Under the Big Top
Makes His Hobby, of All Things, Circuses
George Barlow - Binghamton, New York 1953
George H. Barlow the
third has a big name to live up to in Binghamton. His father
and grandfather and great-grandfather were all residents of
Binghamton and were early engaged in the practice of realty.
The Barlow Building on Henry street stands today as a memorial
to the industry of George Barlow III's ancestors and indeed the
present Barlow is kept busy dealing with the property
transactions of the firm established by his grandfather.
Too busy, one would think, to engage in a hobby that has
turned out to be both a pleasure and, better yet, a money-making
proposition. But not at all. George Barlow today is a hale and
hearty fellow in his 40s, . . . when pursuing his hobby, a paint
brush in his hand. Not the kind of paint brush that draws
pictures . . . just a good old paint brush, the kind that houses
get decorated with. For Mr. Barlow's hobby is circuses . . .
model circuses to be exact. He builds them (and paints
them) in his spare time and manages to sell some of his efforts
on the side.
Builds circuses, you say . . . and exactly what is so difficult
about building circuses? Nothing, we say, if you build them out
of cardboard, but George Barlow builds his of wood and steel and
aluminum and canvas and rope. What's more he builds item to
scale, either five-eighths of an inch or three-fourths of an
inch to every life-size foot of circus paraphernalia.
Mr. Barlow started this unusual hobby in 1926, after a more than
usual boyhood interest in circuses. He tried at first to make
his models life-size but soon saw he would get nowhere doing
that, so instead he turned to models. His first models were
crude affairs, following no particular style and ranging all
over the place in scale. But by 1927 he had settled down to a
five-eighths scale and he had also decided, rather
optimistically, to make the most complete model circus set in
the United States. About that time, he found that other amateur
circus fans were extremely interested in procuring miniature
tents and circus wagons, and although they were lacking in the
ability to build them, they were surprisingly ready to buy
them. Nothing could have suited Mr. Barlow more, for he was
discovering that building miniature circuses can be an expensive
as well as absorbing hobby. Soon he was grandly on his way,
making all kinds of circus implements, from flying rigs
(trapezes to you) to rolling stock. He would keep 50 per cent
of what he built and sell 50, and in that way he found that he
made out just about even as far as financial outlay went.
News soon got around that Barlow
III had a circus collection and people soon gathered, Circus
lovers from far and near came to view his set and compare it to
their own, although they usually didn't have much to compare it
to. For in 10 years of working faithfully at his hobby, George
Barlow soon had a circus consisting of 100,000 part, hundreds of
animals (all scaled to size) and a tremendous big top, covering
300 square feet of ground. His animals, which are a cast
composition imported from Austria and Germany, included
elephants, zebras, rhinos, gazelles, gorillas (including a
frightening model of Gargantua, the Barnum and Bailey attraction
who died some years ago), giraffes (along with special wagons to
haul them in), and others too numerous to mention. Over 300
pieces of rolling stock-trucks, wagons, tractors, trailers-were
in the collection, and they held every movable part of the Big
Top. A string of giant Pullman cars, for the traveling circus
performers, were built, as were flatcars to haul the wagons.
The circus performers, also scaled to life-size, were (and still
are) hand-carved and come from a small town in Massachusetts.
And when the entire Big Top was assembled, complete with trick
riders, 15,000 seats for the audience, elephants, and three main
rings, the show was something to see. As a matter of fact,
native Binghamtonians and friends of Mr. Barlow's decided that
it was far too good to be hidden under a bushel (or Big Top) and
persuaded him to exhibit it in the City of Binghamton during the
winter of 1937-38. It attracted immediate attention and was
given a prominent display in several national magazines. After
the city showing, George Barlow erected the Big Top in his own
barn and held showings for those interested.
World War II interrupted the course of George Barlow's hobby for
several years, wherein the government decided to take over his
spare time, but after the war George returned with a hatful of
new ideas to try on his circus. First, he was going to remake
the entire thing, this time at a scale of three-fourths inch to
the foot (the other had been three-eights) and he was going to
modernize all his equipment. About that time a Mr. Austin,
curator of the
John Mable Ringling Art Museum in Sarasota, Fla., contacted Mr.
Barlow and asked him to set up a permanent model circus exhibit
in the museum, a wing of which had been reserved for circus
memorabilia. George consented and spent a good deal of time at
the museum trying to fit his entire Big Top into space allotted
him. But it just wouldn't go. Ergo, they decided to cut the
tent in half and display the half that would fit into the space,
with a menagerie show out in front. This was done and in 1948
the Big Top was opened to the public. So popular was the show
that Mr. Austin decided that as soon as space presented itself,
he would have George Barlow construct his entire Big Top show
for a permanent addition to the museum. So far, says Mr.
Barlow, final word has not come through, but he is working
steadily on the show, building for the future.
As things stand now
in the Barlow home, the hobby seems to have run away with
things. The miniature circus is now of such size and scope that
before Barlow III can make new parts, he discovers that the old
parts need repainting or need to be refurbished. He has already
discarded a score or so of wagons as old-fashioned or as
obsolete and must, perforce, replace them in them in the
original collections. Some of the wagons he has discarded
include the high old bandwagons, such as we associate with the
circuses of our youth. "Circuses don't use 'em anymore." said
Mr. Barlow. "Everything is tractor drawn or truck drawn today."
Mr. Barlow hasn't drawn the
line for his enthusiasm for circuses merely at building model
circuses. He takes an active interest in all live circuses that
pass his way and often goes hundreds of miles just to see a
circus. While visiting down in Arkansas he went an entire day's
trip out of his way to see a small circus that was appearing in
a rural town. "Those are the best ones," he said, those rural
ones. You get a chance to see what's going on. With things
happening in four or five big rings at once, you never get to
see one act all the way through. But with the smaller ones,
it's different. They have to pace their acts, to make the show
last longer. Haven't got many performers you know, and each one
has to do what amounts to a solo act."
So lively is George Barlow's interest in circuses that he has
sent all over the United States and Europe for pictures
pertaining to Big Top performances. In his barn and his office
and his basement rooms at his house (even the furniture here is
in tradition with the circus, being painted circus red and
circus blue) he has hundreds of framed pictures of famous
circuses and circus performers. Everything from the Barnum and
Bailey big top, with its three-ring performances (this was
before B & B became Ringling Bros., and before three rings
became five) to the Tim McCoy Wild West show is here. Trapeze
artists galore, leaning casually against their flying rigs,
dressed in white tights with spangles, ancient Indian chiefs
sporting their glorious headdresses, and of course elephants,
horses, dogs, and the rest of the four-footed faithful that go
along with circuses . . . all are here on the walls.
In 1926 there was organized
by circus lovers a society called The Circus Fans Association of
the United States. Parading under this rather awe-in-spiring
title were various groups of men with boyish hearts from all
over the country. It didn't take George Barlow long to catch up
to the association and it was but a few years later that he
became vice-president of the whole darned works. This year
there was a state convention at Cooperstown and over 75 people
attended, quite a record crowd of circus lovers, according to
Mr. Barlow. Each group is called naturally, a "tent" and in the
Binghamton tent there are usually from 10 to 12 members.
Mr. Barlow says that
being a circus lover is great sport, for it really puts you
quite apart from other hobbyists. For one thing you speak a
language understood only by another circus fan, and when two of
the latter get together, the air is made purple by such words as
"flying rigs," "main jack," "big top," 'rolling quarters," and
other equally incomprehensible terms. Also. circus fans stick
together in their separate hours of need. Mr. Barlow recalled
that during one recent week he was visited by no less than seven
people, some coming from as far as Elmira, who brought their
problems (in model building, of course) to him or who enticed
him out to see other model shows.
Even with over
100,000 pieces of equipment to his name, Mr. Barlow feels that
he has hardly begun. He is ably assisted on spare Saturdays and
during the summer months by Robert Ellis, who has brought many
new technological ideas into model building, and by Dick Bell,
of Binghamton, an honor student at Cornell. But even so, says
Mr. Barlow, he could use another five men to help him with all
the painting and rigging. However, those amateurs who view his
tremendous collection are liable to disagree with him, for this
one man, aided occasionally by two others, has built up one of
the most magnificent collections of circus equipment and circus
lore in the country, and he is still going strongly. Most of
his collection is headed for museums, but we sincerely hope that
before it does collect dust in an obscure museum wing we are
privileged to see it set up for public view somewhere in the
Article and Images
from Courier Magazine November 1953
1- George Barlow -
Ringmaster of the Greatest Miniature Show on Earth.
2- Mr. Barlow paints
risers (grandstand supports to you) to put in his handmade
circus car on the left.
3- Mr. Barlow's
circus gets on the road. The middle two trucks are filled with
tent pegs; the truck on the right is a water truck.
4- Mr. Barlow poses
with an old circus wagon in front of an equally old circus
poster. The contraption hanging on the side of the wagon is a
set of doubletrees for horses to draw the wagon.
5- Four of George
Barlow's model circus wagons. A giraffe wagon on the left, built
especially low to accommodate his long neck, followed by a cage
for a baby hippo, followed by Gargantua's famous white, glass
enclosed wagon, and last a "cat" wagon.
6- Barlow III
displays a Pullman car used by circus performers. On the right
are a few of his wagons.
7- Everywhere you
look, circus wagons and trucks. In the background, center, is a
huge flatcar carrying three wagons.
Above image from
Jim's Toy & Miniature Circus Shop
Smith Shriver miniature circus set up as a sideshow using the
menagerie tent. The menagerie tent comes with five center
sections - only one was used here.
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