Henry and John Pollies owned circuses and carnivals from at least 1910-1930s. John Pollie worked as a concessionaire with games of chance in carnivals, 1930s-1960s. Their business and personal life is wonderfully documented in the Papers of John C. Pollie, 1910-1969, and undated in 17.5 cubic ft. (in 36 boxes) in the Clarke Historical Library. It is the only collection of a carnival man’s papers in existence in a public institution. It documents circus, carnival, especially the 19-teens when there was a period of much change in carnivals, the Great Depression, the history of people in MI and Grand Rapids, personal relationships with friends and a loving family and business relationships with circus and carnival people.
John kept every letter, postcard, invitation, or form he received and he kept a copy of everything he typed and mailed out. John also saved everything documenting personal and business expenses. He had very organized accounts of his concessions by day, town, worker, games won, and supplies.
John Pollie has a very unique voice in his letters and among archival collections. He was a very good, kind, caring person. His letters read as if he is talking directly to you over a cup of coffee. He typed like he talked, a mile a minute, covering many topics usually in each letter he typed.
Henry J. Pollie (1872-1937) was the son of John C. and Maude Pollie, who emigrated from the Netherlands to Grand Rapids in 1880. As a young man, Henry lived in TX. Henry, often called Jorge, was a concessionaire and showman. Shows Henry owned or co-owned, as documented in the collection, include:
Zeidman and Pollie Shows (Walter Zeidman and Henry J. Pollie) 1910-Nov. 1937
J. Harry Six Shows, 1931
Pollie’s Shows, 1932 (Henry and John C. Pollie)
Pollie & Scully, 1934 (Henry and Mr. Scully)
Pollie and Berger Exposition and Wild Animal Circus, 1935-1937? (Henry and Louis J. Berger)
Pollie & Berger Shows, 1935-Jan. 1936 (This is probably the same show as above, minus the wild animals.)
Pollie and Latto Shows, [after Feb. 1936-Nov. 1937, Henry and Al Latto]
Pollie Brothers Circus (Henry and John C. Pollie)
Pollie’s Greater Shows, undated (Henry and John C. Pollie)
Polly & Kenosian Shows, 1937 (Henry and Robert M. “Bob” Kenosian)
Famous Pollie Shows, 1930s (Henry and John C. Pollie)
In November of 1927, Henry split with his partner, Walter Zeidman. Henry and John thought of Zeidman with the phrase “trusted friends will knife you in the back.” Henry owed $10,000 to a creditor who sued him. The creditor was likely in league with Zeidman to ruin Henry. The creditor demanded the sale of major show equipment including 30 railroad cars, rides, and a Wurlitzer organ.
In 1927, Henry divorced his wife, Elvira. He later married Ossie (nee Toothman) Littleman (1893-1936), a “show woman.” Henry and John worked together until Henry in 1937.
John’s mother, Elvira “Vira” Henson (ca.1878-1944), was the daughter of Andrew and Milly-Ann Henson, farmers in Acton, IN, part of the large Evans clan. Vira also worked in shows, although exactly what she did is undocumented. After 1927, Vira married a Mr. Mendiones, and later, a Mr. Miller.
John C. “Johnnie” Pollie (1905-1979), was the adopted son of Henry J. and Elvira Pollie. He attended Central High School in Grand Rapids and probably graduated in 1926.
Like his Dad, John was a concessionaire and showman. He worked with his Dad until Henry died in 1937. While working, John befriended many of the adults who were employed by his father, and their children. He maintained correspondence with these friends and family members throughout his life.
By 1926 John concentrated on concessions. In 1927 he moved to IN. He was very close to his relatives and friends there. Despite his parents’ divorce, John maintained a good relationship with both parents. They wrote each other often, often weekly.
In the 1930s, John worked in and operated small traveling shows composed of various acts, rides, games of chance, wild animals, freak shows, and food (concessions). He operated bingo, poker, ball and corn games (bingo or beano), 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 Dad and other associates, John operated games after the 1930s, mostly in MI and IN.
John was involved with all of his Dad’s shows. In 1937 he operated Carnival Concession in Acton, IN, while operating the Pollie & Kenosian Shows in Grand Rapids. He described his business in 1937 as operating the corn game, also known as bingo or beano, in MI carnivals and fairgrounds each summer.
After his Dad’s death in 1937, John operated the Zeigler & Pollie Shows, which was billed as “Michigan’s Modern Midway,” in 1939. With the Great Depression, the show failed.
While 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, such as Ned Torti of Wisconsin Delux, or men who booked dates at fairs and other events. John Mulder, a concession-related dealer was married to Kate, who had been one of John’s bingo operator. 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 MI.
The Pollies lived in Grand Rapids. John worked year round at Kelvinator, 1942-1944, 1947-1954, and the American Seating Company, 1954-1961. He left work on Friday night and drove to wherever he needed to be for the weekend carnival and drove back to Grand Rapids on Sunday night. Before the carnival opened he would go somewhere, drink coffee and type. On July 1, 1938, John married K. Bea Culver, the daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Fred Culver. They met in Red Lyon when John was typing at a restaurant where Bea was a waitress. Together they had two children: Janice (1942-), and Curtis (1947-). Their family life was a happy one. They attended church regularly and John and Bea were active in PTA. John’s wife and children also worked games for John, sent him supplies, and Curt and his Dad cleaned, repaired, wired, and fixed all the equipment. John was a clever carpenter, creating games of chance and taffy sales booths that were his own design and items that folded up neatly, such as ladders, counters, etc. that took up minimum space for convenience while traveling. Bea was a great help to John in the business in many ways.
In 1957, Bea was cleaning windows when she fell five feet to the ground. She broke her leg about the ankle joint and developed tetanus. She died after several surgeries on November 20, 1957 in Grand Rapids. John stayed with her at the hospital. He wrote numerous detailed letters to long-time friends about her suffering and how devastated the family was when she died. John extolled Bea’s many virtues. Hundreds of people attended her funeral. John never looked at another woman again.
Janice was 15 and Curt 10 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 and John Mulder 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.
Janice graduated from Michigan State University in 1964 and taught. Curtis Pollie married and had two children, Brian and Marcia. Curtis Pollie currently works in the recreational vehicle industry.
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 charities.