As three parts of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus trains make their way to Baraboo, Joe Colossa and other former Ringling workers still are processing the end of the historic brand.
When Circus World announced last month that it would be the new home of Ringling’s former Blue Unit clown car no. 189, stock car no. 63006 and a flat car with four wagons, the co-owner of the Al. Ringling Mansion said he felt both sadness and elation.
“It’s like a double-edged sword for me,” he said. “To begin with, I’m heartbroken that Ringling Bros. is closed, and I’m heartbroken that the train is gone. But on the other side of the coin, I think Circus World getting the cars is fantastic.”
During his 14-year stint with the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, Colossa went from selling popcorn to managing the Blue Unit train from 2009 to 2013. During that time, the circus traveled with two touring units, which were housed in separate trains. Colossa said the Red and Blue Units each were more than a mile long and included over 60 cars that housed about 350 people.
Circus World Executive Director Scott O’Donnell said the Baraboo museum acquired the train cars through an online auction after Ringling announced it would close. Thanks to several donors, O’Donnell said Circus World was able to purchase the Blue Unit clown car no. 189. The Feld family and Feld Entertainment, which owned and operated Ringling, then donated the stock car, flat car and wagons.
“Through the generosity of the Feld family and Feld Entertainment, they added two more cars to the collection,” O’Donnell said. “They donated them to our institution.”
O’Donnell said the no. 189 car was at one time home to an army of clowns, the stock car housed performing horses and the flat car carried wagons for the Red Unit up until the circus closed. He said the cars are slowly and separately meandering their way on railroad tracks from Florida to Baraboo.
Colossa said he has countless memories from his time on the train – particularly from the clown car. He said more than 30 nationalities were represented on the Blue Unit, and he could tell which car he was in by the smell of various ethnic foods. A few of his coworkers put his claim to the test.
“They blindfolded me one day and took me into different cars and I got every single car right because I knew the train that well,” he said.
Another former Ringling worker, Jerry Bentley, said his favorite part of train life was seeing the country through his window. “To really enjoy and appreciate the country, you have to see it by train,” he said.
Bentley said he was born on a carnival train and worked as a train mechanic his entire life. After working for more than 20 years as a mechanic on the Blue Unit, Bentley found himself out of work when the circus shut down in May. He’s since traveled to Baraboo to stay with Colossa. He said it’s hard to hold back tears when he sees pieces of circus history in Baraboo – a history that tells his life story.
“I went to Circus World when I first got up here, and of course I saw a couple of cars and wagons from shows I worked on,” he said. “It was hard for me to hold back the dam – here’s my whole life right here before me.”
Because of some transportation issues, O’Donnell said it’s hard to determine exactly when the cars will arrive. He said the plan is for the wagons to convene in Chicago and come up together with help from Wisconsin & Southern Railroad for a homecoming celebration.
“At some point, they’ll all be in Chicago,” he said. “Then we’ll say, ‘OK Baraboo, get ready – here they come.’ Once we finitely know, we want to have a homecoming event when they come into town, have some press, and allow the folks to come out and see them.”
O’Donnell, who was a boss clown on the Blue Unit during his time with Ringling, said he’s looking forward to seeing what treasures might be hidden inside.
“It’ll be like an archaeological experience when they get here to go from room to room,” he said. “It was sort of a tradition, particularly with the clowns, that they would write their names and their years…”
While it may be emotional for him, Bentley said he’s looking forward to seeing the cars up close once again.
“Without being there, you just don’t understand,” he said. “It’s hard for someone to grasp what we’re talking about. It was mine and Joe’s whole life.”