Under the Big Top


A Binghamtonian 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 area.

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

The Barlow-made 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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