The legacy of Baraboo: Iowa natives make tiny town in Wisconsin famous

Animals have always been a key part of circus, as shown in this exhibit. Visitors can still see animals - including tige
Animals have always been a key part of circus, as shown in this exhibit. Visitors can still see animals — including tigers, ponies and elephants — during the summer season at Circus World in Baraboo, Wis. (Mark Norlander)

Very different successful careers of two famous Iowa families led us to explore Baraboo, Wis. Born in the Hawkeye State in the late 1800s, the Ringling brothers and Leopolds are today mostly associated with this small Wisconsin town.

Our trip came from an idea sparked in a dim Idaho closet. After earning his college degree during the insipid economy of 1971, Rich needed a job and became a school custodian in Moscow, Idaho. It was neither glamorous nor high paying but came with a benefit.

“I hustled and got the building clean, then duck into the janitor’s closet for a break. Surrounded by mops and soap I read Henry David Thoreau’s ‘Walden’ and Aldo Leopold’s ‘A Sand County Almanac.’ They were life changers,” he said.

Marion had read the same books, which framed the couple’s life philosophy and work.

Little did we realize we’d one day live in the home state of the Ringling brothers and Aldo Leopold. For years we wanted to visit the Aldo Leopold Foundation in Baraboo and see his famous Shack. Finally, we recently made the trip and toured places where both the Ringlings and Leopolds left lasting legacies.

As we sat on the back deck of the home occupied by Buddy and Marcy Huffaker, knots of sandhill cranes winged overhead en route to roosting spots along the nearby Wisconsin River. Buddy is executive director of the Aldo Leopold Foundation. The couple’s home was built by Nina Leopold Bradley, the late daughter of Aldo and Estella Leopold, near their Shack where the well-known land ethic essay was developed.

Aldo Leopold was born in January 1887 in Burlington when clouds of waterfowl still migrated down the Mississippi River, but it was a grim time for wildlife. Market shooters were decimating ducks, the passenger pigeon was fading toward extinction and America’s few remaining bison seemed headed that way. In Leopold’s adolescence the frontier ended as vast pineries of the upper Great Lakes states were clear cut with no thought of sustainability.

Tramping through Burlington’s wetlands and woods instilled a love of nature and wildness in the young Iowan. His family nurtured his passion for science and literature. He became both a skilled woodsman and avid reader.


In Leopold’s boyhood the American conservation movement was beginning to emerge. New President Theodore Roosevelt brought to the White House a strong conservation ethic that likely encouraged the young Iowan to earn a degree in the new science of forestry.

Years later, after earning a master’s degree from Yale — then the only college offering a forestry degree — he was hired by the newly formed U.S. Forest Service and sent to the Southwest. While serving as superintendent of New Mexico’s Carson National Forest, he was charged with eradicating predators and witnessed the shooting of one of the area’s last wolves. The shooting inspired his later essay, “Thinking Like a Mountain.”

While in New Mexico he married Estella, wrote a management plan for the Grand Canyon — which was not yet a national park — and advocated for the protection of the Gila Wilderness. Throughout his life Leopold remained an unshaking advocate of wilderness protection and a founder of the Wilderness Society.

Transferred to Madison, Wis., in 1924 as associate director of the Forest Products Lab, Leopold later joined the University of Wisconsin faculty as a professor of wildlife management.

During the grim Depression year of 1935, the Leopolds bought 80 acres of overgrazed, burned and thoroughly worn out farmland near Baraboo for $8 an acre. Only one building, a chicken house heaped with manure, was on the property. The family cleaned up the mess and added rustic furniture. On this land, and in this humble building they called “the Shack,” Leopold’s land ethic, articulated in his famous book, “A Sand County Almanac,” developed.

In late September we crossed the Mississippi River at McGregor and followed small windy Driftless Area roads to Baraboo. There we spent two delightful days touring this smallish town about 180 miles from Cedar Rapids. Baraboo is home to about 12,000 people in Sauk County, about an hour’s drive north of Madison. The area’s sandy soil gave Leopold’s book its title.

Most people know the Baraboo area for the Wisconsin Dells, only a few miles upriver.

We avoided the Dells but toured Circus World and explored the Leopold Foundation a few miles outside of town. On our way home we enjoyed the lake, deep woods and steep cliffs of nearby Devil’s Lake State Park in Sauk County, Wis. On our next visit we’ll add the International Crane Foundation to our itinerary.

Circus World

Part of Baraboo’s Iowa connection begins in McGregor, where brothers Alf, John, Charles and Henry Ringling were born between 1860 and 1872. The family moved briefly to Prairie du Chien, Wis., and finally to Baraboo in 1875. Eventually, the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus, often called The Big Top, was the premier American circus.

Back then, many circuses toured the country thrilling audiences with trapeze artistry, exotic animals and an eclectic mix of acts. Most circuses faded away, but the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus was the most famous and persistent. It closed in 2017 after a 146-year run. For many years this king of circuses was headquartered in Baraboo at what is now the Circus World Museum.


We spent a morning in the museum absorbing the grandeur of this popular past American entertainment. It took a lot to put on the Big Top. Elaborate costumes, props, replica animals, vast amount of equipment and scores of performers and staff all need to be fed and housed. The Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus traveled by rail, and an enormous exhibit at Circus World is the elaborately painted train parked on the grounds. Especially fascinating was a large building filled with restored, intricately carved and painted circus wagons.

The Circus World Museum is located at 550 Water St. near downtown Baraboo. It is open daily from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. during cooler months and longer during the summer. Each summer the museum holds several circus-related shows every day. For information, check the website at

The Aldo Leopold Foundation

After leaving Circus World we drove about 11 miles northeast to the Aldo Leopold Foundation. Founded in 1982, the nonprofit organization’s mission is to foster a land ethic through the legacy of Aldo Leopold.

It is located on the original 80 acres the Leopolds purchased plus more land that has since been added. The modern energy-efficient headquarters, called the Aldo Leopold Center, is landscaped with native plants and contains displays about this remarkable man and his family.

Steve Swenson coordinates habitat restoration and studies the impact of land management on native birds. The foundation’s 600 acres is part of a 16,000-acre mosaic of marshes, grasslands, flood plain and upland forests managed by nonprofits and government agencies. Several nearby private landowners also manage their property for wildlife. This large, diverse land is officially called the Leopold-Pine Island Important Bird Area. It is an outstanding destination for birders.

When writing his “Marshland Elegy,” Leopold bemoaned the decline of sandhill cranes and predicted they would follow passenger pigeons to extinction. Fortunately, that didn’t happen, and today some 14,000 of the enormous, gregarious birds congregate along the Wisconsin River during the fall migration. Mixed in are a few even bigger endangered whooping cranes.

The Aldo Leopold Foundation is a nonprofit organization open to the public and located at E13701 Levee Rd., Baraboo, Wis. It is open year-round except for major holidays. Visitors can enjoy a guided tour, casually walk trails, view exhibits in the building and experience the Leopold Shack. Find information at or by calling (608) 355-0279.

The International Crane Foundation

Located near the Leopold Foundation is the International Crane Foundation, which works worldwide to keep all 15 species of cranes secure. Its 90-person staff is based at a 300-acre site just outside Baraboo. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to visit because the organization is in the midst of a $10 million renovation. The grand opening will be May 2, 2020. For information, visit or call (608) 356-9462.

Aldo Leopold and his family made famous their humble, rustic shack along the Wisconsin River. It was nearby that he suffered a heart attack and died while fighting a fire on a neighbor’s property in 1948. He loved his lowly shack, but we knew he grew up in large, showy homes in Burlington. We wanted to see them.

The Leopold Landscape Alliance

“Leopold’s biographers talk mostly about his career in the Forest Service, his teaching and research at the University of Wisconsin, and especially his essays that are mostly about the sandy, worn out land the family bought and restored near Baraboo,” said Steve Brower of the Leopold Landscape Alliance. A lesser known part of his life was growing up in Iowa along the Mississippi River.

A week after our Baraboo trip we drove about 100 miles from Cedar Rapids to Burlington and met Brower and fellow board member Dave Riley on the porch of the home Aldo Leopold grew up in. His family owned the Leopold Desk Co., which made quality office furniture from mostly local hardwoods. Founded in 1886 the company ceased operations in 1990 but today vintage Leopold desks today command a hefty price.


Two Leopold homes occupy the same Burlington parcel. A large, elaborate mansion overlooks the Mississippi River. A more modest, but still grand, home sits behind it. Young Aldo Leopold lived in both homes at different times, but ready access to the woodlands, marshes, and broad water left impressions in his young mind that he later articulated while living in Wisconsin.

The Leopold Landscape Alliance is a nonprofit formed to support Aldo’s land ethic by drawing attention to the childhood homes and natural areas that contributed to his philosophy. It is separate from the Aldo Leopold Foundation, and is operated by volunteers. The Alliance owns both houses.

The Leopold homes are not open to the public on a regular basis, and major tourism isn’t part of the organization’s vision. Small groups are welcome by appointment. People can view the homes from the street at 111 Clay St., Burlington. For information, contact or call (319) 759-5062.

The Ringling Brothers and Aldo Leopold were Iowans usually associated with Baraboo, Wis. Both made enormous cultural contributions in very different ways. While circuses have now faded, Aldo Leopold’s impact continues to grow. The observations and philosophy he articulated in its pages has motivated generations of conservationists. Today, millions of people embrace his land ethic and strive to manage their land for ecological health.

For many, including us, a visit to the Aldo Leopold Foundation and the famous Shack is a pilgrimage.

Marion Patterson is an instructor at Kirkwood Community College. Rich Patterson is the former executive director of Indian Creek Nature Center in Cedar Rapids. They blog at

If You Go

Baraboo, Wis., has many hotels and cafes and is only a few miles south of the Wisconsin Dells. It has about 4,000 hotel and bed-and-breakfast rooms, campgrounds, restaurants and many attractions. Only two miles south of Baraboo is Devil’s Lake State Park, which has miles of trails, a lake and campgrounds.

For Baraboo information, visit For Wisconsin Dells information, visit

The Land Ethic is prominently displayed on the homepage of the Aldo Leopold Foundation’s website at

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