The Greatest Show
No signs mark the Terrell Jacobs Wild Animal Circus Winter Quarters, just off U.S. 31 in Miami County. Every day, thousands of daily commuters on the highway pass a hulking pair of old barns across from the Grissom Aeroplex, but most are unaware of barns’ history. Or for that matter, that they will likely soon be gone.
Terrell Jacobs won fame as the “Lion King,” for his record-setting act involving 52 lions, tigers, and leopards in one arena. In a Ringling Bros./Barnum & Bailey poster of the 1930s, a dapper bow-tied Jacobs appears with upraised crop, surrounded by roaring lions.
Jacobs worked for several well-known circuses and as an independent act before starting his own short-lived circus in Peru. At one time, his property contained a cat barn, an elephant barn, a slaughterhouse, a bunkhouse for staff, a cook’s shed, and an octagonal diner with a striped roof to suggest the appearance of a circus tent.
Today, the two barns are all that remain of the original complex. Jacobs kept six elephants in the large U-shaped elephant barn, built in 1940. In the more elaborate cat barn, lion and monkey cages line the walls, with painted decoration by Art Johns.
The property changed hands in the 1950s and continued to host circus acts for another 20 years. In the 1970s, interest in circuses waned, and the venue closed, its owner auctioning off its artifacts and memorabilia.
In 2009 their declining condition landed the Jacobs barns on Indiana Landmarks’ 10 Most Endangered list. We helped nominate the property to the National Register, making it eligible for historic rehabilitation tax credits in hopes of attracting a buyer who could revive the property. No buyer came forward, and without the much-needed repairs, the barns continued to deteriorate. A portion of the elephant barn’s roof collapsed; vandals and rot have taken a toll on the cat barn.
The Indiana Department of Transportation (INDOT) acquired the property recently to make highway improvements, effectively cutting off the barns from the roadway. With no direct access, the barns are even more unlikely to attract investors. INDOT received approval from the Division of Historic Preservation and Archaeology to remove the precarious elephant barn and plans to request permission to demolish the cat barn, too. Losing the last two Jacobs circus barns will mark a sad end to unique landmarks that played an important behind-the-scenes role in shows enjoyed nationwide.
As part of the approval for the demolition of the National Register-listed property, INDOT will work with the nearby International Circus Hall of Fame to help fund much-needed repairs to its historic buildings, current entries on our 10 Most Endangered list.
For more information, contact Paul Hayden, director of Indiana Landmarks’ Northeast Field Office, 260-563-7094, firstname.lastname@example.org.
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