From the time of the Romans until the Great Depression, circuses were a major form of entertainment in the world. Much has been written about the more important circuses and their various owners and acts, such as Ringling Brothers of P.T. Barnum, but little has been written about smaller circuses and their cousins, traveling shows. In Michigan, the only major surviving collection in a historical research institution documenting a Michigan-based circus or carnival, or its owners, is this collection, the Pollie Family Papers. The collection documents the life and work of Henry J. Pollie, circus and showman, and his son, John C. Pollie, who began life working in his Dad’s circuses and eventually evolved from traveling showman to concessionaire. The collection documents them and their business associates and family members, and life for circus and carnival show people in Michigan during the 20th century. This is a fabulous collection for documenting the lives of show people during the early teens through the 1930s in Michigan. The collection is divided into the following series:
Pollie Family Photographs and Obituaries (copies), 2 folders; Pollie, Henry J. Business Correspondence, 4 folders; Pollie, Janice, Correspondence (typed by John for her), 1 folder; Pollie, John C.-Account Books, 17 v. (in 10 folders); Accounts, 7 folders; Biographical [high school autographs], 1 folder; Business Correspondence, 3.5 cubic feet (in 7 boxes); Miscellaneous, 1 folder; Personal Correspondence, 8 cubic feet (in 16 boxes); and Subject Files, 5.5 cubic feet (in 11 boxes).
The Pollie Family Photographs (1 folder) and Obituaries (copies) (1 folder) includes what may be Henry and Elvira’s wedding photograph. It is unidentified, but the image of the man is very much like one of Henry in the ads for the Zeidman and Pollie circus. He is wearing a celluloid collar which would likely date it to the early 1900s. The obituaries from Grand Rapids newspapers (copies) are of 1937 (Henry J.); 1943 (Henry); 1957 (K. Bea); 1969 (John C.); and 1937 (Mrs. Maatje Pollie).
Henry J. Pollie’s Business Correspondence consists of 1 folder each from 1925 and 1927, and 1932-1933 (2 folders). The later folders include letters from many show people in the Cetlan and Wilson Shows, Inc. who had recently lost their jobs. In these folders are letters from two Hermaphrodites, “freaks”, palm readers, and members of various acts all desperately seeking employment. The Hermaphrodites are particularly interesting because the one is hired and then notifies a friend Hermaphrodite who also writes asking for employment, again demonstrating how show people, particularly those in the same type of work, stuck together. Some of these letters are to/from Ray M. Brydon, who was the Advance Man for Henry and John. Advance men went to a town before a circus or traveling show arrived and smoothed the way for the show by making sure the contracts were okay and, if necessary, bribing public officials. There is no documentation Henry and John ran a “dirty show” and resorted to bribery, but most show people apparently did. The letters in the series are those specifically addressed to Henry. It is apparent by other correspondence in both the Business and Personal Correspondence series that John typed and composed all of the letters for Henry when the two worked together. This is apparent when one compares letters typed and composed after Henry’s death by John. They are exactly the same as the typed ones Henry signed. This indicates either John typed and composed all the letters in the collection, or he adopted Henry’s style for his own. Since it appears John was the accounts man, it is more likely that he did all the typing and composition of correspondence for both his Dad and himself.
John C. Pollie’s Account Books (17 v.), include Business Accounts, 1926-1929, 1931-1932, 1941, 1950 1955, General Accounts, 1944, 1946, and Personal Accounts, 1942, 1958. The 1926-1927 Account Book is titled “Winter Quarters, Season 1926-1927, Savannah, Georgia” This v. dates to the Henry J. Pollie and Zeidman association. The Pollies, Zeidman, and E.C. Hall are all listed as receiving and holding cash. Cash received and paid is noted daily from Nov. 11, 1926 through April 24, 1927, including to whom, for what, and total amount. Food, equipment, travel, telegrams, fair fees, and other items are listed. This volume proves that the circus wintered down south, as did many circuses in the 1920s. The 1927-1929 volumes (7) are divided by type of activities, ball game, bingo, concessions, truck, trailer, etc. The 1931-1932 v. (2) document Concessions only, showing a huge shift in record keeping and business activity by John since the 1926-1927 volume.
The next series is John C. Pollie, Accounts. These are loose paper accounts of Carnival Games, April-October 1950. They are different in style and have an excessive amount of detail compared to the business accounts he kept for the I.R.S.(7 folders). They are organized by each day in each town of John’s circuit for 1950. He notes the weather, time they opened, free games, the number of games played, the number and types of prizes won, the total amount of money the prizes were worth, and amount of money his employees earned. Examples of prizes won include whistling teakettles, liquor dispenser, cardtable, coldpack canner, blanket, and a large glass lamp.
There is one John C. Pollie Biographical folder for John C. Pollie. It includes seven loose autograph pages entitled “Johnny Pollie’s Book.” It includes autographs and notes from senior high school students who graduated between 1920 and 1925. It probably dates from 1920.
John C. Pollie’s Business Correspondence is the third largest of the series in the collection, 3.5 cubic feet (in 7 boxes). It includes correspondence from the 1920s-1960s. Materials are filed alphabetically by the name of the company or institution (or person) with whom John conducted business. Whichever name John used for filing purposes has been used here. Those people or businesses with whom he corresponded once or a few times are filed alphabetically in the general folders “A”, “B”, etc. The majority of his business correspondence was with people and companies concerning his concession business and chance games. From these companies he ordered supplies for him, his workers, and concessions trailer, or prizes, such as the many he ordered from Wisconsin “Deluxe” Company (Ned Tortni), or with fairs and shows officials and organizations, such as the V.F.W. or Sigma Phi Gamma (Bluffton, Ind.), and the men who booked him with various fairs, such as John Mulder. Some of the correspondence is with people who regularly worked for John in some capacity, often as bingo operators. A small part of the correspondence is related to his car and trailer, and getting them repaired, licensed, or insured, and dealing with accidents, A small amount of the correspondence relates to family physicians, Grand Rapids organizations with whom John was associated, and other companies, like paint and hardware stores where John bought supplies, and advertising from the magazines Bill Board and Big Eli News. Two of the largest subseries in this series are Wisconsin “Deluxe” Company, 1936-1961 (1.5 cubic ft.), and the Fairs/Shows and V.F.W. folders, 1938-1960 [bulk after 1940] (.75 cubic foot). A number of the Business Correspondence folders include catalogs, samples, drawings, orders or receipts for items John needed to operate, such as awnings or painted signs. The folders note the company’s name, name of John’s main contact, what the company sold if it related to the carnival business, and names of his contact’s spouse and children. John maintained close correspondence with virtually all of his business associates, particularly Net Tortni, his booking agents, such as John Mulder, and his contacts for fairs. John regularly received birth announcements from his contacts and maintained a regular holiday card exchange with them and their families. With the Kardell family (Eaton County Fair, Mich.), with whom he and Bea maintained correspondence from 1939 through 1956, it is clear that they were much more than business associates: they were friends. It was to Mrs. Kardell (Karen) that Bea Pollie confided that her Father (Frank Culver) had left and returned to her Mother (letter from Karen to Bea, in Kardell folder, Dec. 16, 1952 (from Banglaore, India). This is not noted in any other correspondence. Mulder and Tortni also were devastated when Bea died, as noted in the biographical section, and sent gifts and food to John and his children for their first, terrible Christmas without her. Yet, they could still threaten John when he fell too far behind with his bills. Also of note is a 1949 thank you from then Representative Jerry Ford, thanking John for signing his nominating petition.
The Miscellaneous includes Bingo Numbers Set Up Diagram and Rules for Drivers, both undated (1 folder).
The largest series is the Personal Correspondence, 1910-1964, which totals 8 cubic feet (in 16 boxes). The Personal Correspondence is filed in alphabetical order by surname, then first name of correspondent. The names of spouses and children follow that of the correspondent. Relatives are noted and multiple surnames for those who married, or remarried multiple times, are also noted, as well as the dates of the correspondence, and their occupation or business if it relates to the circus or carnival business. Those with whom John had only a page or two of correspondence are filed alphabetically by surname in the general folders ‘A’, ‘B’, etc.
This series includes correspondence with John’s immediate family, parents, wife and children, grandparents, cousins, aunts and uncles, as well as many of his friends. Some of these friends were obviously retired from the circus or carnie world, some even had worked for John and Henry in the past, but their correspondence is mainly of a familiar type now, interested in John’s work, but not dependent on him for employment. Also in this series are the letters of the LaVardo, Evans, and Ritter families, with whom John was very close, Elfie Ramsay, and his girlfriends before he married Bea, Phyllis Rae Comrie, and Marie Ritter, as well as two male friends of John’s who served time in the Jackson State Penitentiary, Harry C. Hart, and Al S. Wiser. John wrote to people of all ages. Some of the letters are clearly between him and young children, both cousins and children of friends.
Of special interest is the correspondence between John and his parents. He was obviously close to both of his parents and wrote them often, usually weekly. With his Dad he discusses business often. With his Mother, John noted his schedule, the activities and health of their family and friends, and inquired always about her health, which was never good, and her finances. His mother’s handwriting is quite difficult to read. Her letters always started with “My Dear Son” until he married and they were address to “My Dear Children”. It is easier to understand her writing when you read John’s response to her letters.
When apart, John and Bea wrote almost daily, sometimes several times a day. Bea often sent handwritten postcards detailing where they went, what they did, how the children and her parents were feeling, and what errands she had run, and prizes or equipment she had ordered, shipped, or picked up for John. It is very obvious how important she was to him both in caring for the children and in keeping his business going when he was on the road. The children, Bea, and her parents (Mother) always remembered John on his birthday and for Father’s Day. There are many sweet, adorable handmade cards from the children to their Daddy which are just precious. It is very obvious that John, Bea and the children loved each other very much.
The strength of the collection is the correspondence. John C. Pollie typed voluminous letters almost daily to many show friends and business associates. He appears to have typed these letters both as a necessity to keep in touch with business associates and friends and as a form of stress relief and communication. In one letter he noted that it was 3 a.m. and he was finishing at least his second letter while a third needed to be typed before he could even consider going to sleep. In his correspondence, he writes personally to the recipient of their life and his, mentioning people, events, acts, and places they know in common, the status of his current show, including its location, bills, problems, and acts, his and the show’s finances, debt, the breakdown of vehicles, holidays, and his emotions, family, and dreams. They are full of interesting reading topics, particularly regarding show life and show people. Often he talks about where the show has been, where it is going next, the weather, local people, and any problems they have experienced.
John saved virtually all the business and personal correspondence he received and copies of all the correspondence he typed, as well as receipts, bills, account books, promotional materials and supply catalogs related to his business interests. Some of the correspondence has beautiful letterhead and photographs or illustrations of various shows and show acts. There are also samples of paint colors, tent materials, designs for tents and vehicles, as well as related catalogs of business supplies, particularly prizes for people who won carnival games.
Physically, about half of the collection, mostly his copies of correspondence, in the collection is quite acidic and fragile. Materials that were falling apart or greatly damaged have been photocopied. John usually typed his correspondence on acidic paper, so while it is nicely legible, it is brittle and very brown. The physical state of the correspondence he received varies, but overall, aside from part of it being acidic, most of it is in good physical condition, on various types of paper, with the penmanship, vocabularies, and spelling abilities varying among the writers. Some of the letters and accounts written in pencil instead of ink have smeared.
Processing Notes: The following materials were removed from the collection during processing: miscellaneous Greeting Cards (5 cubic feet); Duplicates and Miscellaneous Materials such as empty envelopes, instructions to complete tax forms, miscellaneous receipts, undated financial notes, and very generic correspondence (3 cubic feet); and Out-of-state periodicals (1 cubic feet). Non-duplicate Michigan publications were added to the Clarke’s collections and individually cataloged (approximately 1 cubic foot).