PERU – The Indiana Department of Transportation is demolishing an historic but dilapidated circus barn along U.S. 31, in preparation for making the highway a limited-access freeway.
INDOT earlier this year purchased the land that formerly housed the Terrell Jacobs Circus Winter Quarters, located on the east side of U.S. 31 near the intersection of Indiana 218 West.
The property was placed on the Register of Historic Places in 2012 after Indiana Landmarks, a nonprofit that seeks to protect unique and historically significant properties, placed the Terrell Jacobs barns on its 10 most endangered landmarks list.
Now, just six years after being listed on the National Register, one of the barns is being demolished.
Nichole Hacha-Thomas, media relations director for the INDOT Fort Wayne District, said the barn that used to house elephants is being torn down “in the interest of public safety.” The structure is deteriorated and the most of the roof has caved in.
The move marks the end of one of the most unique pieces of circus history in the country that highlights Peru’s deep connection to the big top.
The history of the property dates back to 1939, when Terrell Jacobs bought the land and built a barn to house the “strange beasts” he had collected, including tigers, lions and leopards, 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 Bros., 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. The barns also housed hippos and monkeys. Eventually, the property became the winter home to some of the country’s leading circuses.
Over the years, the 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.
Paul Hayden, director of Indiana Landmark’s northeast field office, said INDOT is now clearing out and collecting any historic items from the property and giving them to the International Circus Hall of Fame, located east of Peru off of Indiana 124.
Although the elephant barn has been pegged for demolition in the near future, the fate of the other structures is still pending.
INDOT’s Hacha-Thomas said the state currently is going through an historical and environmental review process to determine an appropriate course of action, as well as timing, for the removal of the remaining buildings.
But it may not be all bad news for Peru’s historic circus properties.
When the state uses taxpayer money to significantly alter or demolish a historic property, the move triggers a “mitigation process” to make up for the loss of that history.
Hayden said that process is happening now between INDOT and the Indiana Department of Historic Preservation and Archeaology. He said the hope is the state will provide more funding to help repair the other historic circus barns located at the International Circus Hall of Fame, which used to be the winter quarters for some of the largest circuses in the world.
“The people at the Circus Hall of Fame are doing great things right now at their property,” Hayden said “… If INDOT could help with that, that would be a tradeoff we would support.”
The move by INDOT to purchase the historic property comes as the state pushes forward with making U.S. 31 a limited-access highway. The property is located near a busy intersection just north of Grissom Air Reserve Base, and has a small entrance road that provides the only access to the barns.
Hacha-Thomas said purchasing the land will allow INDOT to control access to the highway in the future.
Gov. Eric Holcomb announced in September that two intersections on U.S. 31 in Miami County are set to be transformed into full-on interchanges as part of a new $190 million plan that will continue to turn the highway into a freeway.
Those interchanges will be at Indiana 18, located near the Howard-Miami county line, and Business U.S. 31, just west of Peru.
Paul Diebold, assistant director of preservation services with the Department of Historic Preservation and Archaeology, said the decision by INDOT to buy the historic property is rare.
He said he’s worked in historic preservation for the state for around 30 years, and only seen the transportation agency purchase historic properties as part of a road project a handful of times.
“It’s pretty extraordinary for INDOT to buy these properties,” Diebold said. “They avoid doing it at all costs, so they felt they really needed to purchase this property in this instance.”
Indiana Landmark’s Hayden said he understands why INDOT needs the property, but it’s still disappointing to see such a unique piece of circus history get demolished.
“It’s unfortunate,” he said. “We understand why they need to do it, but we need to see something positive come from this outcome … The biggest loss is the fact that these barns are so highly visible on U.S. 31. Thousands of people drive past them every day. The ones that everyone seems to know are the ones that are going away.”