PERU – Want to be the owner of one the most unique pieces of circus history in the country, including two barns and hand-painted wagons that used to house elephants, tigers, hippos, monkeys and leopards?
It can all be yours for $150,000.
Last month, the owner of the land that formerly housed the Terrell Jacobs Circus Winter Quarters posted the sale on the website Craigslist. The post says the property includes 8 to 10 acres and is “being sold as is” by the owner.
What the post doesn’t say is the property located near the intersection of U.S. 31 and Indiana 218 West was placed on the National Park Service’s Register of Historic Places in 2012.
The land was awarded the designation after the nonprofit organization, Indiana Landmarks, which seeks to protect unique and historically significant properties, placed the Terrell Jacobs barns on its 10 most endangered landmarks list.
And the property is truly one of the most unique landmarks in the state that highlights Peru's deep circus roots.
In 1939, Terrell Jacobs bought the land and built a barn to house the “strange beasts” he had collected, including tigers and lions, according to an article published in 1941 in the Peru Republican.
By that time, Jacobs was known around the world as “The Lion King” and considered the greatest wild-animal trainer of all time by the circus community.
He performed with the biggest circuses in the world, including Ringling Brothers, Barnum & Bailey, and put on a record-setting show involving 52 lions, tigers and leopards in one arena. At one point, Jacobs had the largest wild-animal act in the world.
Jacobs later built another barn on his Miami County land to house and train elephants, along with living quarters for his circus staff and a slaughterhouse to provide meat for his cats.
Eventually, the property became the winter home to some of the country’s leading circuses.
In 1954, Dorothy Kelly and her late husband purchased the quarters for their own circus business. Kelly was also a nationally famous elephant trainer who made appearances on “The Ed Sullivan Show” and performed in circuses all over the country.
The couple eventually transformed the property into a kind of circus theme park complete with rides, shows and a restaurant.
But when Kelly retired, the two barns that played a unique behind-the-scenes role in thousands of national circus shows became unused and idle for more than 30 years.
After time, the buildings fell into decay and became the target of vandals, while inside sat cages decorated with colorful hand-painted murals, a riding ring, a hippo tank and old bunks for performers and staff.
Outside the barns, an elephant graveyard with the bones of more than 10 behemoths were buried and forgotten.
Now, historic-preservation groups and circus enthusiasts worry the sale of the property could further jeopardize that history and lead to the demolition of one of the nation’s most unique circus sites.
Paul Hayden, director of Indiana Landmark’s northeast field office, said although the property is on the national historic registry, the designation doesn’t offer any protection from a developer who might want to tear the buildings down.
And that’s something the current owners don’t want to happen. Hayden said the executor of the estate is a son in the Kelly family, who recognizes the historic value of the land and wants to see it preserved as a circus site.
“He would like to see the buildings kept,” Hayden said. “But he was also very pragmatic to say these buildings are in disrepair. One has collapsed. One needs work. He’s saying, ‘We don’t have the resources to restore it, so let’s see if there’s interest out there from someone who would.’”
Multiple phone calls and emails sent to the family asking for an interview were not returned.
Shirley Griffin, the collections manager at the Miami County Museum and a local circus historian, said the circus community is keeping its fingers crossed that someone who appreciates the property’s historical significance ends up buying it and preserving it.
“The prominent location has served well as an attraction for tourism in the past,” she said in an email. “It very well could be once again with the right ownership and marketing.”
But whether the new owners want to preserve the buildings is yet to be determined. Hayden said chances are slim a developer would be willing to spend what could be millions of dollars to restore the barns and other facilities to their original condition.
He said the best they can hope for is someone buying the property and repurposing the buildings for some kind of business such as a flea market. Since the buildings are on the national registry, a developer could receive a tax credit to help pay for repairs and renovations.
Although using the facilities for a non-circus business purpose wouldn’t be the ideal outcome, it would at least keep them from being torn down, Hayden said.
“That’s where we’re hoping to steer people – to use the property for an adaptive reuse,” he said.
Griffin said the Terrell Jacobs barns are just another example of America’s circus past slowly fading into obscurity. But with the property’s stellar location along a major U.S. highway, she’s hopeful it will live on to see another day.
“Over the years, the deterioration of the two massive barns has been a visual reminder of the sad loss of regard for circus heritage that has afflicted the public for the past decade,” she said. “I have spoken with circus fans and performers who wept at the state of affairs not only here, but throughout the country – but all the while believing the circus magic will someday return.”
Hayden agreed. He said his organization is willing to work with anyone interested in acquiring the property to offer tips and advice on preserving its history.
But if the new owner isn’t interested in that, it could spell doom for the future of the barns.
“It would be a serious loss that we would hate to see,” he said. “It has such a huge, strong tie to the circus community. It’s so unique to the community and the entire Midwest, if not the entire country. The whole concept of circuses is disappearing, and here we have these wonderful remnants that deserve a new life.”