Historical accounts trace Delavan’s earliest circus connections back to brothers Edmund and Jeremiah Mabie, who raised horses on their New York farm. Many of the Mabies’ neighbors were circus performers, and in 1840, the brothers jumped on the circus bandwagon themselves, creating a tent show.
In four short years, the Grand Olympic Arena and United States Circus had grown to 27 wagons and 150 horses. By 1847, decades before P.T. Barnum or the Ringling Brothers, the Mabies had the largest traveling circus in America.
That year, en route to Janesville from a performance in Milwaukee, the Mabies stopped their circus wagons in Delavan to rest and -- according to one newspaper account -- hunt prairie chickens. Impressed by the area’s verdant woods, plentiful streams and prairies, the brothers decided they’d found the perfect spot to house their show during the winter months when they weren’t on the road.
They set up the first permanent winter headquarters in the Midwest, purchasing 400 acres and two barns for about $3,000. The land was most of what is now Lake Lawn Resort, adjacent to Assembly Park and Inlet Oaks.
“It all started with the Mabies, who were looking in what then was ‘the wild west’ at that time to try to find someplace that was similar to their New York home in vegetation and water access,” said Patti Marsicano, Delavan Historical Society president and the author of two books on Delavan.
Delavan had it all: lots of timber for heating fuel and building materials, ample water and enough grazing and farmland to raise crops for their horses and a menagerie of animals, including hungry elephants that could eat 200 pounds of hay a day.
Delavan also had something else essential for traveling circuses -- a great location. It offered easy access to multiple regions and the advantage of getting out at the start of the season ahead of Eastern-based shows, said Peter Shrake, archivist at the Circus World Museum in Baraboo.
Before railroad became common transportation for circuses, the shows drove their circus wagons from town to town, state to state. The Mabies played Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan and South Dakota, the East Coast and southern states like Missouri, Arkansas and Texas.
Word of Delavan as the Mabies’ winter quarters got around, and by 1858, four different shows followed suit. Delavan-based circuses multiplied. The Mabie name was associated with two other circuses here. Some Mabie circus performers and employees left to start their own shows, like the Holland family of riders, acrobats and owners who settled in Delavan. In 1858 they formed the Holland & McMahon Circus, which performed for Union troops during the Civil War and became forerunner of USO entertainment shows.
Delavan resident and dentist George Morrison was a circus promoter who did dental work on the road with his show. One newspaper account said Morrison “extracted teeth from (a) circus wagon with no anesthesia, but sounds of the band probably drown out any moans.”
Of the more than 100 circuses that started in Wisconsin, Delavan was home to a reported 28 -- more than any other city in the state, including Baraboo, which only had nine. Not all of the circuses were as large as the Mabies’ show, but most needed a place to spend the winter.
“The primary mission of a circus winter quarters was to refurbish the show in the offseason,” Shrake said. “A traveling circus encountered considerable wear and tear over the many months on the road. The winter months allowed for the repair of worn out and creation of new wardrobe and equipment -- props, wagons, tents. New acts were developed in the offseason as well.
“Concerning animals, generally speaking, usually the horse stock -- specifically the horses used to pull the various wagons -- were kept at local farms for the winter. The exotic animals and ring-performing horses were usually kept near the winter quarters in heated buildings.”
A Milwaukee Sentinel article on local circuses noted, “Their winter home resembled a small village with the animal quarters, repair shops, training quarters and other buildings. With the coming of winter the showmen returned to Delavan and always had a large part in the life of the city.”
Both the Mabies had permanent homes in Delavan. Other circus performers stayed at local boarding houses or hotels.
Delavan, settled by two other brothers from New York -- Samuel and Henry Phoenix, who intended to start a temperance colony -- wasn’t initially welcoming of the Mabies and their ilk.
“Most churches opposed the circus, claiming it was an immoral presentation that took money out of the community,” wrote the late Delavan historian Gordon Yadon in a local newspaper article.
Delavan was dubbed “The Wickedest City in Wisconsin” because of its circus connections and the rough element that seemed to be a part of circus life.
“If you went back to the time when circuses traveled by wagons, they were followed by people trying to make money who hung out on the fringe of the circus,” Marsicano said. “Call them unsavory characters, snake oil salesmen, quick-change artists -- the circuses drew those types of people.”
But the Mabies were different. Edmund Mabie joined the Delavan Congregational Church, was active in the community and became a civic leader, instrumental in getting projects like a 60-mile plank road built between Racine and Janesville.
At the time Delavan had a population of less than 1,000 but it was growing, and city officials couldn’t deny the circuses’ impact on the local economy, from feed dealers and blacksmiths to mechanics and wagon makers.
Circus roustabouts and performers, from acrobats to clowns, became part of the area each winter.
So did the circus animals, including horses, elephants, camels, lions, leopards, zebra, snakes, even buffalo.
Albert the elephant, owned by the Holland-Gormley circus, was kept in a round house at 608-610 E. Walworth Ave. Purchased in 1889 from a circus in Philadelphia, Albert was sent by rail to Chicago, then -- because there was no direct line to Delavan -- to Clinton, where he was met by two circus workers who walked him to Delavan.
Albert was said to be gentle, although one account said when the circus traveled by railroad, and Albert was housed for the night in the animal car, he kept reaching into the widow of the adjoining car, where the workers slept, using his trunk to pull the blankets off their beds.
By 1864, the Mabies, then in poor health, sold their circus. The animals and equipment were moved to Chicago a year later.
E.G. Holland’s circus was the last circus organized in Delavan in 1892, and when that show called it quits in 1894, signs of the circus’s imprint were disappearing.
“Within a generation of 1894, the familiar landmarks such as ring barn equipment were all gone,” Yadon wrote in a newspaper article.
Some signs of Delavan’s circus history are still there: a state historical marker on the west side of Tower Park on East Walworth Avenue, fiberglass statues of a giraffe, elephant and clown in the same park, even two downtown circus murals painted last year.
There also are nearly 100 circus performers and owners buried in Spring Grove and St. Andrew’s cemeteries. Marsicano said plans are in the works to replace the circus grave markers that were set in 1962.
Marsicano said few 19th century Delavan circus photographs exist because residents then found circuses so commonplace.
“The circuses were here all the time, and in our society, when you see something all the time, it’s no big deal,” she said. “People were blasé about it.”
Ironically, circuses also found Delavan a poor place to perform because attendance was generally low.
After all, local residents were already used to seeing elephants heading down Walworth Avenue.