KERRY HUBARTT COLUMN: Part of Indiana’s rich circus heritage in Peru doomed to demolition

Kerry Hubartt

Indiana is rich in history, but I suspect many Hoosiers don’t know much about the state’s circus heritage in the little town of Peru, just west of Wabash.

A story last week by Carson Gerber of the Kokomo Tribune reports that an historic circus barn along U.S. 31 in Peru will be demolished by the Indiana Department of Transportation to make room for a limited access freeway. More about that later.

Peru became the nesting place for big tent circus performances in the 1890s, when Ben Wallace brought his show there to spend the winter. He was followed by other traveling circuses that established winter headquarters just southeast of town as well. By the 1940s, however, circuses began wintering in Florida.

Long known as “Circus City,” now considered the circus capital of the world, the little town of 11,000 has been home to the Peru Amateur Circus since 1960, where, each July, young people put on a show that transforms the downtown into an eight-day festival.

While teaching a news writing and reporting class at IPFW for almost 30 years as an adjunct instructor, there was a particular story, written by Indianapolis Star columnist Dan Carpenter, that I used regularly as a model in teaching how to write descriptively.

It was a column included in his 1993 compilation of writings, “Hard Pieces,” entitled “The Great Wilno,” a story about a former circus performer, W.W. Wilno (born Otto Willi Wiedrich in Dresden, Germany, in 1903), the “Human Cannonball,” who at age 76 was training “young Miami County circus enthusiasts to perform as aerialists in [Peru’s] nationally-renowned three-ring festivals.”

Wilno was world-famous for his spectacular act of being shot out of a cannon, over a Ferris Wheel and into a net 200 feet away. When he retired, he maintained his connection with the circus by settling down in Peru in 1958 and training kids until he died in 1984 in a Fort Wayne hospital.

In the 1950s, Peru revived its heritage by creating Circus City Days, and by 1959, high school students were learning to perform acts. A year later the first Peru Amateur Circus performed in a circus tent. That year, the Circus City Festival Inc. was formed in an attempt to reawaken the area’s rich circus heritage. The area near Peru where circuses wintered is now home to the famous International Circus Hall of Fame.

Now, back to the endangered barn.

INDOT earlier this year bought the land that formerly housed the Terrell Jacobs Circus Winter Quarters, according to the Kokomo Tribune story. It is located on the east side of U.S. 31 near the intersection of Indiana 218 West. The Terrell Jacobs barns were part of the property that was put on the Register of Historic Places in 2012. The nonprofit Indiana Landmarks put the barns on its list of 10 most endangered landmarks.

The barn that is going to be torn down, according to Nichole Hacha-Thomas, media relations director for the INDOT Fort Wayne District, used to house elephants. She told the Tribune it has deteriorated, and 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,” Gerber wrote in his story.

But we hope there is a happy ending in the works.

Paul Hayden, director of Indiana Landmark’s northeast field office, said that while he’s disappointed to see such a unique piece of circus history get demolished, he has hopes the state will provide more funding to help repair the other historic circus barns in that area.

“If INDOT could help with that,” he told the Tribune, “that would be a trade-off we would support.”

Kerry Hubartt is former editor of The News-Sentinel.