BARABOO — Think model trains, but instead of railroads, the convention here later this month features tiny big tops, model circus wagons and yes, some model train cars too.
“It’s a three-dimensional preservation of circus history,” said Stephen Flint of Janesville, a member of the Circus Model Builders organization, which is sponsoring the show that runs Thursday through June 2 at the Circus World Museum.
Circus Model Builders is an international organization that began in the 1930s and is about 800 members strong.
About 60 people are registered to display small-scale circus models. Many built the various miniature wagons, tents, animals and ringleaders themselves.
Love for the circus keeps model circus building relevant, said organization president Michael Butash, who lives in Scranton, Pa., and will be making the trip to Baraboo for the convention.
People enjoy seeing models replicating circuses they saw during their childhood, he said. “It brings back a lot of memories and it’s a good family hobby.”
Plus, organizers say, they can’t beat the Circus World location.
“It’s like going to heaven,” Butash said of the museum, which has hosted regional and national shows on and off for about 40 years.
Circus World offers enthusiasts one of the few places in the world where they can show their model wagons next to actual circus wagons, Flint said.
“Because it’s Circus World Museum, when you have a show, people all across the country just break their necks to get here,” Flint said. “It’s the whole circus experience right there.”
People came to a regional show from 10 states last year, Flint said, and “this year I’ve been told we’re going to have a couple folks come in from Europe.”
Staff at Circus World also go above and beyond to make the convention a success, Flint said.
A couple other museums around the country have circus wagons, but Circus World “just has more,” he said.
Flint said Wisconsin may have a few more model circus builders than other states because of the interest around Circus World, but regardless of the number, “it’s a dedicated lot.”
“If we don’t have more in numbers, I feel we have more in enthusiasm because of the museum,” he said.
Flint enjoys the 1920 and ’30s circus era when the circus traveled by rail. The model circus wagons he builds take him between 40 and 80 hours each.
Wayne Schroeder of Milwaukee, who handles public relations for the model builders group, said people will see a variety of circus scenes at the show.
He plans to bring his model of the Milwaukee Street Circus Parade.
Other members plan to display models they’ve inherited over the years from friends and organization members who have died.
Ralph Pierce’s basement in his Baraboo home is a mini-model circus museum. Small-scale circus train cars, tents, wagons and animals fill bookcases and display tables.
Pierce, who also works at Circus World, said he “got the bug when I was a kid” for model circus building.
His wife, Joan, also builds and sews model circus tents, which are shipped around the world.
One year she made 3,000 tents, Pierce said, but now she makes 50 to 60 a year as the demand has lessened.
The couple also builds and sells circus models to other model builders, and has noticed a small resurgence from model railroaders who want a circus train for their collection.
“Circus trains give color and excitement when they run,” Pierce said.
Pierce said the Circus Model Builders organization has evolved as the circus has changed.
In the ’40s and ’50s, members built larger-scale models because thicker wood was what was available, Pierce said.
At the show, people will see different sized model circus scenes, circus wagons and circus train cars, “anything from several inches long to several feet long,” Pierce said.
“It will be a total variety,” he said. “Everybody has their own interest, everybody has their own abilities.”