John Ringling

John Ringling co-founded the Ringling Bros., and later co-owned the Barnum & Bailey Circus.


John Ringling was born on May 31, 1866 in McGregor, Iowa. He and four of his older brothers created the Ringling Bros. Circus and then bought the Barnum & Bailey Circus, effectively operating the largest circus in the United States. Ringling used his wealth to invest in and develop Sarasota County, Florida.

Early Life

John Nicholas Ringling was the sixth son born to German immigrant August Frederick Ringling and Marie Salomê Juliar on May 31, 1866, in McGregor Iowa. He died at the age of 70 on December 2, 1936 in Sarasota, Florida. Along with his six brothers—five older and one younger—and younger sister, Ringling was raised in Baraboo, Wisconsin.

Like his older brothers, Ringling took an interest in performing skits and juggling routines in town halls throughout the state when he was in his teens. By 1882, he and four of his brothers started their own in which two brothers danced, two played instruments and the one sang, according to the Wisconsin History Society. They earned some money and embarked on a journey to build their first official circus; in 1884, the Ringling Bros. Circus was born.

Commerical Success

In order to make their circus a success, each of the five brothers had a specialty: Ringling supervised transportation. By 1895, the Ringling Bros. Circus had traveled across the country and earned a reputation as a major competitor for the powerful Barnum& Bailey Circus. By 1907, however, the Ringlings had grown enough to purchase the Barnum & Bailey Circus from James Bailey and P. T. Barnum. They ran the circuses as separate entities until 1919, when their company was renamed to the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.

Ringling wanted to make Sarasota the "home of his circus empire," according to Sarasota County historians, and invested in the county beginning around 1910. Ringling "wielded incredible influence on the economy, development, culture and character" of the county, historians said.

Along with his brother, Charles, Ringling bought about 67,000 acres of what is now Sarasota and Longboat Key as investment property. With his wife, Mable, Ringling spent two years and about $1.5 million to build their mansion, named Cá d'Zan. The estate was donated to the state of Florida as a gift after Ringling's death in 1936, though it wasn't fully made available to the public for another ten years due to issues surrounding the circus leader's past debts. In 2000, the property was placed under the auspices of the Florida State University.

In the mid-1920s, Ringling, said to be the fifth wealthiest man in the country, and his wife created the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art. He willed the museum and his entire art collection to the state, as well. John Ringling died of pneumonia on December 2, 1936 in his home in New York City, New York.

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