When the circus came to William Dickey’s hometown of Bristol, Virginia, in the early 1900s, it sparked a lifelong hobby for the artistic teenager: Whittling miniature circus figures out of wood.
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By the time he finished, Dickey’s creation totaled 62,157 hand-made pieces. They included intricately carved and expertly painted animals, clowns, ringmasters, musicians, concessionaires, customers and side-show freaks.
“He never used a jigsaw, he never used a lathe or any kind of turning tools. It was always a pocketknife,” says grandson Clayton Dickey in the latest installment of the FOX Business Network Series “Strange Inheritance with Jamie Colby.” The episode, titled “Little Big Top,” airs Monday, March, 19 at 9 p.m. ET.
Dickey, who had no formal art training, was hardly the world’s only mini-circus hobbyist. But his creation is one of the most remarkable examples of the craft, says Johnny Trapino of the Circus Model Builders Association of America.
“The man was a brilliant wood carver,” Trapino says. “He did all that with a single pocketknife and that’s absolutely amazing.”
Indeed, back in the 1930s Dickey’s Circus – which includes a 25-foot-wide big top with 10,000 tiny seats – went on tour itself. It appeared at the Museum of the City of New York, the Atlantic City boardwalk, the Chicago World’s Fair and the Paris Exposition. Displaying the scale-model circus required a platform the length of a tennis court.
While Dickey began his career as a mechanical engineer, got married and raised a family, the circus continued to go on tour, though William did not travel with it.
After he retired in the 1960s, William searched far and wide for a venue interested in permanently exhibiting his signature achievement.
“He spent long hours writing to people. A lot of times he got word back that mini circuses are a dime a dozen,” Dickey’s daughter-in-law Barbara tells Colby in the program. “He would say, ‘They just don’t know what we have.’”
Dickey died in 1972, and Barbara continued the search for a place to permanently pitch her father-in-law’s tent. It took more than 40 years. All the while, the mini-circus sat in storage.
The breakthrough came with the internet. Clayton made a Dickey Circus Facebook page and was eventually contacted by Joe Colossa, a former Ringling Brothers trainmaster who co-owns the Ringling Mansion in Baraboo, Wisconsin. (Baraboo was once the winter home of the famous full-size circus.)
“I’ve come across plenty of miniature circuses over the years, but this one is positively the most remarkable,” says Colossa. “Absolutely everything is handmade from scratch, down to the clothing on every figure, the scrolling on every wagon wheel, every horse saddle and every tent.”
The Dickeys loaned their 101-year-old heirloom to the museum for three years. When the exhibit was moved from Virginia to Wisconsin in the fall of 2017, it was the first time Clayton had ever seen his grandfather’s masterpiece in all its glory.
“It’s something I thought about my whole life, so now it’s a little overwhelming,” he said at the unveiling. “It’s an amazing work of art by a man who with no formal training, a boy in the mountains who loved the circus.”
The Ringling Mansion plans to put Dickey’s Circus on public display, but has not yet announced when it will be exhibited.