The Healdsburg Museum has a new exhibit and the colorful collection of toys and memorabilia vividly captures the magic and excitement of attending a circus.

The exhibit dubbed “The Greatest Toy Circus on Earth,” launched earlier this month and will run until Jan. 19, 2020.

“Every year we do a different holiday toy theme and last year we had Santas and we had no toys and Tina Castelli, who is a collector of toys, said that she had some of this Steiff commemorative circus that she would loan to the museum if we wanted to display it,” said Healdsburg Museum Executive Director and Curator, Holly Hoods. 

The collection that kick-started the circus theme is a group of stuffed animals called the “Steiff Golden Age of the Circus.” 

The animals were made when German seamstress Margarete Steiff made the first known toy stuffed animal in 1880, which happened to be an elephant. Steiff made most of the designs and prototypes herself. Toys were made with alpaca, felt and mohair and woven with plush and topped with glass eyes.

“It was that one thing that then inspired, ‘Hey, what else is there?,’” Hoods said.  

Hoods mentioned to other people that she was thinking of doing a circus exhibit and locals and toy collectors started stepping up and loaning their items to the museum for the exhibit.

“Suddenly, it started to spark from there… Once people hear what we are doing, they come forward (to loan items),” Hoods said.

The main exhibit train diorama that lives in the museum 24/7 even received an update to match the circus carnival theme.

A carnival midway was added to the diorama, including a carnival game stand with a light-up ferris wheel and merry-go-round and several other electric carnival rides.

Exhibit highlights

Healdsburg resident Cooper Conrad loaned several circus items to the museum.

The loaned figures are part of a Horchow Circus set, which Conrad was given by his great-grandmother when he was born in 1971. The set was made in India and features three-inch wooden, hand painted circus figurines.

Also on loan is a collection of limited edition Chipperfield’s Circus cars, which were an early predecessor to matchbox cars. The cars were modeled after a group of real-life circus cars used in a big-top circus in England.

One of Hood’s personal favorites is an assortment of 1950 lithograph, wind-up carnival rides — a ferris wheel and a merry-go-round.

She also pointed out a limited edition Lehmann Gross Bahn train. Only 2,000 were made. 

The 1960 era set is an example of a garden railway that would have been used to decorate a garden. 

“It is rare and collectible,” Hoods said.

Adjacent to the train exhibit is pair of circus themed toy trucks from the 1920s. The original condition-restored trucks have colorful circus animals painted on the side.

Toy collector and restorer Steve Castelli loaned the toys. 

An unusual piece in the exhibit is a photo of a clown-painted floor tile, displayed in a case with 

clown-themed toys. What’s interesting is that it came from the history of the museum itself. 

When the floors in the museum were redone clown and animal painted titles were found in a downstairs room that used to serve as the children’s reading room when the museum building functioned as as library. 

Creepy? You decide.

Smoky Steeds

Perhaps one of the most special contributions to the exhibit though, is a group of hand-made carousel horses crafted by Kip Miller. 

The horses were one of the few things that didn’t burn when the Kincade Fire came barreling towards Miller’s Geyserville home. 

While the horses have some smoke damage — they even have a smokey smell to them, they are mostly intact and in good condition.

“Very early on he told me he had these carousel horses that he’d like to lend to the exhibit and this was months before the fire,” Hoods said. “He had painted them and sanded them and fixed their tails and when the time came he had them in the wine cellar and so his house burned down but his wine cellar did not.”

Some of his other smaller horse carousel figurines had bubbled paint and clumps of singed insulation stuck to it.

Hoods said after the fire Miller called the museum and said, “Good news, my houses burned down but my carousel horses survived. He’s just got an amazing spirit.”


Also set up at the exhibit is a kid-friendly play area with toys and circus themed games. 

“I decided that if we are going to have toys we have to have a way to play,” Hoods said. “We’ve had a really good reaction from kids.”

When and where: Exhibit runs until Jan. 19. The museum is open from Wednesday to Sunday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Admission is free. 221 Matheson St. 

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