The Great Circus Parade

By Mary Godwin

Back in the days when Yahoo Groups were the social meeting place, I joined the Sidesaddle group. I had always been a big fan and spectator of the Great Circus Parade held most years in downtown Milwaukee in July of each year. I believe it was 1999, and Shelly Liggett from New Jersey was looking for sidesaddle riders to participate in a new group she was getting together in the parade. I had started riding aside when I did Civil War reenacting in the 1980’s, and hadn’t done much since. I decided to take the plunge and got my friend to do it too. Part of the preparations included sending our measurements in to the Circus World Museum costume department for the new red velvet dresses we also had to chip in on to be made for us. We then also took a trip to Baraboo, WI, home of the Museum, to get fitted. Come July, we met up on the shores of Lake Michigan to camp and practice for the parade on Sunday afternoon. The parade is full of horse drawn circus wagons that have been meticulously restored, and numerous equine units to simulate the circus coming to town and to draw attention to get people interested in attending.

It was very hot the first year. I was very nervous to be part of such a big event. Big tents were set up to house all the draft horses and mules used to pull the wagons and floats. Wild animals were brought in to be part of the parade also, including elephants and tigers.

Our unit camped together and we all got to be great friends. We practiced several times and figured out our lineup. The parade is all set up in order and starts from a field where every type of unit gets ready and then are brought together in order by the parade officials. We are told the time to be there and you better be there!

I was both nervous and excited on the day of the parade. My friend and I rode to let the horses move about and to also watch all the preparations going on. The wild animals had been brought in, and we accidently ended up by the tiger cage. We had been warned for the parade to use Vick’s in our horse’s noses so they couldn’t smell the animals and get scared. Well, I hadn’t done this yet of course, and found out the big cat’s didn’t bother my draft cross Nick.

Time came and we all got our horses ready, and we in our dresses, which really weren’t designed for sidesaddle correctly as far as placement, but made us feel like princesses with all the velvet and jewels. We got in the first waiting area and rode around a bit to quiet our nerves. A huge crowd was waiting for us lining the streets of Milwaukee! Suddenly two elephants appeared off to one of the sides. I think Nick thought they were his Percheron pasture mates he left back in Iowa as his head went up and began calling to them. I went to ride over but got scolded by the parade personnel and was told my horse would be afraid. Does a horse whinnying to them look afraid? But I did as I was told!

Our turn came, the parade stepped off, and up the hill into town we went. The crowd was wonderful, and I did hold my breath when a young child stuck an animal balloon on a stick in his face, but it didn’t faze him. Now further in, the people coming out with water in glasses to help cool us off did, but not balloons, tigers, or elephants! After a good hour of riding and waving and smiling, we made it back to camp and were all still floating from the exhilaration and excitement. We cooled off and got back into our real-world clothes and had to get ready to head back to Iowa.

The Great Circus Parade was a great time every year. It hasn’t been held since 2009, but we are ready if they ever decide to get it going again!