Long before the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, Central Ohio was home to a menagerie of exotic wildlife.
WOSU's Curious Cbus project recently received a question about one of the more colorful chapters in Columbus history: “I have heard that an area between 5th and 6th Avenues was part of the wintering ground for a local circus. Is that true?”
Yes, it’s true, but the area once known as Sellsville was much larger than that. WOSU TV’s Columbus Neighborhoods told the story of Sellsville and the Sells Brothers Circus in a segment from 2017.
The story begins with four brothers from an area near what is now Dublin. In 1871, Ephraim, William, Lewis, and Peter Sells bought the remains of a bankrupt circus and debuted a new show in downtown Columbus at the corner of State and High Street. The Sells Brothers Circus would travel the county from spring to fall but spent winters on unincorporated land on the west side of the Olentangy River between 5th Ave. and King Ave.
In 1878, the Sells Brothers acquired equipment from another bankrupt circus that included 32 railroad cars. The land's proximity to train tracks made it a perfect location for the circus' staff and animals in the offseason.
In addition to acts like clowns and acrobats, the circus was known for its 50 cages of exotic animals.
On Sundays, the circus would open to local visitors, but some of the Sellsville’s wildest inhabitants were unwelcome visitors in the neighboring communities. There are numerous hair-raising tales of escaped animals—polar bears on the road, monkeys in the yard, elephants tearing the front porch off a house.
It's probably apparent by now that the circus business was tough. Bankruptcies were not uncommon.
That said, competition was fierce, and in the 1890's the Sells Brothers took a financial hit because of a rivalry with the Barnum and Bailey Circus. James Baily eventually bought into the Sells Brothers Circus and it joined forces with another show to become the Adam Fourpaugh Sells Circus—one of the biggest circus shows in the country, along with the Ringling Brothers Circus.
Peter Sells died in 1904 and the entire circus was put up for auction the following year to settle his estate. James Bailey bought the entire lot for $150,000, but quickly turned around and sold half to the Ringling Brothers.
In 1907, the circus left town for the final time and the Sellsville chapter of Columbus history was closed.
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