Circus roots run deep in Iowa

By Peter W. Wagner


What do Iowa’s Fort Dodge, McGregor, Cascade, Clinton, Granger and Jefferson have in common?


They’ve all played an important part in Iowa’s historic connections with the Great American circus!


The same is true of Mason City, Des Moines, Davenport, Sheldon and Sanborn.


Iowa a circus state? Absolutely! The five Ringling Brothers — Alf, Al, Charles, Otto and John — founders of the circus that still bears their name were born in McGregor along the banks of the Mississippi River.


It was while growing up in McGregor that the brothers discovered the circus by attending Dan Rice’s show while his steamboat was tied to McGregor’s dock.


Presenting shows in their backyard, the brothers honed their circus tumbling and juggling skills as well as the ability of one to balance a plow on his chin to family and neighbors. One also performed a trombone solo.


Hundreds of miles west of the Mississippi the city of Fort Dodge earned fame as home to world-famous composer, music publisher and bandmaster, Karl King.


Born in Paintersville, Ohio, King’s only formal training consisted of four piano lessons and a single harmonica lesson. Still, in 1910 and only 19 years of age, King joined Robinson’s Famous Circus playing baritone.


In 1914, King was hired as bandmaster for Sells-Floto Circus, followed by a stint on Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Combined Shows and two years later Barnum & Bailey’s Greatest Show on Earth.


King moved to Fort Dodge in 1920 in response to a classified ad for a community bandleader. He held that position for the next 50 years.


More than just a band director, King set up a music publishing business in Fort Dodge. He wrote and published more than 200 internationally acclaimed marches, overtures, circus dirges, rags and gallops from his Fort Dodge office. Even today he often is referred to as “American’s March King.”


Fort Dodge continues to fund the city’s Karl L. King Municipal Band. The organization was selected to perform at the 80th Annual Iowa State Bandmasters Conference and is scheduled to open the Circus Fans Association of America Convention Sept. 17-21 in Dubuque. The concert will be open to the public.


Both Des Moines and Granger played important roles in Iowa circus history.


Fred Buchanan was the manager of Ingersoll Park in Des Moines when he purchased an elephant, Old Tom, for exhibit in the park zoo. But Old Tom, an uncontrollable bull, often broke free of his chains to terrorize downtown Des Moines.


Downtown officials complained and Buchanan was faced with disposing of the elephant or getting fired. Fred chose to go into the circus business using his family farm at the edge of Granger as the show’s winter quarters.


Exhibiting first as World Brothers Wild Animal Circus and later as Yankee Robinson Shows, Buchanan bought a number of wagons and cages from Ringling Brothers and traveled as a medium sized railroad show.


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