The circus trucks rumble into town during the middle of the night and, by first light, the big top is rising over a grassy park. For 73 years, the Carson & Barnes Circus has wandered the country: It is among the last such traveling shows in America. As tiny children watch wide-eyed, elephants are put to work turning the hoists that raise the big top.
In a morning ritual, crew members whistle in harmony as they set the stage, but the work is hard, the hours, brutal, the pay, low.
"You have to love this job or you can't do it," circus co-owner Barbara Byrd said during a stop in Columbus, Wis.
Byrd's grandfather founded the circus and she travels with it nine months a year.
"It's definitely in my bones, my blood, and in my whole being," Byrd said. "I was born on the road and I'll probably die on the road."
At their peak, in the early 20th century, as many as 200 circuses were active in the United States. Now, only a handful survive; a fading side-show in the nation's crowded show-biz marketplace.
Carson & Barnes is a throwback to the early days, a proudly traditional circus that sticks largely to the small towns and suburbs. It lacks the sexiness and edginess of a Cirque de Soleil, for instance, which seems just fine with the families who are its target audience.
Heather Alvarez of Columbus brought her two young children. "It's exciting to have something so big come to a small town like this," she said. "It's fun to get out and do something old. Something that's been around for a long time with a big tradition."
The entire crew -- about 100 strong -- is small enough that everyone works two or three jobs. The same circus worker may set up the tents, sell tickets and ride the elephants later in the show.
The elephant trainer, Chip Arthurs, represents a story as old as the circus itself: He literally ran away from home to join. "This is what I've been doing all my life so I really don't know anything else," he said.
For 38 weeks a year, Arthurs and other circus employees lead a nomad's life, sleeping in trailers and eating whatever the circus cook dishes up. For children, including young performers, classes are in a one-room schoolhouse on wheels.
Scaled-Down, Traveling Circus Continues to Bring Big Entertainment
For Francesca Cavallini, 13, a budding trapeze artist, geography comes naturally. She has traveled to nearly every state in the country. After class, Francesca spends an hour on hair and make-up, transforming herself from school girl to circus star.
Her trapeze act includes her father, aunt and cousin. For six generations, the Cavallinis have flown through the air for a living. "My father taught me, just like his grandfather and great-grandfather," she said.
Carson & Barnes once boasted a full brass band, five rings under the Big Top, and a thundering herd of circus animals. Now, the music comes from a CD blaring from speakers, all the acts are contained in one ring and it keeps only three elephants.
But co-owner Byrd insisted the show will go on, "We want to stay in business," she said. "We want to keep the circus alive in America."
After a recent two-hour matinee, the clowns and the contortionist, the elephants and the flying Cavallinis entertain Columbus all over again in an evening performance.
But their work is hardly over.
After an 18-hour day, cast and crew take down the Big Top, pack everything up, and head off to set up in yet another Wisconsin town the very next morning.