My dad loved music, especially marches and ragtime, and he always wanted to play in a circus band. One day in the late 1980s, the stars lined up in his favor as a member of the Mizpah Shrine band, and he got to play at the Shrine Circus at the coliseum in Fort Wayne. As best I can tell, various chapters of the Shriners, a fraternal organization, went out and hired a circus as a fundraiser for their charitable contributions and causes.
My mom, sister, and family took their seats in portable bleachers a couple rows up from floor level of the coliseum and watched the show for a while before mom, sitting at the end of the row, noticed that their seats were right next to the staging area for the animals, wagons, and props that would appear in the next act. About ten feet away in the aisle was a gigantic bengal tiger, caged at the top of a cart and waiting to go out to the circus ring!
Wanting the rest of the family to see the beast, Mom eagerly turned to her left to get their attention. As she did and, unbeknownst to her, the tiger shifted its position. As everyone turned to gawk at the snarling tiger, they were nearly met with facefulls of tiger pee as it shot an enormous, Ghostbusters-worthy stream out at them. Ever since then, my mom’s always told me that it’s impolite to stare.
When I was a kid, I thought the circus was cool. I went a couple of times as a kid, but never experienced anything as crazy as having a tiger nearly spend a penny on me. My memories of the Shrine Circus in Fort Wayne are pretty hazy, but Peru, Indiana, the seat of Miami County, keeps those memories alive. As the former winter headquarters for acts like Ringling Brothers, Hagenbeck-Wallace, and Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show among others1, Peru, seat of Miami County, calls itself the Circus Capital of the World,. Among the county’s fifteen sites listed in the National Register of Historic Places, one is the Wallace Circus and American Circus Corporation’s winter headquarters, which holds the International Circus Museum today. Another listing is the 1910 Miami County Courthouse.
It might not be obvious from a glance at the three-story, neoclassical building, but the courthouse has always reminded me of a circus- and not just because it’s where Hagenbeck and Wallace (or some of their flunkies) paid their property taxes. You’ve got to step back to see it, but the building’s massive, squarish dome looks a little bit like a circus tent- at least to my eye.
Maybe that’s a bit of a stretch, but there aren’t any other similar courthouse domes in the state. This one is four-sided, steel-framed, and decked with boards coated in sheeted copper. Though the dome would appear semi-circular viewed head-on at elevation, its distinct corners are what drive home its tent-like appearance to me. Above the dome is low-profile, copper-sheathed lantern.
The building underneath the unique dome is Miami County’s fourth. The seat moved to Peru in 1835 from the adjacent Miamisport, when Peru’s proximity to the Wabash River, the Mississinewa, and the Wabash & Erie Canal became too much for officials to ignore. There was a little bit more to the story, though- as Peru was only about a mile east of Miamisport. During the construction of the canal, Peru’s stakeholders bribed its engineer with a third of the town’s land and the understanding that he’d construct a canal feeder dam to benefit Peru, rather than Miamisport. The engineer made the deal and was brought to court, but managed to evade any consequence2.
Despite shady dealings by town officials, everything else went as planned. Peru’s first courthouse, a brick building, was built in early 1843, but burned down just months afterwards. Two temporary buildings were put into use over the next several years until a third courthouse could be constructed in 18583, just as the railroads made their way to town. That courthouse went through an extensive renovation in the 1870s, around the time that American circuses really started to take off, taking advantage of Peru’s place of commercial prominence due to the railways.
Peru -and Miami County in general- blew up with the success of the circuses that wintered there. Up to 40,000 people inundated the city’s streets when circus season started up each year, an event greeted with school closures, parades, and special performances4. To some historians, it seems like the entire area just shut down- except for the winter grounds southeast of town. Through it all, the courthouse stood tall as a passive observer to the festivities.
During the summer of 1905 -the height of circus season- area residents petitioned officials to build a new courthouse. The county council made funds available through a bond issuance, and by fall, commissioners began to solicit bids from architects. By December, they’d selected Cleveland architects Lehman and Schmitt. Everyone seemed excited for the new courthouse, except the Miami County Auditor, who objected and filed multiple injunctions in Cass County to try and stop the project5.
As they sometimes do, commissioners kept the project going, demolishing the old courthouse and temporarily relocating to the town’s old Presbyterian Church. Although the project was intended to take only twenty-six months, the rogue auditor’s injunctions added five months to the construction timeline6.
Every now and then, some interesting statistics from an old courthouse’s construction process pop up. Some examples: the foundation of the Miami County Courthouse was built from 2,500 cubic yards of concrete. Its walls consist of 1.8 million brick faced with 300 railcar loads of Bedford limestone. The building’s 18,000 square feet of marble flooring came from Tennessee. 6,000 additional square feet of white marble found around the building came from Georgia7.
Today, the courthouse is pretty close to what was originally constructed, though it’s on its third elevator8 and some rooms have been partitioned. In 1995, the building underwent a $3 million renovation to fix a leaky skylight, replace all the windows, clean the exterior limestone, and refurbish the master clock9. The clock soon ceased working again, though, and by 2001, commissioners considered removing the leaky dome altogether. Thankfully, the dome was restored10, hopefully the last time it needs it.
Though the courthouse is in arguably better shape than it was when originally built, the same couldn’t be said for Peru’s circus history for a long time. The Great Depression and advent of the automobile did the circus industry dirty, and the last Peru circus toured in 1938. Three years later, winter circus headquarters closed for good.
But the 1990s weren’t just good for the community’s courthouse. In 1987, a group purchased the old winter grounds, and got it listed on the National Register of Historic Places the same year. The buildings reopened as the International Circus Hall of Fame five years later, in 1992. More than twenty-five years later, the hall of fame is still open for business, and the town holds the annual Peru Amateur Circus, where two-hundred area youth11 perform in a three-ring arena, as part of their Circus City Festival. Nearby, the courthouse still stands as a backdrop to the big top. Maybe not all that much has changed in Peru.
Miami County (pop. 36,903, 44/92)
Peru (pop. 11,417)
Cost: $300,000 ($7.7 million today)
Architect: Lehman & Schmitt
Style: Neoclassical/Beaux Arts
Courthouse Square: Shelbyville Square
Height: 3 stories
Current use: County offices and courts
1 Adkins, Kreig. Peru: Circus Capital of the World. Mount Pleasant, SC. Arcadia Publishing Company. 2009. Print.
2 Enyart, David. “Miami County” Indiana County Courthouse Histories. ACPL Genealogy Center, 2010-2018. Web. Retrieved March 25, 2019.
3 National Register of Historic Places, Miami County Courthouse, Peru, Miami County, Indiana, National Register # 08000194.
4 Hice, Jessica “Circus tents may be folding, but the Peru Circus Hall of Fame aims to persevere” The Indianapolis Star [Indianapolis]. June 29, 2017. Web. Retrieved March 25, 2019.
5 Indiana Landmarks (2013). Miami County. Indiana. Indiana Landmarks. Web. Retrieved March 25, 2019 from http://indianacourthousesquare.org.
6 Arthur L. Bodurtha, ed. History ofMiami County, Indiana, Vol. 1 (Chicago and New York.The Lewis Publishing Company, 1914. Print.
7. Ginney, Tim. Miami County Courthouse construction sheet. Courthouse Miscellaneous file. Miami County Museum. 2019.
8 Article, The Peru Daily Chronicle [Peru]. February 13, 1911. Print.
9 “Courthouse skylight repairs approved” The Peru Tribune [Peru]. October 11, 1995. Print.
10 “Making time” The Peru Tribune [Peru]. July 13, 2000. Print.
11 “Circus City Festival” FestivalNet: Asheville. Web. Retrieved from https://festivalnet.com/12400/Peru-Indiana/Festivals/Circus-City-Festival, March 25, 2019.