The Star Beacon; Ashtabula, Ohio


February 26, 2012

Orwell’s man of adventure and the circus

There must be something in the blood of Scotsmen that makes them successful as circus owners.

Walter L. Main, Ashtabula County’s most famous circus owner, had parents of Scotch ancestry. And so were Isaac and Sarah (Hunt) Hilliard, the parents of Marshall M. Hilliard, owner of the eponymously named circus.

Isaac Hilliard was a harness maker who migrated from Vermont to Ashtabula County in 1836. They settled in Orwell, where Isaac practiced his trade.

Marshall was the most noticeable of the couple’s 11 children, with the possible exception of Frank P., who was the sheriff of Yazoo City, Miss. Frank was shot and killed while serving at the courthouse.

Marshall was born Aug. 26, 1830, in Vermont. He was educated in Orwell and learned the harness-making trade from his father. At the age of 22, Marshall responded to the call of the California Gold Rush and spent the next eight years mining, building tunnels and hydraulic work.

It was while in California that he developed the theatrical flair that blossomed into circus ownership back in Ohio. Further, Marshall demonstrated a good sense of business. He loaned money with an interest rate of 2.5 percent a month and used his earnings to speculate on other ventures.

Back in Ohio, Marshall and his brother Frank went into business in Orwell. That venture created a need for cotton from the South, and in December 1863 the intrepid brothers headed into enemy territory with diamonds in their pockets for currency.

According to Marshall’s diary of the journey, he was arrested on several occasions and held by the Confederates. He was taken prisoner at Yazoo City and eventually imprisoned in a stockade in Demopolis, Miss. His diary describes miserable conditions: “We drew sour molasses for breakfast and they made me sick all day.” — May 27, 1864. “Most all of the boys could not sleep at all and had to walk and dance to keep warm.” — March 15, 1864.

Prisoners received “very bad beef for breakfast” and the foul food often resulted in gastrointestinal distress.

On July 24, 1864, Marshall made this entry: “I broke out of Prison at Meridian Miss last night at 9 o’clock.” The fugitives headed north, stealing chickens for sustenance and escaping a pack of hounds. After more than a week on the run, he encountered Union soldiers and took an oath of loyalty on Aug. 5, 1864. Hilliard headed north along the waterways, eventually reaching his home in the fall of 1864.

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