|Apron belonging to Alf T. Ringling|
The night of January 21, 1891 in Baraboo, Wisconsin was a special night for many of the men of Baraboo, and it has a direct connection to a special happening, some 111 years later. The story includes six soon-to-be-famous brothers and involves the ceremonial regalia they wore on that special evening.
In those days the Baraboo Masonic Lodge No. 34, Free and Accepted Masons, still met, as did all other fraternal organizations, in rented upstairs halls in downtown.
The Lodge at this time, however, was strong enough that a building of their own was being considered. Members had arrived on horseback, by carriage or on foot, for the decisive evening, and the Temple was full.
Also, in Baraboo of that day, the spectacular seven-year rise to national prominence of the Ringling Brothers Circus had brought not only respect but also good fortune to many of the brothers. Their father, August, had been a struggling harness maker.
Special Aprons Made
On this particular night in 1891, with such famous brothers occupying the chairs, some very special aprons had been ordered as gifts. Made of the finest blue velvet instead of the plain white linen usually worn, each apron was embroidered with silver thread and tassels.
Central to the blue border was white lambskin, with the symbols of the office or chair being occupied embroidered thereupon. There is some speculation that the aprons were designed and produced by the Ringling Brother's Circus wardrobe department in Baraboo.
On the back of each apron is the name of the Ringling brother and the chair he occupied: Alf T., Worshipful Master; August, Senior Warden; Al., Junior Warden; Charles, Senior Steward; Henry, Junior Steward; and Otto, Tiler.
Religiously speaking, the Ringlings were members of St. John's Lutheran Church, but nearly every church in Baraboo was represented among the other brothers present that night.
What happened over the years to the blue velvet and white lambskin aprons, with their silver embroidery, is of some interest.
It is known that Mrs. Ida (Henry) Ringling, not to be confused with Ida (Ringling) North, gave the aprons nearly 50 years ago to one Richard (Joe) Bennett, boyhood chum of Ida's grandson, Henry Ringling III. Henry III died in an auto accident near Baraboo in 1961, and Bennett had become a friend and frequent visitor to Ida, Henry's grandmother.
Among the gifts she gave to Joe were the aprons. It is presumed that they had been in the possession of Ida's husband, Henry Sr., and later with his wife Ida, since 1891.
Recently, an alert brother of Baraboo Lodge noted an apron listed for auction on E-bay.
Upon investigation, it was determined that not only was this an authentic original apron, but that all six were available!
Moreover, thanks to some caring people during the last 111 years, the aprons were in mint condition and were still kept in the original boxes. In some cases the original protective tissue paper was still present.
Significant financial outlays were promptly made by five Baraboo Masonic Brothers-Lee Hoppe, Merlin Zitzner, Dave Deppe, Skip Blake and Rick Lewison. Others have made contributions for preservation of the aprons. This made it possible for the aprons to be returned to Baraboo, and they are now in possession of the Lodge.
Plans for the Ringling aprons are incomplete, but because of their historic importance, they may be offered for display at the Circus World Museum in Baraboo. A similar display may appear on occasion at the Al Ringling Theatre, not even a dream for Al Ringling when his apron was presented to him in 1891.
It would be 24 years before Al would build, in Baraboo, what the Theatre Historical Society of America calls the very first of the theatre movie palaces, which became so popular throughout the country. It still operates today, in its entire pre-revolutionary French architectural splendor, as perhaps the longest-operating motion picture theater in the county. The stage is used some 60 times each year for live performances as well.
Baraboo Lodge No. 34 observed its 150th year in 2002. The anniversary booklet published to commemorate the event reports that eight Ringlings were raised in Baraboo.
Alfred T. (Alf) Ringling was raised on January 22, 1890; John was raised on March 1; Albert was raised on March 29; and Otto on April 9.
Eleven months later, on February 4, 1891, August G. Ringling was raised. Henry came next on March 18; and August, father Ringling himself, joined the Craft on August 19, 1891.
The city of Baraboo has a heritage of two communities: the circus and the Masonic community. On the surface they may appear completely different-the Circus being an entertainment form for "children of all ages," and the Masonic Lodge being a fraternal organization created to help men better themselves and their community.
The formation in the early 1870s of the Shrine helped create the bonds that grew between the Circus and Masonry. The circus is one of the largest fund raising events for Shrine clubs. It is also a major source of income for circus performers.
Todd E. Creason is the author of Famous American Freemasons: Volumes I & II where you'll find many other great stories about famous Freemasons.