In 2006 in my job as Archivist of the Clarke Historical Library I took some papers out of a box of unprocessed papers and read them. I was instantly captivated by the voice of the writer of the letters, Grand Rapids concessionaire John Pollie. John Pollie has a very unique voice of all the manuscript collections I have worked with in 20 years and in 3 states. His voice comes across clearly in his writing. He had humor, kindness, a great sense of community and friendship. He was honest, hardworking, and loved his wife and children. And, he knew a lot of very interesting people in circus, carnival, Grand Rapids, Michigan and Indiana. After about three hours my legs
went numb from sitting on the concrete floor of our stacks area reading John’s letters. I knew then I would process (organize, refolder, rebox, research, create a guide or finding aid) to his papers next, and I did. I also knew the collection was a gold mine and had great potential to become publications, presentations, and an exhibit, maybe even a PBS special.
I started reading about all the people John and his father, Henry Pollie, knew and worked with from the turn of the century until the 1960s. John handled all of the arrangements for the circus and carnivals they owned, including Zeidman and Pollie. John corresponded at length and in great detail with sometimes three generations of the same families in the business of entertainment and his relatives. He knew or worked for all the major carnival people in Michigan. John kept a copy of all of his outgoing correspondence and every letter, postcard, and business-related paperwork that was mailed to him. This began my interest in researching some of the amazing people John knew and as well as John himself. My research led to my sabbatical, my national juried presentation, my exhibit in the Clarke called “Rides and spangles: Michigan circuses and carnivals” and a book, which is in process to be published by Michigan State University on the history of Michigan circuses. After that, I plan on writing a book on Michigan carnival history.
John was a wonderful, kind hearted, good man. In reading his letters I felt as if he was talking to me across a table while we sipped coffee (John) and chai tea (me). I sincerely wish I could have known him. His collection is the only know collection of manuscript letters of a carnival man of the 20th century known to exist in a public institution. As such it provides a unique look into the life, mind, and heart of a 20th century Michigan carnival man who once co-owned a circus with his Dad. It documents the changes in carnival in the 20th century in Michigan, and in the U.S. The collection totals 34 boxes (17.5 cubic feet), 1910-1969. The finding aid for the collection is available at the Clarke. John’s son, Curt Pollie, allowed me to scan the remnants of John’s extensive photograph collection.
This electronic catalog is representative of the exhibit in the Clarke Sept 2009-January 2010 and includes images from Curt Pollie and my collection. Certain museum items and images were loaned from other institutions and are not shown here.
I hope you enjoy the online catalog for this exhibit. If you have any questions or comments, please do not hesitate to contact me. I would also like to thank my relatives, friends, neighbors, archival, library, and museum colleagues, fellow faculty, students, and friends in the carnival and circus world, who helped make the exhibit and my research an ongoing success. Also, a very special thanks to Pat Thelen and Devon Bleibtrey who technically made this e-catalog happen.
Archivist and Assistant Professor, Clarke Historical Library