By Duncan


I’ve had no desire to visit the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus Museum and campus in Sarasota, Florida. It’s an hour north and I’m sure if I do go, it’s going to be expensive. I, like almost everyone, know the Ringling Brothers were involved in the circus. I knew Sarasota, Florida was the winter home for the circus. I think I went to the circus at some point in my life but it didn’t leave me with lasting memories. The pilot light for the circus life never came on in my gut. So, I didn’t even have the place on my radar. Then why go? Why make the trip?

My sister, Rebecca (Becky), called and said she wanted to come to Southwest Florida and pay a visit to see Dad. It’s a long ride from San Diego to Charlotte. Becky then changed planes and waited for the flight to Fort Myers. Dad isn’t getting any younger, and he won’t be around forever. So, the reality for Becky is to see him now. He will be 97 this year.

“Okay, Becky, when are you coming?”

The dates and times were set and placed in my calendar. Becky did make one request. “I see the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus Museum is north of you. Can we tour the Ringling home and grounds?”

The general admission price to the Ringling Brothers campus is twenty five dollars. I had to think back to what a ticket cost when I visited the Biltmore Estates in Asheville, North Carolina. That experience was a healthy sixty dollars per person. Becky was in Southwest Florida a couple years ago and wanted to visit the Edison & Ford Winter Estates in Fort Myers. That was twenty bucks.


The story starts on a cool over cast spring day in 1874. Eight year old John Nicholas Ringling and his brothers were sitting on a dock. Across the Mississippi in the small town of MacGregor, Iowa, a steamboat was unloading a one tent circus. This unusual scene led to a unanimous decision by the Ringling boys. The circus was going to be their life.


John and his brothers Al, Charles, Otto and Alfred put on their first show in Baraboo, Wisconsin, in 1882. The banner read: “Ringling Brothers Classical Comic Opera”. John was 16 and played the part of the clown. Other names for the Ringling Brothers fledgling shows included “The Royal European Menagerie, The Ringling Brothers United Monster Shows and The Congress of Trained Animals,” charging a just a penny for admission.

Time passed and the troupe gave more than 1,000 performances. As they earned more and more money they absorbed smaller circuses travelling around the country. Before converting from wagons to railroad in 1890.

In 1907, twenty five years after the beginning their quest to be a real circus, they purchased Barnum and Bailey’s show for $400,000. The two circuses were not combined into the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus until after the colossal debut at Madison Square Garden on March 29, 1919.

Ringling Bros Barnum and Bailey Circus

“Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, children of all ages, welcome to the greatest show on earth”. Unfortunately, Otto, Al and Alfred died leaving only John and Charles to enjoy the success and continue the tradition.

mable-ringling-01John married Mable Armilda Burton in Hoboken, New Jersey, in 1905. He invested profits from his circus in railroads, oil, real estate and cattle.

Charles N. Thompson, a manager of the Ringling Brother’s Circus for six years, came to Sarasota with his wife and built a showplace home, Palms Elysian in 1905. The home was sold to Ralph Caples in November 1911.

Early in 1912 John and Mable came to Sarasota. It is reported that on January 31, 1912 John Ringling said to Caples,

“Tell you what, Ralph, if you sell me the Thompson place cheap, just like it stands, I’ll buy it tonight”.

The response was, “Mr. Ringling, you’ve bought yourself a home”.

A handshake sealed the deal. John’s brother (Charles’,) wife Edith, and two children came to visit and they bought the adjacent property shortly thereafter.

In 1917, the Pullman Company was commissioned to build an 83 foot long rail road car named JOMAR (JO for John, MA for Mable and R for Ringling) The rail car was quite elegant. Featuring lampshades by Tiffany. John wanted a metal cigar holder in his bathroom, it was done.

John then started buying Sarasota property like Bird, Saint Armands, Coon, Otter and Wolf Keys in 1923 and employed three dredges to build the keys. He constructed streets, water and sewer lines. Additionally he purchased statues from Italy that were placed along the boulevards.

Construction of the wood plank causeway connecting the keys to the mainland was started on January 1925. It opened to traffic on February 7, 1926. The sale of real estate on Saint Armands Key exceeded one million dollars on that day. John’s income that year was one million dollars, equivalent to about 40 million today.

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John built Ca d’Zan (House of John) in 1926 as a place for Mable to rest at the end of each year’s circus season. It was Mable’s project encompassing the design of the facade to selecting furnishings.


Around 1925 the real estate bubble burst. There were no jobs.

On March 23, 1917, Ringling announced that the winter quarters of the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus would move from Bridgeport, Connecticut, to Sarasota. It meant spending half a million dollars just for the required buildings. During the first week in November, 100 railroad cars arrived with animals and dozens of performers and their families. In addition to the jobs the move created, Sarasota became an even bigger tourist attraction.

Also, in 1927 John hired John H. Phillips to design the Ringling Museum of Art; a venue to display the vast collection of paintings that he purchased at auctions throughout Europe.


Mable developed pneumonia while she and John were in Europe and died of complications on June 8, 1929. She was only 53 years old. The stock market crashed in 1929 and John’s 400 million dollar fortunes disappeared.

Ringling remarried on June 19, 1930, to Emily Haag Buck twenty years his junior.



Ringling was voted out of control of the business in 1932 by its board of directors.

John and Emily divorced on July 6, 1936. The man who had entertained the worlds’ most famous, smoked and drank only the best, died of pneumonia on December 2, 1936 with $311 in the bank. He was 70 years old.

Although his will bequeathed Ca d’Zan and the Ringling Art Museum to the State of Florida, the monies owed were enormous and it took Ida Ringling North (John’s sister) until February 9, 1946 to obtain clear title to both buildings.

About the author

Stephen A and Scott Duncan publish "" Scott photographs (Duncan Photography) and is the guy who keeps this site running. Steve (left) is a photographer (Duncan Photography) and writes to ""