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Ringling Bros. Snake Den

Ringling Bros. World’s Greatest Shows Snake Den

by Joseph Bradbury

(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

Ringling Brothers Snake den

( 1903 – Bode Wagon Co. Builder’s Plate – Bandwagon -Nov. / Dec. 1961, page 6 )

By 1903 standards these prices were tremendous, but the wagons were all large, heavily carved, and were as fine as any ever built. It is not definite just how many years the snake den remained on the show but was probably there at least through about 1916 or 1917. Bill Woodcock says he saw the show in Nashville, Tenn., in 1918 and did not see the snake den, however he mentioned that the show did not parade that day and is possible it was on the show but that he missed seeing it. It was not on the show when he caught it in 1919, 1920, and 1921. However Woodcock says that in 1927 when he saw the show at Grant Park in Chicago that he observed the snake den in the sideshow. He mentions that if he recalls correctly by that time the den had full glass sides, the carved figures having been removed, but that the skyboard still had the carved snakes on it. It is possible the modified snake den served on the show for some time after that.

Ringling Brothers Circus Snake Den( Undated – Conover Set # 320, photo # 225 – Kenneth Whipple collection )

Following the 1920 season the combine Ringing-Barnum show discontinued the street parades and the parade equipment was stored at the Bridgeport, Conn., quarters. From then on the snake den is “lost.”

Moving forward to the winter of 1972/1973, a side of the wagon was found in an art of woodcarving display. The Joseph Shlitz brewing Co. acquired the wagon side and donated it to the Circus World Museum. The wagon building team headed up by Marv Gauger, at the Circus World Musuem in Baraboo, Wi. re-created this great parade feature. Measuring¬† 15’10” long x 7’9″ wide x 11’3″ tall, this wagon graced the Milwaukee Parades for many years.

Ringling Brothers Snake den( 2010 – Bob Cline photo )

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

(1) Excerpts from the Circus Wagon History File, Bandwagon, Vol. 5, No. 6 (Dec), 1961, pp. 3-6.

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