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John Ringling's railroad never got where it was going, but people in White Sulphur Springs and Leader were mighty glad to greet it.

The renown circus proprietor envisioned a railroad connecting Yellowstone National Park to Glacier Park, but the railroad's 23 miles of track never reached either park.

It did connect White Sulphur Springs to Leader, causing White Sulphur Springs residents to indulge in a "big jollification" and prompting the farming community of Leader, 22 miles south of White Sulphur Springs, to change its name to Ringling.

John Ringling once owned 80,000 acres in Meagher County's Smith River Valley, but the town that bears his name scarcely figures in his life story, said his biographer, David Weeks.

Ringling was one of five brothers who launched the Ringling Bros. Circus.

In 1884, the circus required just nine wagons and had no elephants or wild animals. By 1887, it carried the prodigious title "Ringling Bros. United Monster Shows, Great Double Circus, Royal European Menagerie, Museum, Caravan, and Congress of Trained Animals."

Soon the circus was crisscrossing the country by rail.

As contracting manager, John Ringling was the advance man, traveling ahead of the circus train.

"When he was out scouting or planning trips for the circus, he liked to invest in land and railroads and things," Weeks said.

When Ringling came to Montana in 1910, rumors flew that he and his brothers planned to make the Smith River Valley the winter headquarters for their circus.

Ringling owned five short-line railroads in the West. Oddly enough, similar rumors about a possible circus headquarters swirled around the town of Ringling in southern Oklahoma, a town also renamed in his honor.

Lee Rostad, who wrote "Mountains of Gold, Hills of Grass: A History of Meagher County," found no evidence suggesting Ringling ever planned to create a circus headquarters in Montana. He did envision a posh Victorian bathhouse and hotel at White Sulphur Springs.

"He was a bit of a dreamer," Weeks said.

To oversee his Montana land holdings, John Ringling sent his nephew, Richard Ringling, who established the Ringling Dairy herd and the Springs Creamery, one of the largest dairy operations in a several-state region.

The Ringling brothers bought out many of their circus competitors, including the Barnum & Bailey Circus in 1907.

As his older brothers died, Ringling, who was the youngest of the original circus brothers, became more preoccupied with circus business. Weeks speculates that Ringling lost interest in his Montana land holdings after a prospective oil lease on the Crow Reservation fell through.

In 1917, he began investing in large chunks of real estate in Sarasota, Fla., and in nearby undeveloped island keys. By moving the circus' winter quarters to Sarasota in 1927, he made the city synonymous with the Ringling Bros. Circus.

In Sarasota, Ringling began acting less like the stereotypical showman, Weeks wrote.

Ringling began surrounding himself with fine tapestries, gilded furniture, original artwork and other trappings of wealth.

He bought his first Rolls Royce in 1920 and soon acquired three more Rolls Royces and two Pierce Arrows.

His 30-room mini-palace was named Ca d'Zan, or "House of John" in the Venetian dialect.

When he died in 1936, his enormous art collection and his estate were left to The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota.