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Menomonie's Tie to the Ringling Brothers, Barnum & Bailey Circus

This article was written by Don Steffen and used with the permission of the Dunn County Historical Society.

When a teenaged Edith Conway met Charles Ringling in Baraboo, Wisconsin, she had never been to a circus. Edith's family ran a music store in Menomonie. Charles was one of five brothers who founded the Ringling Brothers Circus.

With her marriage to Charles, Edith became part of the circus. Together they raised a son, Robert, and a daughter, Hester. When the show was still small enough to be performed in a neighborhood, Edith was taking tickets. She traveled with the show nearly every year until 1950, with a hiatus after Charles' death in 1926. A 1932 Christian Science Monitor interview reported she was "running the show" for a week in John Ringling North's (Charles' cousin) absence. By that time, the show employed 1,600 people and required 100 railroad cars to travel.

Following Charles' death in 1926, Edith inherited her husband's business interests and assumed additional duties that had been his and served on the board of directors.

She made a name for herself when she used personal savings as a one-third owner to repay the depositors of the Ringling Bank and Trust Company when it closed during the Depression. By the early 1930s, she became concerned about the leadership style of John Ringling, the last of the five brothers. She became embroiled in family conflicts over the operation of the circus, which continued even after her death.

In her travels with the circus, "Mrs. Charlie" could be seen at nearly every performance and, between performances, reading, knitting or doing needlework outside a small tent near the big top. She traveled in a private railroad car on the circus train between show locations.

When a disastrous fire struck the circus on July 6, 1944, killing 168 men, women, and children and injuring hundreds more, it was Edith Conway Ringling, now a major owner of the circus, who insisted that the show resume its performance schedule immediately. She felt that the circus could not be revived the following year if it folded for the season. She was undoubtedly correct.

By the time she died in 1953, she had become such a fixture at the big top that the press often called her the "Queen" or "Mother" of Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus.


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