Our Iowa Heritage: When The Circus Came To Iowa City.

If you’ve seen the musical movie, The Greatest Showman, you’ll better understand the impact Barnum & Bailey and others had on the entertainment business at the turn of the 20th century. For most Americans living in rural settings around the Midwest, when the circus (or Chautauqua) came to town, setting up their tent for a few days, life came to a standstill.

Unlike the romantic story that was fabricated for the movie, P.T. Barnum didn’t team up with James Anthony Bailey immediately following the massive fire that destroyed Barnum’s museum/circus in 1865. That conglomeration didn’t occur until 1881.

Actually, what really occurred in 1865 – P.T. Barnum, after the fire, attempted to re-establish his museum at another location in New York City, but it, too, burned in 1868, prompting Barnum to retire from the museum business.

P.T. Barnum’s Great Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan, and Hippodrome.

In 1871, Dan Castello and William Cameron Coup persuaded Barnum to come out of retirement, lending his name, his know-how and financial backing to the circus they had already created in Delavan, Wisconsin. With Barnum coming on board, the combined show was now officially called P.T. Barnum’s Great Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan, and Hippodrome, and Barnum is quoted as having this to say about it…

(Castello & Coup) had a show that was truly immense, and combined all the elements of museum, menagerie, variety performance, concert hall, and circus, (and I consider it to be) the Greatest Show on Earth.

Thus the tag line – “The Greatest Show On Earth” was born.

Monday, September 9, 1872 – P. T. Barnum brings “The Greatest Show on Earth” to Iowa City.

It was this P.T. Barnum show that began traveling around the Midwest in 1872, stopping in dozens of towns across Wisconsin, Illinois, Missouri, Iowa, and yes, even Kansas. And, it was this show of Barnum’s that became Iowa City’s first circus on Monday, September 9, 1872.

Actually, there are no pictures of the original Mississippi & Missouri Railroad depot. Above (top) is the Rock Island depot that replaced the original one in 1898. The Rock Island bought out the M&M in 1866. Above (bottom) is a map showing the locations, which were not far from the Lucas Show Grounds – Barnum’s first circus set up there in 1872.

Author Mary Helen Stefaniak describes what the scene must have been like as the circus train rolled into the Iowa City depot…

It’s hard to imagine how excited people around here must have been the first time the circus came to Iowa City. It was on a Monday in September, two days after the show in Des Moines, one day before Davenport. There must have been a crowd to meet the train—as many as 50 railroad cars’ worth. One hundred and seventeen horses! Twenty-five animal cages holding lions and tigers and at least one bear, plus a live hippopotamus! Whether P. T. Barnum called it his Great Traveling Exposition and World’s Fair, or simply the Greatest Show on Earth, people must have lined up to watch the elephants and camels being led from the train. How many of them had ever seen an elephant or a camel before the circus came to town?

Iowa City Historian, Irving Weber, was actually old enough to recall, first hand, what these circus experiences were like. Here’s Weber talking about circus train arrivals as he remembers them…

The Circus Parade in Downtown Iowa City.

Weber continues by describing what came next . . . The Big Parade!

And…don’t forget the circus music!

You just can’t have a circus and not have music, music, and more music!

Iowa’s March King, Karl King, started his musical career playing in circus bands. At age 22 (1913), Karl had the dream job for a bandsman, he joined The Barnum and Bailey Circus Band. By 1917, he accepted the lofty position as conductor! Click here to read more about Karl King and find out what a “circus screamer” is.

The American Circus on USPS stamps.

(C-0266) Just as the circus has always been popular with Americans, so USPS circus-themed postage stamps have been equally popular. Above – a set of four Circus stamps from 1993. Below – a set of eight stamps released in 2014, issued to commemorate P.T. Barnum’s birthday.


The Circus & Iowa City – Who – What – When – Where?

The first circus came to Iowa City in 1872 and it really wasn’t until the 1950’s when other forms of entertainment simply overtook the popularity of the big top. Back in 1978, Irving Weber interviewed Eric C. Wilson, long-time sports information director at SUI, who also happened to travel with the circus when he was a young boy. Eric became a circus-trivia buff in his later years, and according to Wilson, here’s some interesting facts and figures about the circus coming to Iowa City over the years…

The Lucas Show Grounds – 1870’s – Home of the P.T. Barnum Circus.

The P. T. Barnum circus made three trips to Iowa City in the 1870’s – September 1872, August 1875, and September 1877. Each visit was held at The Lucas Show Grounds.

Our good friends at the Lucas Farms Neighborhood Association tell us that “The Lucas Show Grounds” was also known as “The Lucas Show Ring,” where Governor Robert Lucas’ descendants trained race horses. The area (see 1875 map above) has also been referred to as The Lucas Circus Grounds, and The Lucas Fair Grounds. Circus ads from the past describe the location as “the corner of Kirkwood and South Gilbert Street.” Historian Judy Nyren tells us… “I have first hand accounts of people who can remember entering the ‘circus grounds’ from Keokuk St. on the east. They would’ve been quite young at the time, so I believe they remember entering the grassy pasture area on that eastern side for parking. The main circus grounds would be the flat area where Gilbert Court and Highland Court are today, also the western-most edge of our neighborhood near Plum, Laurel, Highland intersections.” Read more about Governor Lucas and Plum Grove here.
The Lucas Farms Neighborhood today – with Plum Grove highlighted.
By the 1880’s P.T. Barnum had joined up with Bailey & Hutchinson (Barnum & Bailey). Here is a short blurb from The Iowa City Daily Republican (September 22, 1881).

Now, before we close, I’d like to offer you an Iowa City Circus Poster mystery. Are you ready? Just click here to start the mystery….


Kudos to the amazing resources below for the many quotes, photographs, etc. used on this page.

Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, Wikipedia

Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus Comes to Town, Irving Weber’s Iowa City – Volume 2, Irving Weber, Iowa City Lion’s Club, 1979, pp 209-215

Hysterical Preservation, Part III: Interior Demolition, Mary Helen Stefaniak, The Iowa Source, September 6, 2013

The Circus – Big Tent – Big Dreams, American Experience, PBS

U.S. Postal Service helps Barnum Museum celebrate P.T.’s birthday, Phyllis A.S. Boros, CTPost, June 24, 2014

Lucas Show Grounds History, Judy Nyren, Lucas Farms Neighborhood Association

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