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21Country: Miami County historian details attempts to save historic circus barns from being demolished

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PERU, Ind. (WPTA21) - With the title, the “Circus Capital of the World”, Peru and the land around it, is home to rich history.

But some buildings that housed the “wild beasts” of famous animal trainer Terrell Jacobs, will soon be nothing but memories.

Several decaying structures sitting along U.S. 31 and S.R. 218 were once the pride of Jacobs, his winter circus quarters, caring for his lions, tigers, and elephants during the circus off-season.

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Jacobs and his wife bought the property in 1939.

By 1941, most of the cat barn was completed, and after that, a barn was built and expanded to hold elephants.

Life on the road was tough on the Jacobs’ marriage, and in 1945, Terrell divorced his wife Dolly, split their assets, and the winter quarters ended up under the ownership of the Barnes Circus.

Jacobs still lived on the property, and took care of the animals for several years following his divorce.

He would later die of a heart attack in 1957, and be buried in Wabash.

In 1954, the land and buildings were sold to another famous circus family: Paul and Dorothy Kelly.

Dorothy would live in, and maintain the barns for nearly sixty years, until her death in 2012 at the age of 100.

Kreig Adkins has served as the Miami County Historian for over 20 years, and he’s spent a good amount of that time researching Peru’s circus legacy.

“It’s unfortunate to see something like that, disappear. Here in a few years, you won’t know anything every happened there,” Adkins said, “it will just be all grown up. You’ll drive by and no one will ever have a clue that there’s elephants and animals buried there. And that all of this wonderful circus history took place on this property.”

After the Kelly’s purchased the Terrell Jacobs Winter Quarters, they kept up the property, caring for their animals too, between their touring.

Adkins has fond memories as a boy, when his family would drive past on U.S. 31.

“When I was a little boy, back in the 60’s, driving by the winter quarters, we always were - our noses against the window looking to see any elephants or animals out in the yard,” he said, “I remember seeing them many times going back and forth to Kokomo along U.S. 31. It still brings a smile to my face every time.”

Decades later, after Dorothy Kelly’s retirement, Adkins would conduct interviews and video walkthroughs of the property to preserve what they looked like in the 1990’s.

As technology and video mediums changed, Adkins would talk to Kelly again in the mid-2000’s, when she was over 90-years-old.

“She was fascinating to talk to. She started performing when she was forty,” he laughed, “she was a character. Most circus people are very… spirited people. And she had a lot of spirit. She loved the circus, she loved what she did. She loved training the animals. She was one-of-a-kind.”

Despite his admiration and contact with Kelly through the years, he was unable to convince her to sell the property to someone who would invest to preserve the historic buildings.

“Dorothy always wanted the property preserved, but it was home to her. And it was her whole world,” Adkins explained, “and she couldn’t let go of her whole world... at any price.”

Dorothy Kelly died in 2012, and her family listed the property for sale after.

Adkins worked with the Indiana Landmark Foundation, when the Terrell Jacobs Circus Winter Quarters were named among the state's "top ten endangered landmarks".

“The Landmark Foundation was trying to do everything they could to acquire the property and save the barns before they got any worse,” Adkins said, “and they had an engineering study done, a price of what it would cost to rehab the barns, and unfortunately… it just all couldn’t come together.”

The historian estimated that at the time, it would’ve only costed $200,000 to save the barns then.

Adkins entertained other ideas to save them: a visitor’s center or interpretive center for circus history, and a non-profit.

Reflecting back, he believes the best chance at saving the buildings, was during the collaboration of the Landmark Foundation.

But his optimism for saving them after that dropped, when the deal fell through.

“Several years ago when the Landmark Foundation made an offer for a purchase agreement on the property and it was turned down,” Adkins said, “to me it was now or never, and when the offer was turned down, to me there was no hope.”

INDOT bought the buildings, and the land they sat on for $150,000 in 2018, with plans to remove the driveway access from the very busy U.S. 31.

Spokesman for INDOT Northeast, Hunter Petroviak, told us, after inspection of the buildings, it was clear they had to be torn down.

“When you look at the pictures, the buildings are in such disrepair and kind of speak for themselves they kind of had to come down,” he told us, “there is no way to preserve those buildings.”

Officials now worried, some buildings collapsing, it would pose a danger to trespassers.

“Nobody likes to tear down historic buildings but when you look at pictures, those buildings are in such disrepair that nobody really needs to step foot in them,” Petroviak told us, “and we’re removing them as part of a public safety effort to makes sure nobody goes on that property and winds up in one of those buildings.”

When INDOT purchased the Terrell Jacobs Circus Winter Quarters, they also paid for a new roof on the International Circus Hall of Fame building, and worked to preserve any historic items still left on the site.

“We want to be good stewards of this history, we’re part of Indiana, we live here and work here too,” Petroviak said, “and we do care about the property and the history that is there, to make sure that we still honor that history and remember that moving forward.”

Adkins feels, by tearing down the buildings, a piece of important history and significance to Miami County, is being erased.

“Ten years, twenty years from now people will drive down U.S. 31 and you’ll see nothing but brush and bushes and trees, and it will be forgotten,” he said.

Adkins also added this, reflecting on Terrell Jacobs, “His career was amazing. His accomplishments were amazing. You know - it all happened in a small little town in Indiana.”

The buildings should be in the process of being torn down and removed now, however Petroviak told us asbestos removal delayed that.

Crews are still on track to have the project completed by June 2021.

Stay with ABC21 for updates on this developing story.

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Daniel Beals

Daniel Beals is the producer of the ABC21 feature franchise “21Country”. He is constantly on the lookout for ideas that capture the “people, places, things, and history” that makes Northeast Indiana unique. Feel free to reach out: dbeals@wpta21.com.

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