You Too Can Be a Circus Owner

Howard C. Tibbals and the Howard Bros. Circus model—the largest miniature circus in the world—that has been more than 50 years in the making.

Howard C. Tibbals and the Howard Bros. Circus model—the largest miniature circus in the world—that has been more than 50 years in the making.

Owning your own circus is just a dream for most folks, but for a few it is a reality. I’m not talking about a real circus, but one in miniature. Circus model builders love the circus and have their own organization, Circus Model Builders. The organization dates back to the 1930s. Little Circus Wagon, the official publication of the Circus Model Builders, is published six times a year and is filled with detailed information to assist members. Click here for a link to the Circus Model Builders Web site.

Some model builders build their models of wagons and equipment from scratch, but for those who lack that skill, there are model kits. A Google search for “Circus Model Kits” will provide links to hundreds of sites for new and used kits. Older model kits manufactured by companies that are now out of business, like Wardie Jay, are readily available on eBay and other auction sites. Prices start as low as $5 or $10. You can bid on ready-to-assemble kits or models that have already been built. Some scratch-built wagon models can cost up to several hundred dollars.

Many museums house complete circus models, but the best of these is Howard Bros. Circus. It is located at the Ringling Circus Museum’s Tibbal’s Learning Center at The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota, Fla. The entire Howard Bros. Circus—complete with eight main tents, 152 wagons, 1,500 circus performers and workers, more than 700 animals and a 55-car train—has a permanent home at the Ringling Circus Museum.

The Howard Bros. Circus midway.

The Howard Bros. Circus midway.

A view inside the menagerie tent.

A view inside the menagerie tent.

Elephants on the march to the big top.

Elephants on the march to the big top.

A close look at the circus dining tent.

A close look at the circus dining tent.

Tibbets looking into the house and baggage tent.

Tibbals looking into the horse and baggage tent.

The Howard Bros. Circus is a ¾-inch-to-the-foot scale replica of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus when the tented circus was at its peak (circa 1925-1938). It occupies 3,800 square feet in the 30,600 sq. ft. Tibbal’s Learning Center. This model is the largest miniature circus in the world and has been more than 50 years in the making by master circus model builder Howard C. Tibbals. The miniature, Howard Bros. Circus, is incredibly detailed and must be seen to be believed.

Tibbals saw his first circus as a 3-year-old. At the age of 5, he watched through a telescope, enthralled, as a circus set up on a nearby vacant lot. That impression stayed with him for life and jump-started his love of all things circus.

A trained engineer and a skilled craftsman, Tibbals began building miniature circus wagons and tents as a teenager. He wrote a letter to Ringling management asking permission to use the Ringling name on his miniature railroad cars and circus wagons, but was refused.

“Since circuses tended to bear the family name of the owner, I just started calling it the Howard Bros. Circus for fun,” Tibbals explains. “The name stuck, and now we have the Howard Bros. Circus that looks a lot like Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus during its tented age.”

Over the years, Tibbals amassed thousands of historical circus photographs for his personal circus archives and used them for accuracy in building his models. He also visited circus back-lots and winter quarters to take measurements of individual circus wagons and other equipment.

The detail for each piece of circus equipment is as authentic as possible, down to the tiny tent stakes, rolls of thin cable, and diminutive dishes and tableware—enough to serve 900 performers and workers. And, just like the real three-ring circus of the 1920s-1930s, the Howard Bros. Circus equipment can be loaded into the ¾” scale wagons, and along with its menagerie, fits onto the 55-car train!

Portions of the Howard Bros. Circus have toured throughout the United States to the delight of countless admirers. It was displayed at many venues including the 1982 World’s Fair and the Knoxville Museum of Art in Knoxville, Tenn.; The National Geographic’s Explorers Hall in Washington, DC; The Rochester Museum and Science Center in Rochester, N.Y.; The Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village in Dearborn, Mich; The Circus World Museum in Baraboo, Wis.; The Cincinnati Museum Center in Cincinnati, Ohio.

The show found a permanent home at the Ringling Circus Museum in January 2006. It is the first time that the entire model has ever been assembled and able to be viewed by the public.

Here’s a link for more information about: Howard Bros. Circus and the Ringling Circus Museum.

Larry Kellogg is a WorthPoint Worthologist specializing in circus memorabilia.

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  1. Richard Atwater says:

    In the late 1940’s I helped a man who had made a mini circus and we would take it to librarys ,schools etc and show it to the public. It was called the “Kerr and Clark Circus”. We lived in Beverly Ma. at the time. I would like to know what happened to the models? Any idea’s on how to find out?

    • Larry Kellogg says:

      Richard,

      You might try contacting the Circus Model Builders organization. There’s a link to their website in the story above. They have a chat room on the website.