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Ringling Bros. Giraffe Wagon

Ringling Brothers Giraffe / Elephant Wagon

The John Robinson Circus, based out of Terrace Park, near Cincinnati, Ohio had carried a couple giraffes for several seasons. In a half-hearted attempt to get out of the circus business, they put a lot of show items up for sale. The Ringling Bros. Circus bought the giraffe they had left and the wagon to transport the giraffe in. It is not clear when the wagon was actually built or by whom.

(1) The Ringling purchase of the Robinson giraffe was their first acquisition of a rare exotic animal. following the virtually mandatory purchase of two elephants in 1888. The animal arrived in winter quarters on December 17,1892, having been shipped inside its cage on a flatcar. A large wooden and canvas shanty, erected over the den and heated by a stove, kept the chill away, a necessary precaution since the thermometer registered zero that day.

Mamie, as the giraffe was called by Ringling personnel, was at least thirteen years old. She had been cared for that entire period by a keeper known as “Giraffe John,” an “old German” who slept in a small compartment in the front of the wagon.

Ringling Brothers Circus Giraffe Wagon

( 1894 – Bandwagon, May – June 1986, page 28 – Pfening archives )

Mamie’s cage resembled the other giraffe dens of the 1880s and was presumably at least a decade old when the Ringlings acquired it. A photograph of the wagon first published in the 1894 Ringling Route Book is the first clear side view of this or any other giraffe den. It can clearly be seen the light construction typical of such vehicles, suitably¬† adapted to so docile and so fragile an creature. The drop body came to within a few inches of the ground, the rear wheels either affixed to the sides of the den, or mounted on a dropped center axle which went under the wagon. The body itself was nothing more than a large crate, with a barred opening on at least one side for viewing. The bars may have been only on the left side, the side away from the menagerie sidewall, so that the right side could be made solid and provide some rigidity to the body. The canvas dome was still in place, but Mamie was so large that it no longer served any useful purpose as far as she was concerned: either her head had to be down inside the wagon or fully extended upwards.

After serving the Ringling show for three and a half years, Mamie died in July 1896. The loss of Mamie in 1896 rendered the giraffe den surplus, but it didn’t take long for the frugal Ringlings to think of another use for the wagon. In 1897, the show featured Keddah, “The Royal White Elephant of Siam.” Someone in the Ringling camp decided that the old Giraffe den would make a suitable traveling home for the new prima donna, one which could be shared with the appointed keeper. Not only would it serve as a palace on wheels for the pampered pachyderm, but its large sides presented ample space for show painters to illuminate with an image of the show’s featured attraction.

Ringling Brothers Circus Giraffe Wagon

( 1898 – Bandwagon, May – June 1986, page 28 – Pfening archives )

A few modifications were made to the giraffe den to accommodate its new cargo, but most were superficial in nature. The biggest changes were made to the roof, with the domed canopy removed and a full length roof installed, one with only a small ventilator opening in the center.

One hazard of railroad circus travel was the constant presence of live coals spewing from the stack of the locomotive. On October 15, 1898, while the show train was enroute from Vinita, Indian territory to Ft. Smith, Arkansas, a fire was discovered in the white elephant’s cage. The entire interior, filled with bedding, was ablaze. The train was stopped and the fire extinguished with nearby water, but by this time the poor animal had suffered extensive burns, in addition to smoke inhalation. Recovery was doubtful and on October 20th the elephant died.

The old Robinson giraffe den, altered and fire damaged, presumably sat out the 1899 and 1900 seasons somewhere around Baraboo, but with the acquisition of another giraffe in April 1901, the Ringlings again had a need for the vehicle. Although confirmation is lacking, it appears the old Robinson den was extensively rebuilt, if not entirely reconstructed by the Moeller wagon firm of Baraboo during the winter of 1900-1901. The same basic size and design was retained, but the wagon definitely had the Moeller look after the rebuild. From the pictorial standpoint, the juvenlian title of the mid 1890s was replaced with standard Ringling lettering and competently executed paintings of giraffes were placed on the sides. . . . The sideboards on the left side were still removable and the giraffe stuck its head out of a padded oval opening in the roof. Tufted padding can be seen in the front half of the wagon, a precursor to the foot thick padding which completely covered the interior of later giraffe dens. How long the reconstructed wagon remained in service is not known, but it is possible that it was used into the 1910s.

( 2015 – Dave Lorbeske photo )

The Circus World Museum in Baraboo, Wisconsin decided to re-create this old Robinson/ Ringling giraffe wagon in 1985. This re-creation is built out of steel channel all welded together with a wooden skin applied to it. The wheels on it are actually a roller bearing unit and can be seen to have a grease cap on them. The rear doors are designed as dutch doors on the upper half and a lower half that folds down to become a ramp for the animal to enter the wagon. Once safely inside, another set of doors that are padded close inside to keep the animal from backing up again which allows for the animal to stand upright. This wagon has been used in various parades ever since it was built in 1985.

Ringling Brothers Circus Giraffe Wagon

( 2012 – Dave Lorbeske photo )

According to the wagon file at Circus World, this wagon is 18′ 10″ long x 7″11″ wide x 10’61/2″ tall.

The wagon can be seen in person at Circus World in Baraboo, Wisconsin

(1) Excerpts from “The Ringling Bros. Giraffe Wagon and its Predecessors” by Fred Dahlinger, Jr., Bandwagon, May / June 1986, pp.26-31

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