Come one, come all and learn about Delavan’s rich circus history! Delavan is known for being the birthplace of PT Barnum’s Greatest Show on Earth but do you know where it all started? We have some stories and information for you about how circuses put Delavan on the map as the circus capital of the nation.
The Start of Delavan’s Circus History
The start of Delavan’s booming circus success began when brothers Edmund and Jeremiah Mabie were traveling with their US Olympic Circus and stopped in Delavan to hunt prairie chickens. Although they had merely been passing through, they noticed that the area provided the perfect amount of space, food, and water for their circus animals. The Mabie brothers ended up wintering in Delavan and even purchased up to 1000 acres of land – where Lake Lawn Resort now stands – to give their animals the environment they needed to thrive.
With their circus becoming so popular, it paved the way for over 26 other circuses and acts to bring their shows to Delavan. This is what reportedly gave William C. Coup, a retired circus manager, the idea to have PT Barnum start his own circus, specifically to be transferred by railcar not by wagon 20 years later.
In the 1870s Coup was said to have met with Barnum in Delavan to convince him of his traveling railcar circus proposal, thus Delavan was considered to be the birthplace of PT Barnum’s Greatest Show on Earth though some historians consider Coup to be the true founder, not Barnum. In 1871 the circus headed to Brooklyn, New York to begin its venture.
Circuses Become Part of Delavan Community
What started as circuses wintering in Delavan turned into them living and becoming active members of the community. Which helped Delavan grow, prosper, and be put on the map. But as railroad travel became more and more popular, Delavan slowly fell off the track for circuses to stop through. The reign of circuses in Delavan ended in 1894 with the EG Holland Railroad Circus closing its tents.
Members of the circus that ended up living their lives in Delavan are buried in the Spring Grove and St. Andrew Parish cemeteries. The number varies but nearly 250 members affiliated with the circus are said to be buried there, many have numbered plaques next to their gravestones noting they were associated with the circus in some way. After his death, William C. Coup requested to be buried in the Spring Grove cemetery, as well as members of the Mabie family. The former circus employees are said to haunt the grounds. People have claimed to see the ghosts of acrobats, clowns, and even horses wandering through the cemetery at night.
Delavan was a location that great acts and shows not only passed through but where many found a place to call “home.” If you’d like to learn more about Delavan’s spectacular circus history, be sure to check out our circus-themed Tower Park, murals, and other historical markers in Downtown Delavan, and visit the Delavan Wisconsin Historical Society. When you visit Delavan there are always fascinating things to learn and see!