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Photo by Benjamin Adair

The circus is the quintessential American summer event. It all started with P.T. Barnum back in the late 1800s, when performers and large animals traveled coast to coast by rail to set up under the "big top." Today, while huge circuses like Barnum & Bailey travel by big-rig trucks, arena to arena, there are only a few truly "old time" circuses left -- ones that are traveling villages, moving through small-town America, pitching a tent every night in a new place, drawing thousands of people.

Our reporter Benjamin Adair joined up with the Carson & Barnes 5-Ring Circus. There, he found elephants, trapeze artists, and what's billed as the "Biggest Big Top on Earth."

The Circus

By Benjamin Adair, 7/5/2002

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"It's not a 9-5 job. It's a way of life."

So says Barbara Miller Byrd, co-owner of the Carson & Barnes 5-Ring Circus -- a circus that will travel over 3,000 miles this year and visit 215 small cities and towns. A typical day goes like this: wake up at 6:00 a.m. and grab a bite to eat; get in your car and drive about an hour; when you get to the next town, set up everything -- the tent, the animal pens, the concessions, the souvenirs, the grandstands, the lighting, the sound, all the performers' equipment.

Then, perform two shows -- sometimes three.

Around 10 p.m., after the last audience member has left, do the whole thing in reverse: take down the equipment, the lights, the sound, the big top, pack away the concessions and the souvenirs. And, get all the animals bedded down for sleep. If you're lucky, you get to bed by midnight.

The next morning, at around 6 a.m., wake up and do the whole thing again.

It's a hard life. But those who choose to do it can't imagine anything else.

Photos by Benjamin Adair

Savvy Resources:

Carson & Barnes Circus:

Circus Web:

Circus Fans Association of America:

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