BARABOO — Joe Colossa is eager to show off the Al. Ringling Mansion.
Its four floors and 40 rooms are dotted with seven fireplaces, 14 chandeliers and 67 original stained glass windows.
A cabinet holds a full tea and china set from the Ringlings, the cue sticks used by the famed circus family to play snooker still hang in the billiard room, and furniture from Ringling homes around the country can be found. There’s a roll-top desk used by Charles Ringling, Alf T. Ringling’s dining room table and an old sewing box that was turned into a ticket box when Al., as a child, decided to create his own circus with a few of his brothers.
One of the most prized items is a chair that in the middle 1800s was used by Salome Ringling to nurse her seven sons, five of whom went on to own and operate the gold standard of circuses.
“The Ringling family just keeps sending us stuff,” said Colossa. “It’s really great.”
But there is one item Colossa and his business partners are refusing to reveal. It’s kept under lock and key and is helping to add another dimension to the 12,000-square-foot mansion that was constructed in 1905.
The property, scheduled to open next spring, will hold a bed-and-breakfast, a museum and archive dedicated to the Ringling family, and will be open for tours. But the 6,000-square-foot ballroom that was added to the back of the house in 1948 is being transformed into a brew pub.
That’s because, while removing flooring from an upstairs closet in 2014, a wooden box was found under the subflooring and between the joists. Inside Colossa found old photographs and letters, and, underneath it all, a folded piece of paper that contained a recipe. Most of it was typed on a single piece of paper.
Colossa, who thought the recipe was for some type of food, actually put it all aside until a year later when he was looking for items to display in the billiard room. He went back to the box and with a closer look realized that the recipe was for a beer and that handwriting on the bottom of the piece of paper was that of Al. Ringling.
The story is almost too hard to believe, but Colossa swears it’s legit. He also kept it at a distance Friday when showing it off in the front parlor of the mansion and was beyond paranoid that Wisconsin State Journal photographer John Hart would somehow capture part of the recipe. The only photo Colossa allowed was that of the paper after it was twice folded.
“It’s such a unique recipe because it’s not traditional beer ingredients,” Colossa said. “We’re really, really careful with it.”
And if Colossa and the other owners are as careful with the $3 million mansion restoration and construction of the Al. Ringling Brewing Co. as they are with the beer recipe, their ambitious project, located just around the corner from the Al. Ringling Theatre, could be another boon to the city’s downtown and attract tourists not only from around the Midwest but the world.
To aid in the construction of the brew pub, the city of Baraboo has received a $54,700 Community Development Investment Grant from the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. The matching grants are awarded based on the ability of applicants to demonstrate the economic impact of a project, including public and private partnership development, financial need, and use of sustainable downtown development practices. WEDC has awarded more than $24 million in grants since the program’s inception in 2013.
“I applaud the city of Baraboo and owners for working together on a project that will honor the historic significance of the site while creating future opportunities for development,” said Missy Hughes, WEDC’s secretary and CEO.
The brewery project is being led by Jon Bare, who grew up in Portage, worked for a time at Wisconsin Dells Brewing Co. and helped launch a brew pub in Boston. He returned to Wisconsin a few years ago and had thoughts of opening a brew pub in Baraboo in an old house until he learned of the Ringling project.
Bare hesitates to call the beer from the Ringling recipe an ale, but said it does use an ale-style yeast, which is all he would reveal.
“It’s very similar to an ale, but it’s a very strange style of beer,” Bare said. “It’s very light. The perfect porch pounder. It’s going to be the perfect beer for people who come to our beer garden after a day of hiking at Devil’s Lake. It’s light and sweet.”
Colossa, 50, a former train master for Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, and his wife, Carmen, who rode a motorcycle in the “globe of steel” during circus shows, teamed up in 2013 with longtime circus buff and collector Don Horowitz to buy the mansion for $250,000. Horowitz, co-owner of a floral shop and greenhouse in East Hampton, New York, got his first glimpse of the mansion in 1992, when he was in Baraboo for a circus convention. He met the Colossas in the late 1990s and struck up a friendship that now includes being business partners and owners of a significant piece of circus history.
And for Horowitz, 64, who plans to move to Baraboo after he gets out of the floral and greenhouse business, the mansion becomes his largest piece of circus memorabilia. Ultimately Horowitz will move to the mansion his substantial collection of circus artifacts, which includes lithographs, chairs, tent stakes, 600 books and even the round platforms on which elephants stood.
“It’s a big undertaking and a big responsibility, but I love old homes, and I love the lighting in the old place, and I love Baraboo,” said Horowitz, who was best man at Joe Colossa’s wedding. “I’m not doing this just for my lifetime but for it to live beyond my years. It’s too big of a project for the time, effort grief and money to do it just for how many number of years I’ve got left on this earth.”
Ringling and his wife, Lou, built the Romanesque Revival, red-stone mansion for $100,000, but it later became the home of Ida Ringling North, Ringling’s only sister. The Ringling family sold the property in 1936 to the local Elks Lodge, and, 12 years later, the fraternal organization added a 300-person ballroom with a stage. A six-lane bowling alley was also added below the ballroom. The mansion was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1976.
After the Colossas and Horowitz purchased the property, they continued to rent out the ballroom for weddings and special events, and the Elks continued to use the bowling alley for leagues. But now the ballroom is being transformed into a German beer hall and brewery. A seven-barrel brew house and fermentation tanks take up the spot that had been home to the stage, while on the opposite end of the room a platform is being constructed that will hold a Savin Rock Gavioli self-playing organ from 1906. The beer hall’s 40-foot-long bar top and the floor of the elevated mezzanine were constructed from the maple and pine used in the bowling lanes.
The former bowling alley space is being converted into museum space, which will include a miniature circus display with 63,000 pieces, while the original basement ballroom of the 1905 mansion is being gutted to house an archive. The four upstairs bedrooms have been completed and will allow guests to sleep in the bedrooms of Al. and Lou Ringling, who had their own rooms. Lou’s includes her original bedroom set.
“When we bought this place, it was in very poor condition,” said Colossa, a Connecticut native. “The Elks did the best they could, but they didn’t have the money. We knew what we were getting into.”
Barry Adams covers regional news for the Wisconsin State Journal. Send him ideas for On Wisconsin at 608-252-6148 or by email at email@example.com.