John C. Pollie Papers,   1910-1969, and undated
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History

Biography:

Henry J. Pollie, was born about 1872/1873, the son of John C. and Maude Pollie. The Pollies emigrated from the Netherlands to Grand Rapids, Michigan, in late December 1879, arriving in 1880. Henry joined the business due to Doc Frank Flack. According to John C. Pollie, “Doc Frank Flack…owner-manager of the old Northwestern Shows,…put my dad in the carnival business...in the winter seasons Flack came to Grand Rapids and pitched fountain pens in Herpolsheimers’ Dept. store, and often came…for Sunday dinners and brought his office boy, Johnny Reid with him. [This would have been about circa 1917-18. The occasion of this letter was the 1959 death of Reid, the owner of Happyland Shows. This information is from a letter of J. P. to Harley and Menette Mankin, dated October 18, 1959.]

Henry was a concessionaire and showman, working in and operating a number of traveling shows and circuses over a 38-year period. Shows Henry was involved with, as documented in the collection, include: Zeidman and Pollie Shows (William Zeidman and Henry J. Pollie) 1910/11-November 1937; J. Harry Six Shows, 1931; Pollie’s Shows, 1932 (Henry and John C. Pollie); Famous Pollie Shows, 1930s (Henry and John C. Pollie) They tried to book a sideshow with Cetlin and Wilson Shows; Pollie and Scully, 1934 (Henry and Mr. Scully); Pollie and Berger Exposition and Wild Animal Circus, 1935-1937? (Henry and Louis J. Berger); Pollie and Berger Shows, 1935-January 1936 (This is likely the same show as above, minus the wild animals.); Pollie and Latto Shows, [after February 1936-November 1937, Henry and Al Latto]; Pollie Brothers Circus (Henry and John C. Pollie); Pollie’s Greater Shows, undated (Henry and John C. Pollie); Polly and Kenosian Shows, 1937 (Henry and Robert M. “Bob” Kenosian).

Zeidman and Pollie carnival began in 1910/11, according to Z and P Exposition Shows route book for the 1923 season. In November of 1927, Henry split with his partner, William Zeidman. John later recalled in a December 12, 1930 letter to Frank K. Miller, attorney-at-law, that Henry, who had won a number of legal cases over the past twelve years and successfully operated an organization with over 400 employees, had lost only one legal case in his career, prior to dealing with Zeidman. Henry and John thought of Zeidman with the phrase “trusted friends will knife you in the back.” In 1927, Henry Pollie owed $10,000 to one creditor who sued him. It is likely from John’s letter that the creditor was in league with Zeidman to ruin Henry Pollie. The creditor demanded the sale of major show equipment to pay the debt. This included numerous railroad cars, rides, and a Wurlitzer organ, which limited the show’s crowd appeal and ability to make money. Prior to the sale, the Zeidman-Pollie carnival had been billed as the second largest circus on the road. It had traveled in 30 special railroad cars, had a band, wild animals, and numerous acts.

Also, by July 9, 1927, John accepted debt for equipment that he and his partner, Don Elliott, shared in a corn game partnership. The debt of $269.15 was owed to Direct Sale and Service Corp., a carnival equipment supplier. According to John’s letter to the company of July 9, 1927, Elliott walked out on John. One wonders if Elliott was part of the “clique” and the plan was to bring down both Pollies and take over their business circuit.

Sometime after his divorce, Henry married Ossie (nee Toothman) Littleman Pollie, who was a “show woman.” She was born around June 2, 1893 and died between April 31 and May 10, 1936.

Henry and John continued working together until Henry died suddenly on May 12, 1937 in Cassopolis, Michigan, as the result of a car accident. He was survived by his widow, Ossie, his son, John, his mother Mrs. Maude (Maaje) Pollie, three brothers, Alfred, James, and Mitchell, and a sister, Mrs. Joseph (Lizzie) Wieland, all of Grand Rapids, Michigan.

John’s Mother, Elvira “Vira” (Maas) Pollie was born east of Indianapolis on April 26, about 1878, the daughter of Andrew and Milly-Ann Henson. She also worked for years in the shows although exactly what she did is not documented in the collection. In November of 1927 Henry J. and Elvira divorced. At some point after the divorce, Elvira married a Mr. Mendiones. In November 1930, Elvira was arrested in Indianapolis, Indiana. Apparently, she left town while under bond to appear as a witness in a case. What the case was about is not documented in the collection. Lawyer Frank Miller helped her although, much to his frustration, both John and Henry were unable to reimburse him for his services. In his letter to the lawyer, John notes that his mother was easily led by others. This may indicate a level of simplicity of character or naiveté. During the later 1930s and 1940s, Elvira lived in Chicago, Illinois, where she rented a couple of rooms to boarders. Her finances were often limited and John often sent her money, particularly to pay for rented storage space where he stored his show equipment. By December 1943, Elvira apparently married a Mr. Miller. She died suddenly on September 30, 1944, and was survived by her son, John, granddaughter, Janice, and two brothers.

Despite his parents’ divorce, John had a good relationship with both parents. They wrote each other often, often weekly, and John sent his Mother money to help pay her bills whenever she needed help.

John C. “Johnnie” Pollie, was the adopted son of Henry J. and Elvira (Maas) Pollie, was born on April 28, 1905. The fact that he was adopted is noted in family papers which are not part of this collection. He attended schools in Grand Rapids and was a sophomore in Central High School in 1924 (according to the MichGenWebsite for Kent County, and is listed in the Central High School Helios yearbook of 1924 and appears in a 1924-1925 Sophomore Class Photograph.). It is highly likely that he graduated in 1926.

By 1926 John began to concentrate on concessions for himself while helping his Dad. In 1956 he stated in a letter to a potential customer that he had been in the business for 30 seasons.

John moved to Indiana in 1927. He was very close to his Evans relatives and other people from Acton, Indiana. His daughter, Janice, later called Rosa Mae Evans “Grandma Rosie.”

In the 1930s, John worked in and operated small circuses or traveling shows composed of various acts, rides, games of chance, wild animals, freak shows, and food (concessions). John operated bingo, poker, and other games, hired the various acts, booked their scheduled appearances, operated the concession stands, and kept meticulous accounts in a business where every cent mattered. John paid and fed people both during times when the show made money and when it did not, particularly during the Great Depression. If people were not fed, they would leave. Without acts and people to operate the rides and games, the show would collapse. With his Father and other associates, John C. Pollie co/operated a number of small shows that traveled, with the seasons, up and down the coast from Florida to Ontario, Canada, and, in the 1940s and 1950s through the Midwestern and Appalachian states.

John was involved with all of his Dad’s shows (see the list on p.1.). In 1937 he operated Carnival Concession in Acton, Indiana, while operating the Pollie and Kenosian Shows in Grand Rapids. He described his business to the Internal Revenue Service, the I.R.S., then as operating the corn-game, also known as bingo or beano, in Michigan carnivals and fairgrounds each summer.

After his Dad’s death in 1937, John co-operated the Zeigler and Pollie Shows, which was billed as “Michigan’s Modern Midway”, in 1939.

Most of John’s friends and associates were involved, as were their families, with some aspects of his or other traveling shows. Many of these people John corresponded with over the years were involved with family acts, such as high wire or aerialist ladder acts, clowns, dancers, and dancers/rollerskaters, and some of the freak acts, such as Alligator Boy, fire eaters, or hermaphrodites. Because they were all involved in traveling shows, they had similar problems, such as lack of funds, constantly moving, living hand to mouth, and being separated for long periods from their extended families and friends without knowing each others’ whereabouts or addresses. This was a time before computers and email, when phone calls were luxuries. Letters, postcards, and occasionally telegrams for emergencies were how people communicated. This lack of communication led to the abandonment of wives and children and divorces. There was no security in this type of life. People who were hurt were left in hospitals when the show left for another town or state. There was no disability or medical insurance for anyone. Most of the acts John booked were composed of two or three people. Thus, when one member of an act got hurt, ill, left town, was thrown in jail, or died, the act could not be performed. This resulted in act members being fired as a group. The newly unemployed then had to find a temporary job in another show in order to eat. Show people sent the few dollars they could afford to other show friends in need. At least among John’s many friends, there was a strong network of friends who genuinely cared for him and each other.

There were also cases of men who abandoned their families and never visited, communicated with, or financially supported their wives or children, like Henri LaVardo. In the collection there is also documentation of two men who corresponded with John from Jackson State Penitentiary. Henry C. Hart served time in prison from December 1932 through February 1933. He was sad and repentant about his incarceration, particularly noting its impact on his loyal wife, Ruth. His entire correspondence with John spans 1926 through 1938. Alfred S. Wiser, whose extended family corresponded with John, was in prison from May 1931 through May 1933. He was unrepentant and more of a philosopher. His complete correspondence with John spans 1927 through 1934. The reasons why they were imprisoned is not documented in the collection, but according to state records was armed breaking and entry.

There were also constant and continual financial problems with show life. John wrote often to his friends and family members of being in debt due to poor attendance at shows, the economic woes of the 1930s, the attitude of conservatives who limited his ability to run games of chance in their county, and having to get loans to pay to repair the show’s trailers or trucks. Just before May 27, 1933, John’s business associate, Al Wagner, stole all the money the Pollie’s Show had made so far in the season, approximately a month’s worth of income. What was really unconscionable was that Al also stole the contracts listing where the show was booked to perform next. At the time, John only knew the next three towns where his show was booked. As a result, the show was nearly forced to close. John wrote a flurry of letters to friends and associates trying to verify where the show was supposed to perform next, and other letters begging for funds and for extra acts. This situation nearly ruined his reputation as being a good showman to book, which would have bankrupted him and the show. (See letter from John to Cash Miller, May 27, 1933.) This occurred years before the idea of unemployment and four years before the advent of social security.

In another example of the tightness of their accounts, most show people bought their vehicle license plates in Georgia in 1934 and1935 as the state charged $3 for any vehicle plate, regardless of make, model, size, or use. This was the cheapest state in which a person could buy license plates, and residency for a year was waived, so everyone in the traveling show business bought plates there. This added to Georgia’s coffers. John was constantly behind in his payments for many bills, yet always tried to send at least a few dollars to friends and family whose financial situations were worse than his. He had to take advantage of any state or local tax break he could get.

Most of his correspondents were people who had either worked with or for him, or were related to someone who did. John also maintained years of extensive correspondence with certain business associates, either suppliers of equipment and prizes or men who booked dates at fairs and other events. For example, George Kurtz was Pollie’s bingo operator or “caller.” In 1936 he was engaged to Phyllis Comrie who, with her mother, worked the “penny pinch.” John Mulder, a concession-related dealer was married to Kate, who had been one of John’s bingo operator. In the early 1950s, Pollie employed his wife, Bea, and step-mother, Ossie, and prior to 1956 both of John’s children helped picked up balls thrown in at least one of the games. The DeMitchells also helped operate some of the games and King Baile wrote promotional ads. John’s Uncle Howard Henson, who was usually referred to simply as “Howard,” was involved with Zeidman and Pollie Shows in the 1920s. He was always fondly remembered by all the “old crowd” of friends who were in the shows in the 1920s and early 1930s. John and Howard worked together and wrote to each other well through the 1940s. In the 1950s John worked for Mulder. Mulder secured dates and contracts at various shows and events and then hired John to provide concessions, bingo and other games in various cities in Michigan. John’s letters to Mulder are always friendly and polite, but in his letters to relatives and friends John described Mulder as a man who made money and did not share his earnings with his help (i.e. John). By John’s workers, Mulder was sarcastically referred to in letters as the “Great Mulder” who apparently thought he knew everything and was never wrong.

By 1957 numerous laws restricted game concessions, as John noted to the I.R.S. At that time local organizations, often charities, hired John to bring his equipment to their venue where he would train local volunteers to work the games. Thus, John no longer needed to hire his own staff to work for him.

To help pay bills during the fall and winter when he was living in Grand Rapids and could not operate a traveling show or concession, John worked at Kelvinator, 1942-1944, 1947-1954, and then the American Seating Company, 1954-1961. In the 1950s the American Seating Company cut the employees’ pay and hours, which hurt John, and presumably a lot of other employees, financially.

John had several female friends as a young man, including Marie Ritter, his “Pal” and later his “Dearest Pal,” with whom he appeared to fall in love for awhile, especially in 1935 and 1936. Much to Marie’s disgust, she and John were no longer “an item” after 1936. The age difference between them may have had something to do with it. Marie was ten or twelve years younger than John. He may also have been in love with Elfie (Ramsay) Shepherd, with whom he corresponded heavily during the 1930s, particularly in 1936. John also was very good friends with Phyllis Rae Comrie, who graduated in 1936 from high school.

On July 1, 1938, John married K. Bea Culver, the daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Fred Culver. Bea was not a show woman, so how and when they met is a mystery. Perhaps she bought food from him at a fair and they began to talk. Together they had two children: Janice (Pollie) Haralson was born on June 24, 1942, and Curtis J. Pollie on March 27, 1947). Their family life was a happy one. They attended Fountain Street Church each Sunday, where the children were enrolled in Sunday School. John was on the road from April through August usually, and working in town during the fall and winter.

The family lived in Grand Rapids. In 1940 they rented an apartment at 427 Bond Avenue NW and later they moved to an apartment at 437 Coit Avenue. Probably in order to make up for late rent, John rewired a 16-family apartment building for their landlord, Oscar Allen, in 1940. The family later purchased a house at 633 Fairview Avenue NE in 1946.

Bea’s younger brothers were Cole and Donald. The brothers both served in World War II and went to college afterwards, apparently on the G.I. Bill. Donald graduated from Mesick Consolidated Schools (high school) in 1940 and attended S.W. College in Winfield, Kansas in 1948. In 1957 Cole Culver was married to Alene, and they had two children, Colene and Calvin. Cole was the superintendent of Rose Hill Consolidated Schools in Rose Hill, Kansas. At the same time, Donald Culver was married to Joann and had a daughter, Denise. Donald was the superintendent of the Atlanta Community School, Atlanta, Michigan (through 1957), and later served as superintendent of the Montmorency County Board of Education (1958- ).

In the middle of November 1957, Bea was cleaning windows when she fell off a step stool and fell five feet to the ground. She broke her leg about the ankle joint and disconnected her ankle. Somehow, the broken bone went into the ground and she picked up tetanus. Within a few days she developed lockjaw, spasms, and throat paralysis. After two amputations of her leg and various medicines, she died at 9:12 a.m. on November 20, 1957 in Butterworth Hospital in Grand Rapids. John stayed with her at the hospital once she developed complications. He wrote numerous detailed letters to long-time friends about her suffering and how devastated the family was when she died. It is obvious that as much as he had enjoyed typing letters and the necessity of his doing so to promote his business and keep up his network of associates and friends in his business life, that typing letters for John was also a form of relaxation and a way to work out his stress and frustration. In the letters he typed about Bea, John extolled her virtues as a housemaker, dressmaker, baker, teacher and superintendent of Sunday school, President of the elementary and high school PTA, and chair of the neighborhood improvement association. He also noted that she had skillfully managed the concessions for him when he had to work at American Seating Company. Hundreds of people attended her funeral at Fountain Street Methodist Church and the florists were overwhelmed with requests for floral tributes. Bea was buried on Saturday, November 23, 1957 in Rosedale Memorial Park in Grand Rapids. She was survived by her parents, Mr. and Mrs. Frank Culver, her husband, children, two brothers, Cole L. and Donald L. Culver and their families, her maternal grandparents, two nieces and a nephew.

Janice was fifteen-years-old and Curtis was ten-years-old when their mother died. At the time, Janice attended Central High School and Curtis was in 5th grade at Coit School. It is another testament of John’s personality that two of his oldest business associates, Ned Torti of Wisconsin “Delux” Corporation and John Mulder of Mulder Concession Company of Deluxe Games were so shocked when they heard of Bea’s death that they sent Christmas care packages of gifts and food to him and his children along with heartfelt notes. Letters of good advice for the kids, encouraging them to do well in school and help their father, came regularly from both Alene and Joann Culver following Bea’s demise. A really good letter detailing John Pollie’s financial problems and living arrangements with the family following Bea’s death is in the Cole Culver folder, dated 1958.

Janice and John shared the housework after Bea died. The children were strongly encouraged by John to do the best they could in school and participate in extra-curricular activities, particularly Sunday school. Bea’s health care and funeral bills nearly impoverished the family. John bemoaned the fact that they had numerous bills they simply could not pay and that it would be June [1958] before he could earn more money through concessions. Besides his regular and concession job, John built concession stands for his business associate, Mulder, presumably to pay off some of his debt to Mulder. (A good letter John wrote in 1962 to his cousin, Inez Millspaugh, describes this activity as well as the situations of family and friends.)

After graduating from high school, Janice attended Grand Rapids Community College for two years and graduated from Michigan State University in 1964. She married a Mr. Quint who joined the Marines when they were engaged. Janice worked as a first grade teacher. Curtis Pollie married Marcia and had two children. In 2009, he lived in White Cloud.

During his life, John was generous to his friends, family, and workers with pay and emotional support. He also donated regularly to a wide variety of Christian, charitable, youth, and health research organizations, which is documented by his charitable contributions receipts. In 1946 he wrote to one friend that he had just run the funding campaign for the Grand Rapids Fraternal Order of Police, with whom he had a long positive relationship.

John saved everything documenting personal and business expenses. He had very organized accounts of his concessions by day, town, worker, games won, and supplies. John was a nightmare scenario for the I.R.S. He could prove everything.

John C. Pollie died on or shortly before May 29, 1979 and was buried in Rosedale Memorial Park, Grand Rapids.