1st in a 5-part series

Do you know about the circus that once came to Rochester and stayed for five years? It wasn't just any circus, mind you, but nearly the country's biggest and best, requiring 35 railroad cars to transport its performers, animals and tents for shows from coast to coast.

A circus based in Rochester is not news to a lot of you, including the dwindling number like me who were present. Yet there must be many others who have little or no knowledge of this stimulating local experience because it all happened more than six decades ago.

So it is for those, or for anyone else who may be interested, that today I begin an examination of that colorful Rochester scene that will continue in subsequent columns. This was the Cole Bros. Circus and it was created in this city. How that came about will be treated shortly, but in 1935 it burst upon the national entertainment stage with a magnitude and magnificence sufficient to challenge the peerless Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey circus for metropolitan attention. For five seasons the Cole extravagancy toured the country out of Rochester, appearing before enthusiastic audiences.

Then its destiny arrived in the form of a spectacular, disastrous, wind-driven fire that destroyed its Rochester winter quarters and many of its exotic animals.

A set of peculiar circumstances led to the creation of Cole Bros. late in 1934 by two longtime friends, Jess Adkins and Zack Terrell, both widely respected as circus managers.

Adkins, 48 years old, had just finished a successful season directing the huge, 50-car Hagenback and Wallace Circus out of Peru, which then was the winter quarters for three separate circuses. Adkins was raised on an Indiana farm near Van Buren in Grant County and had been in the circus business 24 years, starting as an accountant.

Terrell, age 52, had formed a small group of acrobats and animal acts for the Century of Progress exposition in Chicago that had just closed a two-year run. He began his circus career in 1898 as a 16-year-old horse rider, having grown up on a tobacco farm near Owensboro, Ky. At one time Terrell had been part owner of five circuses including the Sells-Floto, also quartered in Peru, which he managed.

Despite the economic depression that was still crippling the country in 1934, each man was determined to have his own railroad show for the following season. Neither could find financing, though, and they decided they might succeed by joining forces. Still, they found no backers.

Then Jess Murden came to their rescue. Murden was a man with many Indiana connections, business and political, who at the time was lobbyist for Indiana's railroads and who was a former director of the Indiana Highway Commission. He had become acquainted with both circusmen in Peru, where he owned the Ford agency. Murden convinced Ernest Morris, president of Associates Investors in South Bend and a circus fancier, that his friends were a good risk. Morris made them the loan.

Suddenly the circus was to be a reality, but if it was to hit the road in 1935 its organization had to begin quickly.

Here Rochester enters the story. Murden owned a summer home on Lake Manitou's southeast shore and was well acquainted with local people and affairs. On September 11, 1934, he brought Terrell here to call upon Hugh Barnhart, the influential publisher of The News-Sentinel.

As Barnhart later recalled, Terrell said he was about to build a new circus and was looking for a suitable place in northern Indiana to locate its winter quarters. Did Barnhart have any suggestions?

He did, and he quickly took Terrell to see it. On the northeast side of the city, at the junction of two railroads, were four buildings that had been abandoned for nearly three years following bankruptcy of the Rochester Bridge Company. Terrell found them ideally suited to housing animals and equipment and offered to organize his circus here if suitable arrangements could be made.

Barnhart's quick survey found local sentiment greatly in favor of inviting the circus. Although the economy had begun a slow rebound from the worst of the Depression, the loss of the bridge company had left Rochester only Armour Creameries and the summer canning factory in its industrial base. The circus might not create much year-around local employment, but its presence would bring wide attention to the city and the goods and services it would require from local business and in agricultural products such as animal feed would be of great benefit.

Barnhart moved rapidly to sew up the deal. He joined with another prominent citizen, A.C. Bradley, owner of the Colonial Hotel at Lake Manitou, and together they quietly bought the ground and buildings from bridge company receivers. Title then was transferred to a holding company. Barnhart, Bradley and Murden would remain intimately involved in circus affairs. Barnhart later became holding company president and both Bradley and Murden were active directors, Murden becoming manager of the circus advertising department.

Suddenly, Rochester had acquired an asset, if not quite an industry, and with no demands being made upon its citizens beyond their support and cooperation. Both were to come in abundance.

Now that the circus had become a fact, it needed a name, and not the Adkins and Terrell Circus, the co-owners decreed. The name finally chosen was Cole Brothers and it always appeared as Cole Bros. on all circus posters, tickets, correspondence and publicity.

Cole was an old and respected circus title originated by William Washington Cole in 1884 with his Cole's Colossal Shows but the title had not been used for more than a decade. Terrell at first rejected it as being too closely identified in the past with small, remote towns. He was reminded that his Cole show was going to be a major one, playing in the big cities. Terrell relented and permission to revive the name was obtained from its last owners. And it became once more Cole Bros. Circus, a name it had assumed around the turn of the century and considered appropriate to reflect its co-ownership.

Now, at last, Adkins and Terrell could bring form to their circus concept.

Published April 16, 2002