John Nicholas Ringling (May 31, 1866 â" December 2, 1936) is the most well-known of the seven Ringling brothers, five of whom merged the Barnum & Bailey Circus with their own Ringling Bros World's Greatest Shows to create a virtual monopoly of traveling circuses and helped shape the circus into what it is today. In addition to owning and managing many of the largest circuses in the United States, he was also a rancher, a real estate developer and art collector. He was inducted into the Florida Artists Hall of Fame in 1987.
Early circus life
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John was born in McGregor, Iowa, the fifth son in a family of seven sons and a daughter born to German immigrants, Marie SalomÃ© Juliar and August Ringling (a farmer and harness maker). The original family name was "Ruengling". Five of those sons worked together to build a circus empire.
The Ringlings started their first show in 1870 as "The Ringling Bros. United Monster Shows, Great Double Circus, Royal European Menagerie, Museum, Caravan, and Congress of Trained Animals", charging a penny for admission. In 1882, it was known as "The Ringling Bros. Classic and Comic Concert Company".
By 1889, the circus was large enough to travel on railroad cars, rather than animal-drawn wagons. Admission rose to 50 cents for adults and 25 cents for children.
In 1905, John married Mable Burton. In 1907, the brothers bought the Barnum & Bailey circus for $400,000 from the estate of James Anthony Bailey and ran the two circuses as separate entities until the end of the 1918 season. John worked the circus with his brothers, declaring "We divided the work; but stood together." John took the advance position, traveling ahead and booking the appearances and Charles was the operating manager. The Ringling Bros. World's Greatest Shows was renowned for its honesty and fair-dealing.
Building the circus empire
After purchasing Barnum & Bailey's Greatest Show on Earth from the estate of James Bailey in 1907 the Ringling brothers were recognized as the "Circus Kings" in the United States as they controlled not only the show that carried their own name, but also the Barnum & Bailey circus and the Adam Forepaugh and Sells Brothers Circus.
In the early 1900s the ranks of the brothers began thinning as Otto died unexpectedly in 1911. Four years later, the oldest sibling, Al Ringling also passed, followed by brother Henry in 1918. At the same time that family management was evolving, the Ringlings were challenged by keeping two mammoth circuses touring during World War I. Manpower shortages, combined with railroad restrictions and the 1918 flu pandemic all contributed in the decision to merge the Ringling Bros World's Greatest Shows and the Barnum & Bailey Greatest Show on Earth at the end of the 1918 season. On October 8, 1918 the Ringling Bros. season concluded after performances in Waycross, Georgia and the circus trains were routed to the Barnum & Bailey Winter Quarters in Bridgeport, Connecticut. During the winter of 1918-19 the two circuses were combined into one enormous show, and on March 29, 1919, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus debuted at Madison Square Garden in New York City. The posters declared, "The Ringling Bros. World's Greatest Shows and the Barnum & Bailey Greatest Show on Earth are now combined into one record-breaking giant of all exhibitions!!"
After the death of Alf T. Ringling in 1919, brothers John and Charles made the decision to move the Winter Quarters to Sarasota, Florida in 1927 where the brothers were having success in real estate speculation. Although a resident of Sarasota, Charles died in 1926 before the move was complete. With the death of brother Charles, John was now the last of the Ringling brothers. Although other family members had inherited stock in the company, as President he continued to manage the circus in the years prior to The Great Depression.
During the 1920s, Ringling built Gray Crag, a 20-room manor house on an estate that was their summer residence in Alpine, New Jersey, atop the New Jersey Palisades and overlooking the Hudson River. Ringling would bring the circus troupe across the river from Yonkers, New York, with acrobats and animals to entertain their guests at parties. With the financial and personal difficulties that Ringling faced during the Great Depression, control of the property was lost and the house was ultimately demolished in November 1935.
In 1909 John and his wife, Mable began spending their winters in Sarasota. The couple bought bay front property from Mary Louise and Charles N. Thompson, another circus manager who engaged several members of the Ringling family in land investments on the Florida Gulf Coast. Ringling commissioned a 30-room mansion which was inspired by the Venetian Gothic palaces, designed by New York architect Dwight James Baum, and built by Owen Burns, It was completed in 1926 and named CÃ d'Zan, "The House of John" in the Venetian dialect of Italian . Later a museum was built on the grounds of the estate for their art collection. Because of their investments in real estate and the later development of the circus winter quarters as a tourist attraction, John and his brother, Charles are seen as pioneers in the development of Sarasota. After some 40 years in the entertainment business, along with his ownership of railroads, oil field and ranches John had become one of the richest men in the world. In addition he was a world traveler as he was always looking for new acts for his circus. It was during these travels to Europe that he began establishing a collection of old world masterpieces and a collection of Baroque art including four pieces by Peter Paul Rubens, known as cartoons.
In 1929, John Ringling bought the American Circus Corporation, which consisted of the Sells-Floto Circus, the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus, the John Robinson Circus, the Sparks Circus, Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, and the Al G. Barnes Circus. He bought them from Jerry Mugivan, Bert Bowers, and Ed Ballard, for $1.7 million (approximately $24,228,000 today). With that acquisition, Ringling owned all of the major traveling circuses in America.
Other businesses and activities
Ringling was involved in many businesses, including; railroads in Missouri, Montana, Ohio, Oklahoma, and Texas; oil in Oklahoma; real estate in Florida.
- Chatham and Phoenix National Bank of New York, director and shareholder.
- Eastland, Wichita Falls and Gulf Railroad, from Mangum to Breckwalker.
- John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, founder, Sarasota, Florida.
- John Ringling Real Estate Company, president, Sarasota.
- Kansas City, Mexico, and Orient Railroad Company, director.
- Madison Square Garden Corporation, vice-president, and chairman of the board.
- Madison Square Garden Sporting Company, president.
- Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Pacific Railway (nicknamed the Ringling Railroad); president and financier. Charted January 8, 1913, sold to the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway (AT&SF) in 1927. Jake L. Hamon was the operator and Ringling's business agent for the railroad.
- Ringling and Oil Field Railway Company, president. Chartered November 23, 1916, leased to the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway in July, 1925, and sold to the AT&SF in 1926.
- White Sulphur Springs and Yellowstone Park Railway, president.
- Ringling, Montana was named for John Ringling, who at one time was president of the White Sulphur Springs and Yellowstone Park Railway. John Ringling had a family summer home in White Sulphur Springs and purchased the hot springs there with the intent of building a resort spa and $1 million dollar 220-room hotel.
- Ringling, Oklahoma, also named for Ringling, when the Oklahoma, New Mexico and Pacific Railway created the town.
Decline in later life
Ringlingâs health soon began to fail and the Great Depression (which gripped the nation almost as soon as he acquired the American Circus Corporation) dealt a severe financial blow to the John Ringling empire. He lost virtually his entire fortune, but was able to retain his home, the museum and his extensive art collection. His wife, Mable, died in June 1929 and he remarried on June 19, 1930 to Emily Haag Buck in Jersey City, New Jersey.
Ringling was voted out of control of the business in 1932 by its board of directors and Sam Gumpertz was named Vice President and General Manager of the circus.
John and Emily Haag Buck divorced on July 6, 1936.
John Ringling died on December 2, 1936 in New York City. He was the last Ringling brother to die, as well as the longest lived of the Ringling brothers, as well as the only brother to reach their 70s. Once one of the world's wealthiest men, he died with only $311 in the bank. At his death, he willed his Sarasota mansion, the museum, and his entire art collection to the state of Florida. The house, CÃ d'Zan, and the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art offer visitors a glimpse into the lifestyle of the Roaring 20s and a renowned art collection. Another of Johnâs legacies is the Ringling College of Art and Design, which asked to adopt his name because of the cultural influence of the museum and its collection. A museum devoted to the Ringling Brothers Circus has been established on the estate also.
After his death, the circus was operated by his nephew, John Ringling North, who sold the circus to Judge Roy Hofheinz of Houston and Washington DC promoters Irvin Feld and Israel Feld in 1967.
In 1991, John and Mable Ringling and his sister, Ida Ringling North, were exhumed from their original resting places and reburied at the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, just in front and to the right of the Ca d'Zan. It is called the secret garden and John is buried between the two women.
The Ringling family
There were seven Ringling brothers and one sister (Ida), four of them (Alf, Al, Charles, and Otto) partnered with John to create the Ringling Bros. circus:
- Albert Charles "Al" Ringling (1852â"1916).
- Augustus Gustav "Gus" Ringling, Jr. (1854â"1907); also listed as Charles August (Gus).
- William Henry Otto "Otto" Ringling (1858â"1911).
- Alfred Theodore "Alf T." Ringling (1861â"1919).
- Charles Edward "Charley" Ringling (1863â"1926); also listed birth year 1864.
- John Nicholas Ringling (1866â"1936).
- Henry William George Ringling (1868â"1918).
- Ida Loraina Wilhelmina Ringling (1874â"1950).
- John Ringling at Find a Grave
- The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art
- The Official Virtual Tour of Ringling Museum of Art