Yesterday's News

Bears were local attraction for years

By FRANK BOYETT, The Gleaner
December 4, 2005

The Great Depression permanently ended Henderson's long flirtation with establishing a zoo.

Humans have always been fascinated by wild animals, especially those large carnivores that can effectively rebut mankind's boast of being the tip-top of the food chain. Bears, for instance.

Not too many years after Central Park was transformed from the public square into a bona fide city park, a process that took place 1884-87, bears were kept there for the amusement of the public. Records in the city clerk's office aren't clear on exactly when they were acquired, or how many were kept there, but they use the plural "bears," and show that by May 7, 1895, there was a move afoot to remove them.

On that date the Henderson City Council authorized Park Commissioner A.B. Hart to use his discretion whether to sell the animals kept at Central Park.

That didn't happen, however, until 1901. On June 18 of that year, according to city records, the Park Commission asked the city council for permission to remove the bears from Central Park. On July 2 the Park Commission reported it had sold the bears for $20.

But getting rid of bears in Central Park only led to their re-appearance in Atkinson Park two decades later.

Again, city records aren't real clear on when it occurred, but the city had obviously acquired a bear and was keeping it at Atkinson Park by the early 1920s because it escaped in late March of 1923. Yellowstone National Park had donated the bear to the city, apparently because it was causing trouble at the national park.

It caused trouble here, also. After escaping one day, it chased its keeper into its cage (who slammed the door shut barely in time to avoid becoming the blue plate special), tore apart some beehives, and then terrorized the dogs in Fishtown, according to a story in The Gleaner. It was eventually trapped in a sewer at the foot of Eighth Street and recaptured after a night of freedom.

Several years later the city acquired another bear and conducted a contest among local school children to see what the bears should be named. The female was named Virginia and the male was named Dare, in honor of the first child born in North America of European parents. (Or so it was thought at the time.)

But the attempt to create three bears where there had been only two was brought to a close by the onset of the Great Depression.

Seventy-five years ago -- on Dec. 8, 1930 -- Mayor William T. Barret suggested that the Atkinson Park bears be disposed of, according to a story in The Gleaner. His motion, however, failed to get a second.

"Mayor Barret pointed out that it is costing the city more than $300 a year to feed the bears, and that the foxes and raccoons in Central Park will have to be moved due to complaints by residents of that section."

Barret suggested getting rid of the bears and putting the smaller animals in the bear cage at Atkinson Park.

The Henderson City Commission, however, was reluctant to act without first hearing what the public thought. That prompted the newspaper to urge citizens to write letters to The Gleaner's "Bear Editor" and express their sentiments. "This would evidently assist the city officials in obtaining the information they want."

As near as I can determine, only three letters were ever sent to the "Bear Editor." Two favored getting rid of the bears, while another said they should be kept.

H.C. Woodring said the bears provided a useful attraction that helped keep people in Henderson -- as opposed to the zoo in Evansville -- which was well worth the cost.

Mrs. Whitlow Mulmansteadt, however, said the bears served no useful purpose and "it is an expense to the city that is not justifiable."

Mr. and Mrs. W.E. Bottorff agreed: "In regard to Virginia and Dare, we say dispose of them and give what it takes to keep them to the poor."

According to an item by local historian Maralea Arnett, which The Gleaner published Feb. 8, 1976, "in 1932 Mayor Barret put both bears up for sale as an economy move."

And there ends the bear tale.

100 years ago

Construction of a freight depot for the L&N Railroad, which still stands trackside between Adams and Alves streets, was well under way, according to a 1905 article in The Gleaner. Construction of a new depot was necessary because the old one, which dated to about 1870, had been destroyed by fire June 20, 1905.

50 years ago

The first local 18-year-olds registered to vote Nov. 10, according to a 1955 article in The Gleaner.

Sammy Joe Shelton was the first, not because he wanted to be a trailblazer, but because he thought it was the right thing to do. He was quickly followed by Mary Edith Forester (now Pritchett) and Judy Zehner (now Billings). The 1955 general election had approved an amendment to the state constitution giving 18-year-olds in Kentucky the right to vote.

25 years ago

Methodist Hospital graduated its first class of nine paramedics, according to a 1980 article in The Gleaner.

The first paramedics here were Paul Amy, Jerry Church, Daris DeWitt, Neil Kellen, Dave Matthews, Mike Medcalf, Dave Ormond, Mike Williams and Steve Young.


Contributed by Netta Mullin, HCH&GS
Copyright 2006 HCH&GS