Fairmount Park & Duluth’s Zoo

Bessie the elephant, ca. 1929, shortly after she arrived at the Duluth Zoo within Fairmount Park. [Image: University of Minnesota Duluth Kathryn A. Martin Library Archives and Special Collections]

A Zoo is Born

About the same time the city purchased the land for Fairmount Park, other cities throughout the country were creating “zoological gardens” to house wild and exotic animals. Duluth’s leaders—always in competition with Chicago—usually followed the latest trends, but surprisingly, Duluth did not have a municipal zoo until 1923.

Several small, privately maintained animal parks existed in Duluth as early as 1905. In the eastern end of town, Mr. L. A. Gunderson, proprietor of the Lester Park Pavilion, briefly kept several bears and deer that had been captured nearby. And on Minnesota Point, Oatka Beach once boasted a collection of bears, timber wolves, deer, and porcupines.

But despite frequent requests from the public, there was no municipal zoo. Even the News Tribune called for a city zoo in a September 1905 editorial that declared: “A Duluth Zoo need not be expensive or very elaborate…. To begin with, there should be a deer park of twenty acres…. A heavy wire fence eight feet high would enclose it…. The care would be simply a matter of throwing in hay and salt.” The author of the editorial clearly did not understand the reality of caring for wild animals.

In May 1910 Frank Heimick, who owned land near the French River, offered to give the city two friendly moose that lived in his woods. However, Park Superintendent Henry Cleveland adamantly opposed the idea. He candidly told the News Tribune, “Duluth doesn’t need a zoo anyway. We can go out in the country here…and find all the natural zoo we need and that is better than the best in any park…. Every time a man has a bear or a moose on his hands, he wants to sell it to the city to start a zoo, little realizing the expense and trouble its acceptance would entail.” Heimick instead gave the moose to Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo.

Despite Cleveland’s opposition, the movement gained momentum in 1915 when members of the Elks Club, with the support of Public Works commissioner J. A. Farrell, convinced the rest of the city commissioners to accept two elks from the state of Washington. Although supporters first suggested Fairmount Park as the best site for the zoo, city officials settled on Lester Park. But Duluth was too late—the elk were given to Sioux City, Iowa, instead of Duluth.

Then in 1923, West Duluth businessman Bert Onsgard approached city leaders with a new plan for a zoo at Fairmount Park, and commissioners gave him the go-ahead. Because the zoo was located in a city park, responsibility for its maintenance fell to the park department, but Onsgard provided the early leadership to make it a success. In 1927 Park Superintendent F. Rodney Paine turned all animal care responsibilities over to Onsgard. That year the zoo acquired a cassowary and a pair of lions with money raised by Duluth school children. Black bears that had been trapped after wandering into town were soon added to the collection.

1930s Zoo Expansion

By 1928 the facility held about two hundred animals and birds. The zoo grew steadily under Onsgard. Over the years regional animals like bear, wolf, moose, elk, and deer were joined by exotics including hyenas, monkeys, and an elephant. The zoo’s main building was constructed in 1929. The one-story facility was designed to house a variety of animals, and a second floor was added later as the zoo’s population grew. Artists from the Minnesota Art Project painted murals representing flora and fauna on the building’s walls. The News Tribune reported that the zoo contained “eleven varieties of deer including the yellow, white and black fallow deer; mountain lions, African lions, pumas; polar, black, Russian and brown bear; fox, raccoons, bobcats, skunks, badger, coyotes; jackals; cranes, pheasants, swans, ducks, pelicans, storks, ostriches, eagles, doves, parrots, canaries; monkeys, seals and mountain goats.”

The number of visitors increased steadily, with approximately half a million people enjoying the zoo in 1934. As the number of animals grew, the city struggled to add buildings to house them. During the 1930s workers from a variety of federal programs—including the Emergency Relief Administration (ERA), Civil Works Administration (CWA), and Works Progress Administration (WPA)—constructed bear dens, wolf runs, an elephant house, and a monkey island. Federal relief funds in 1934 and 1935 provided more major improvements, not only to the zoo, but also to Fairmount Park itself. Workers from the ERA constructed paths throughout the park, five bluestone bridges over Kingsbury Creek, a bluestone pavilion for picnickers (with a fully equipped kitchen), and terraces in the natural bowl area for summer band concerts.

The zoo grew to seventeen acres and its population included several very popular characters. Bessie the Asian elephant, known for her frequent escapes, was two years old when she arrived in 1929 and was the only elephant ever housed at the Duluth Zoo. In July 1941 she pushed over a portion of the fencing surrounding her enclosure and “roamed about the west end of the city for several hours.” She traveled over a mile before Onsgard retrieved her. Longtime Duluth newspaper columnist Jim Heffernan remembered Bessie in 2015: “She was billed as ‘the dancing elephant’ for reasons I can understand…there was Bessie, shackled in her wing, rocking constantly back and forth as though she was nervous about something.” Bessie lived at the zoo until she passed away in 1974. Heffernan recalls that her corpse was “laid to rest in the Rice Lake landfill with the wretched refuse of decades of the city’s garbage. An ignominious ending for a lonely elephant.”

Valerie the Asiatic black bear came to the zoo in 1946 after a rather remarkable life—for a bear. While serving in Asia in 1942, Lieutenant Edward R. Ashton purchased a captured cub and made the young bear the “copilot” of his cargo plane. Ashton and Valerie flew 164 missions over the “Hump”—what Allied pilots called the eastern end of the Himalayan Mountains—before the bear became a mascot for U.S. War Bonds. She eventually became too large to fly and was sold to Duluth’s zoo, where her love for Coca-Cola and beer made her a favorite until her death in 1966.

Tragedy struck the zoo on November 11, 1950, when a tame deer named Bambi was killed. Newspapers reported the deer had “won the hearts of hundreds of Duluth youngsters by licking their hands through the fence when they gave her food.” Some time after midnight, two young men approached Bambi, lured her near them with food, then slit her throat. City officials were furious and established a reward for the capture of the perpetrators as well as a citywide committee to solve what Johnson called “our zoo problem.” Bambi was the fifth zoo animal to die in just a few months: an elk, a white deer, and two aoudads (also called Barbary sheep) died of poisoning. And it wasn’t the first time an animal had been killed—in the 1930s a sloth bear was beaten to death by an elderly man wielding a cane, and several other animals were killed by trespassers over the years.

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