The Star Beacon; Ashtabula, Ohio

February 26, 2012

Orwell’s man of adventure and the circus

Staff Writer

— 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.

Circus days

 Marshall Hilliard began to settle down in 1867. He married Julia M. Baker that year and a daughter, Zella (Cohien), was born the following year. Also in 1867 Hilliard formed a business partnership with Calvin Reeves. They ran the merchandise business until 1874, when adventure once again tugged at Hilliard’s heart and he formed a mud circus based in Orwell.

His circus consisted of 120 horses and 100 performers. The prize animal of his menagerie was an elephant, which cost $5,100. The collection also included camels, a royal Bengal tiger, lion, hyena, monkeys, birds and snakes.

Marshall, Juliet and Zella departed Orwell in late May of every year and traveled with their show throughout the summer and fall. Animals and wagons were kept on a lot owned by Hilliard, and the performers waited out the winter at Orwell House, a hospitality business popular with traveling entertainers.

Owned by Mr. and Mrs. John Carpenter, Orwell House included a ballroom that doubled as a skating rink. The dances held there made the ballroom famous for miles around and an oyster supper was part of the dance bill.

Up to 65 showmen from Hilliard’s show congregated at the house as they waited for the season to start. The ballroom was converted to sleeping quarters to accommodate the crowd. It was common for Mrs. Carpenter to wash 100 linen napkins after the evening meal, iron them and have them back on the tables for breakfast — plus prepare the food for all those guests.

Hilliard’s Circus accumulated a sizable tab as the performers ate and slept there during the winter months. The Hilliards owed the Campbells $500 when the circus pulled out of town one spring, and the debt was cleared immediately after the first show closed.

There does not appear to be much that differentiated the Hilliard Circus from the many other small shows that traveled the country in the late 1800s. In 1883 Walter Main and Hilliard combined their shows, giving them 114 head of horses and mules, an elephant, two camels and other wild animals. It opened April 28, 1883, presumably in Orwell, and closed Dec. 1, when it went into winter quarters at Chetopia, Kansas.

Hilliard and Main did not make good partners — Main claimed that Hilliard withheld money he was not entitled to and that Main had to carry an inordinate share of the promotion and wintering obligations. When Hilliard’s show opened in 1884, it was the Hilliard, Pullman and Mack show, with Harry Mack and Giles Pullman coming in as one-third partners and Main’s name omitted from the show. It was a miserable season and Main resigned when it closed. The next year, it was the Pullman, Mack and Company Circus.

Hilliard retired from the circus business in 1886, selling his animals and wagons to Ringling Brothers. The circus industry was taking to the rails, the romance of the wagons rolling into town across the old covered bridge, plastered with the show’s colorful posters, was soon replaced by the blast of the locomotive whistle and hiss of steam.

Marshall and Juliet returned to Orwell and purchased the Orwell House from the Carpenters. Their daughter married Israel Cohien, an Austrian immigrant and prosperous merchant in Quaker City. That connection resulted in the Hilliards purchasing the Hotel Beechen in Quaker City, as well.

Both hotels had a good reputation in the trade, with transient rates for a night being $1.50 to $2, which included all modern conveniences and excellent service.

The Hilliards sold the Orwell House in 1906 to W.A. and Adam Green. Its popularity peaked, and then quickly waned. The old building was sold in 1932 for unpaid bills and soon faded into history.

Read more local history at Carl Feather’s blog,