When elephants strolled the streets

The deserted mansion risked vandalism from neighborhood kids in the town where elephants once walked the streets. For reasons unknown, the three story mansion built in 1905 by Al Ringling in Baraboo, Wisconsin escaped wreckage during its 10 year abandonment.

The curious did come. They found an opening, entered and explored. The trespassers climbed the grand staircase to the bedrooms. In the attic the trespassers explored the Ringling family cast-offs. In the library and parlor the curious studied the stained glass windows of the cupboard doors. Looking up, they viewed the heavenly mural on the ceiling of the ladies’ parlor. Some ventured to stroke the keys of the boxed, grand piano near the tall windows.

Even though the homeless slept there, the house remained intact from 1926, when the last Ringling lived there, until 1936 when the Elks purchased the house as their lodge. For the next 75 years, the Elks enjoyed the building. They added a large auditorium/ballroom on the back and a bowling alley in the basement. To create a bar, they remodeled the dining room by building over a window without removing its expensive glass windows. They also remodeled the butler’s pantry. Otherwise, the house stayed the same. Family furniture and memorabilia remained intact in the attic until 2012 when the Elks sold the property to serve as an overnight guest house with daytime tours and a venue for special events. Area brides love making their formal pictures on the grand staircase.

Recently we enjoyed a tour of the house. The Elk’s bar is gone. A master carpenter stopped his task of converting it back into a dining room to talk with us. He said the original plans for the house had been found. He developed ways to match the existing cabinets and anticipated the arrival of new, stained glass which will match the existing windows.

Across the grand hallway, we admired the vintage pool table surrounded by a large collection of carved and molded elephants. Elephants were the signature animal act of the Ringling Brothers Circus. Pictures of elephants walking the streets of Baraboo reflect the uniqueness of living where the circus spent the winter.

Our tour guide said, “An older man took a tour of the house. As he walked through, he studied everything closely, nodded his head and said, ‘it’s just like I remember it. Nothing has changed.’” He said as a child he had sneaked in and explored the abandoned house. He helped validate that little had changed in the house except for the rooms the Elks remodeled.

In the attic, the new owners discovered the untouched, portable, wooden wardrobes designed for the Ringling family to use during their months of living on the train each year and an oversized chair for the tallest of the brothers. Upstairs the guide pointed out the rocking chair and the window where the ailing Al Ringling had sat as he watched the construction of the Ringling theater he built for the community. He only lived long enough to attend the grand opening of the theater before he died and left the house to his sister. As with his home, Ringling spared no expense in building the theater. It is grand, gilded in gold with box seats for the special guests and an orchestra pit.

Our theater guide said he personally owns and operates the bright yellow two-story bed and breakfast we saw as we entered Baraboo. We remembered the sign in front proclaiming that it too is a former Ringling Brothers home. A claim only to be made in Baraboo – where elephants once walked the streets.