The Alf T. Ringling Estate, Winterquarters of R. T. Richards Circus, at Oak Ridge, N. J. By Warren H. Wood. Bandwagon, Vol. 11, No. 3 (May-Jun), 1967, pp. 14-16.
Famous Circus Landmarks
Foreword. During the summer of 1966 I visited the old Alf T. Ringling mansion and estate located on Lake Swannanoa near Oak Ridge, N.J. The buildings on the grounds served as the quarters for the R. T. Richards Circus of 1917 and the photos I took during my visit picture them as they are today. The estate can be reached by turning left off Highway 23 (going west) at the West Milford First Aid Station. The mansion and buildings are located at Lake Swannanoa and you experience no difficulty in finding them. I call this little story the "Saga of Oak Ridge."
Although the magic name of Ringling is the basis for this story, there is a slight variation from the family fame in this case. It seems quite evident the brothers Ringling favored land in the garden state of New Jersey. John had a palatial home at Alpine, and Charlie owned property at Oakland. Alf T. and his son, Richard, however, are the main characters in this saga of Oak Ridge.
I am indebted to Mr. Joseph W. Headly who is now 82 years old, for many of the facts presented here. Joe still actively participates in running his own lumber yard at Oak Ridge. As a carpenter he served both Alf T. in building the estate which started approximately back in 1915, and later supervised the construction of the wagons for Richard when the show was framed in the spring of 1917. It is interesting to note that laborers were engaged for $1.25 per day and craftsmen earned $2.50. Mr. Headley pointed out that Richard salvaged a lot of fire engine wagons from the New York City Fire Department for his original rolling stock. However, when the spokes went through the bushings most of the wagons had to be rebuilt from the ground up. Incidentally, Joe went on the road with the circus for the 1917 tour.
My next bit of information came from a trip across the Hudson River to the Library of the Performing Arts, which is housed in Lincoln Center in New York City. Quoting from an article published in The Newark Evening News, June 8, 1955, I found this most complete summary of the history of the Alf T. Ringling estate. "At periods in its 38 year history the mansion, at Lake Swannanoa in northwest Morris County, has been successively a country home and angler's paradise, winter headquarters for a circus, and exclusive country club.
The house, a solid sprawling structure of reinforced concrete with native field-stone facing, has walls 2 feet thick and fourteen fireplaces. It was built by Alf T. Ringling in 1917. Its low ceilinged 30' x 45' living room includes a $10,000 walnut-and-ebony fireplace mantle imported from Italy. A cupid freize tops off the walnut-and-ebony paneled walls of the adjoining large dining room. The rest of the house is in proportion in size and appointments. A two-storied, sunken walnut paneled room, in the south wing of the home, formerly housed Ringling's $26,000 electric organ, an instrument first played at the circus magnate's funeral. The organ room adjoins a spacious concrete porch overlooking the major dam of Lake Swannanoa, now a summer lake resort and formerly part of Ringling's 600 acre estate. On the second floor and past the lavish bedroom suites to "the garret," a playroom with orchestra dais which forms a major part of the third story and once was the center of club activities at the mansion.
The mansion is understood to have cost Ringling $500,000. Its sale price was reported at $25,000. The house was sold with its immediate grounds of 4 1/2 acres. The rest of the estate now is in plots and used for summer and year-round cottages. Ringling, an ardent fisherman, owned all land around the 100 acre lake, which he stocked regularly with bass. Among his guests at the estate were Doug Fairbanks, Sr., and Geraldine Farrer, Metropolitan opera singer.
Ringling Manor, Inc., bought the estate in 1928 and turned the house into a club.
Another excerpt from the New York Times dated June 9, 1955 in part states: "Ringling Mansion to House Anti-Reds" - Oak Ridge, N.J. The great Ringling mansion, once a circus winter quarters, will become the nerve center of a Roman Catholic organization dedicated to aiding the "Church of Silence" behind the iron curtain. The Rev. Marion Wojick, a Franciscan Polish editor priest who escaped from Warsaw in 1941, announced that the old Ringling house has been purchased by the Spes Foundation, in which he is active. The Spes Foundation - the name is taken from the Latin word for hope - was formed last year to aid Roman Catholic churches and religionists in Poland and other iron curtain countries.
For the last fifteen years the mansion has been vacant. The foundation will use the twenty-six room structure as headquarters for the radio-monitoring, compilation of reports on events behind the iron curtain, publishing and other activities.
With the exception of the ring barn, all of the original buildings are standing and all are in reasonably good condition. Although the main house will need about $60,000 worth of fixing. As the accompanying pictures show, building #1 was used for a wagon shed and blacksmith shop. Directly across the road, buildings #2 and 3 were utilized as a power house and garage. The power plant had a 35 h.p. generator and a 50 h.p. turbine. There is no picture of building #4, the boat house, because of my lack of ability as a photographer. Building #5 housed the animals and is currently up for sale. Building #6 was the Ringling residence which boasted a huge leaded glass window showing an Indian paddling about in a canoe. According to Joe Headley, young Richard tried his marksmanship on the redskin much to Alf T.'s dismay. Building #7, the ring barn, I missed seeing as well as photographing. This originally had a glass roof which eventually collapsed, and what remains of it is used for a field office for some type of contracting firm. At least the buildings stand as tangible evidence of a once great circus power and its off shoot-the R. T. Richards Supreme Show of the World.
The late George Chindahl provided the (Sept.-Oct.) White Tops issue with a complete rundown on this show back in 1949. According to this gem of information, R. T. Richards was framed in the spring of 1917 by Richard Theodore Ringling who was twenty-one years of age at that time. As stated previously, Joe Headley had charge of the building of the wagons, Dick Muller the motor vehicles; Harry Gibbons and Ernie Anderson looked after the painting; and Tom Campbell supervised the cookhouse.
The show opened at Dover, N.J. on May 10, 1917. During the season it played 121 cities and towns, closing on October 6 at Media, Pa. and returned to winter quarters at Oak Ridge.
The show paraded and gave two exhibitions each week-day. Other personnel for the season included: William Backell, contracting agent; Bernie Head, press agent; "Little Erwin," the smallest advertising agent in the world; Art Eldridge, general superintendent; Eddie Delevan and Bill Conin on the front door; Steve Lloyd, superintendent of baggage stock; Roy Eldridge, superintendent of stock during early part of season; Keys, reserved and concert ticket seller; James McCusker, steward; James Baker, chef.
A two-ton truck and a smaller panel truck served the advance. The show carried 116 head of horses at the opening, but most of the draft stock was replaced by motor equipment before the end of the summer. The show, according to reports, equalled any ten-car show in size and carried five bulls in charge of Jimmy Dooley. The cookhouse went over the night before in squadron fashion, with everybody sleeping on the lot.
The big top was a 90-foot round top, with one 50-foot middle piece, the performance being given in one ring and a steel arena. The menagerie top was a 70-foot round top with four 30-foot middle pieces. The five cages were placed in the center of the tent. The five elephants and two camels were at the far end from the marquee. The remainder of the space along the sides was devoted to horses, constituting the advertised horse show. There were also the regular horse tents.
The day the show closed in Media, Alf T. informed the folks that if the war was over that winter the show would go out in 1918, but that if hostilities still continued the show wouldn't go out. However, in April, Samuel McCracken took over the show and placed it in Luna Park, Coney Island, in May.
The show was to have sailed on Oct. 26th for Havana, but these plans were cancelled on account of the flu epidemic. In March 1919, it was reported that the elephants had been sold to William P. Hall. In the winter of 1918-1919, an indoor circus was framed, using the title, "R. T. Richards' Mammoth Indoor Circus," William Conway being the contracting agent and Fred Bradna the general manager and equestrian director.
Early in January, 1920, the show played the Mayflower Theatre in Providence, R.I., followed by the week of January 12th at the Worcester Theatre, Worcester, Mass. Many of the acts being contracted for the Ringling-Barnum show, the season terminated in Amsterdam, N.Y., March 6th. The R. T. Richards title was not used after the 1919-1920 winter season.
In addition to his circus interests, Richard Ringling owned and operated an immense ranch in Montana. He departed this life on August 31, 1931, at his home in White Sulphur Springs.
I am deeply indebted to Joe Bradbury and Fred Pfening for their assistance and guidance in the preparation of this article.