian have all been restored and Doc has a few more to do. In this small way some of the past glory of the wagon has been preserved. The old wagon shell just fell apart and was cleared with the debris when Ringling-Barnum abandoned the Sarasota quarters in 1960.
As an addendum to Mr. Bradbury’s article, while the original United States Bandwagon was now a thing of the past, the wagon would be re-born. John Zweifel bought the Circus Hall of Fame in Sarasota when it closed. After relocating everything to his warehouse in Orlando, Florida, John gave the remaining carvings to the Circus World Museum in Baraboo, Wisconsin. There they were used as a pattern and the wagon was re-created from the ground up. In 1992, the wagon was begun by building a steel frame construction. Harold Burdick, Tim Perkins and Bill Barr headed up the project. Homer Dahn did a lot of the carvings with three or four other wood carvers being utilized to help with such a huge project.
( 1992 – Stephen T. Flint photo )
( 1992 – Stephen T. Flint photo )
Once completed, the Bandwagon was used in the many parades in Milwaukee and Baraboo, Wisconsin. This gem now resides inside the wagon pavilion.
( 2012 – Bob Cline photo )
(1) Bandwagon, Vol. 5, No. 6 (Dec), 1961, pp. 3-6
The wagon can be seen in person at Circus World in Baraboo, Wisconsin
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