East Side History Madison’s Blog

By and for the East Side History Club, a project of the Goodman Community Center

Archive for February, 2019

April 2019 meeting: The Circus Comes to Town

Posted by eastsidehistorymadison on February 27, 2019

Elephants parading on Wright Street, 1953 (Dan Seeliger Facebook post)


The Circus Comes to Town!

Join us for a presentation and discussion about Madison’s East Side circus history. Share stories about Eken Park circus grounds, and other East Madison Circus events from 1907–1947.

  • Date:  Saturday April 13
  • Time:  1 – 3 pm
  • Place:  Goodman Community Center, Brassworks Building
  • Guest speaker: Pete Shrake, Archivist, Circus World Museum, Baraboo, WI

Joan Phelan wrote the following essay about Madison circuses for the East Side History Club.


Circus grounds near Eken Park, before WWII, (Harry Hinze – Facebook post)

The Circus on Madison’s East Side

The earliest mention by the Wisconsin State Journal of a circus on Madison’s east side is on July 2 of 1907 when the Barnum & Bailey Circus pitched its tents at the Fair Oaks Circus Grounds for a one day performance.  The circus arrived from Milwaukee over the Watertown division of the St. Paul railroad, unloaded between Baldwin and Dickinson Streets and was described as the “greatest show on earth”.

As early as 1914, there were circus performances in the Union Corners area.  The Wisconsin State Journal reports that in August of 1916 the Ringling Brothers circus was at Nelson’s Corners in the “East End”, located at the intersection of East Washington, (north side), and North Street, (east side).  The circus arrived at the Chicago Northwestern freight siding. A street parade departed from the circus grounds, passing over Winnebago, Williamson, Wilson and King Streets, around the Capitol Square to East Washington Ave and back to Nelson’s Corners.  The corner was called Nelson’s Corners because of a dance hall built by Halvor Nelson, the building being razed in 1924 and replaced by a Standard Oil Station.

In July of 1920, John Robinson’s Circus performed at the show grounds at Rutledge, Helena and Russell Streets and in 1921 Ringling Brothers at Carey Plat on East Washington Avenue.  The Wisconsin State Journal says that improvements have been made to the system of electric lighting, the old- fashioned gasoline torch with its sputtering light, dripping oil and roar are gone.

On August 17, 1923 the Morris and Castle Shows, appeared at the circus grounds at Second and third streets, between Washington and Mifflin. On August 13thof that year the first circus at Eken Field was held. The Morris and Castle Shows appeared and ran all week.  The event was at the end of the North Street Car Line (behind Coolidge Street – Myrtle Street didn’t exist at this time).  Eken Field, was then a farm owned by the Eken family in Burke Township.

Madison’s east side looked very different in the early 1900s with the Stang farm on North Street and the Huemmer farm at the end of Moland Street.  In the early 1930s there were still cows on the north side of Commercial Avenue (Bea Laufenberg Rauls).  In 1919, street car tracks were laid on North Street for the workers of Oscar Mayer.  There were few houses and a few taverns and stores in what is now known as Eken Park.  Those living in Eken Park, north of Commercial Ave, had outdoor toilets and a pump for water (John Imhoff).  In 1927 residents of the area petitioned to become part of the City of Madison and the Board of Health told of serious unsanitary conditions with shallow wells due to low, marshy and level land.  And in 1927 the Eken Park was welcomed into the City of Madison.

From 1926 through 1946 the circus grounds were located at end of North Street next to Madison’s first airport, formed in 1926, in the 2500 block of Coolidge Street.  The circus wagons would unload at the roundhouse on Commercial Avenue, proceed to North Street and head for the circus grounds.  At the time North Street ended at south side of Coolidge Street.

In 1924 Walter Bullock, a WWI aviator, arrived for a week’s stay planning to give passenger flights. He planned to place his machine on view near the circus grounds and after the circus’s departure will use the field as his base of operations.

Although there were other circus events, (Morris Castle, Hagenbeck-Wallace, Russell Brothers, Seils-Sterling, Tom Mix and Cole Brothers), it was most often the Ringling Brothers Circus that performed at the circus grounds.  The circus was a big event with many people lining up to watch the circus roll into town. In July 1926 the Wisconsin State Journal gave free tickets to every boy and girl who brought one new subscriber to the paper.  In July 1938, there was a circus boycott.  The Madison CIO voted for the boycott and the Ringling Brothers Circus ran into difficulties with labor pickets at Janesville.  The labor battle grew out of a move by the Ringling-Barnum show to cut wages by 25 percent.  In August part of the Ringling Brothers Circus combined with the Al G Barnes Circus.

There were a few other locations on the east side: the Hartmeyer and Reynolds show grounds (probably on Commercial Avenue near Hartmeyer Ice Arena) and the Commercial Avenue show grounds but the main location, year after year, was at the end of North Street.

Memories of the circus at Eken Field

*Lena Imhoff set up a stand at the corner of North and Coolidge Streets and sold hot dogs.

*Margaret Olson Cass, who has lived in the Eken Park area most of her life and now lives on Coolidge Street, remembers parking cars in the vacant lot next door and sneaking under the bottom of the tent to see what was going on.  She also remembers seeing the “tall man”.

Kids in the neighborhood worked to set up the circus.

*Paul Lamoreux, who lived on Moland Street, was about nine of ten when he remembers carrying logs. In return he was given a ticket to the show.  Others carried pails of water.

*Fred Liedel , who helped out at Madison Airport in the 1930’s spoke at a meeting of the History Club in 2011. He told of giving airplane rides to circus goers (these were small propeller planes).  Madison Airport shouldn’t be confused with the airport at Truax Field during WWII or today’s Madison Airport.

*Joan Lamoreux Phelan remembers getting up early to set on the curb at Eken Park and see the beautiful circus wagons roll down North Street.

By 1946, Myrtle Street was added and homes were being built, crowding out the airport and circus. In 1947 the circus was held on East Washington Avenue, possibly at the junction of Hwy 51 and 151.  In recent years, the Shrine Circus has been held at the Dane County Coliseum.

In 1963, the Shrine Circus was held at the Dane County Arena, now the Coliseum which hadn’t yet been built.  During the performance on Feb 14than aerialist performer fell to her death. The Phelan children, Jim, Tom and Diane, were sitting very close to the event.

A timeline of Madison circuses appeared on this blog in 2011; click here to read that post.

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