Thursday, June 05, 2014

There WAS an Elephant in the Room

Conventional wisdom tells us "everyone has a story." And if we dig deeply enough into the history of any community, we are likely to find "every place has a story," a wondrous tale unique to that locale.

People who have lived long in Plainwell, Michigan (pop. about 3,800), the closest city to our country home, know well the tale of the day a rogue elephant showed up downtown. As a relative newcomer, I hadn't heard about it until recently when the shoppers guide that circulates in our area described the event in a brief article.  It's quite a bizarre tale.
The Spencer-Woodard building has stood for 98 years at the intersection of Bridge and Main Streets in Plainwell, Michigan. No elephants have dropped in since 1916.
I was skeptical, as old journalists usually are of bizarre tales. A puter search said I could buy a history, which would include an account of the elephant's visit, at Campbell's Drug Store. "We did sell the histories for quite a while, but we don't have them anymore," a clerk said.

I said I was interested in the elephant story. A pharmacist looked up from his work and advised me to visit the local library. He also told me to go out the side door and look at the historic plaque attached to the building. Somehow, I'd missed the plaque in five years of frequent visits to downtown Plainwell. The elephant story was there.

At the library I found two treasures. One was a pictorial history of Plainwell and sister city Otsego, and in it was a brief version of the elephant story. The other valuable find was Sandy Stamm, area historian who co-authored the book. Sandy, a volunteer archivist at the library, also wrote the plaque description at Campbell's Drug, which is the principal business in the Spencer-Woodard building. She gave me copies of two published articles she had written on the topic.

Here's what happened, and it is well documented:

In 1916 a circus arrived by train at the depot on East Bridge Street. To get to the fairgrounds on the west side of the village where the show would be held, the circus entourage had to traverse the old Anderson Bridge across the Kalamazoo River. The bridge was made of iron, and for some reason it spooked the elephants.

The elephants refused to get on the bridge. The circus manager decided to try to get them to swim across the river. This was working fairly well until, suddenly, two elephants got out of control in the water and escaped. One headed north, the other went downtown.

The northbound elephant traveled out Sherwood Road to a farm. The farmer, Ed Morgan, was raking hay and must have been amazed to look back to see an elephant following his hay rake. Morgan apparently stayed calm. He remembered it was the day the circus was due in town, and simply turned his rig around and led the elephant back to the circus manager.

The second elephant, when it reached the center of the village, was lured by the smell of fresh baked goods to the bakery on Main Street. The elephant tried to nose its way into the establishment, but anxious customers scared it away.

The Spencer-Woodard building next to the bakery (a three-story structure when completed) was in the early stages of construction, with only the subflooring in place. The elephant headed there and its weight caused it to crash through the subfloor into the basement.

The circus manager had a new problem--how to get a very big elephant (it weighed more than 1,000 pounds) out of a basement room. After much deliberation, workmen brought railroad ties to the site and built a ramp. The elephant walked up the ramp and was reunited with the circus troop.

The concluding sentence in Sandy Stamm's most detailed account is: "The circus then proceeded to the Fair Grounds. Nothing at the circus performance that night could top the loose elephant escapade."

What's your community's best story? Can it top the day elephants were on the loose in Plainwell?


jhawk23 said...

A very interesting and entertaining tale but I'm afraid I have nothing to compete with it.

Anonymous said...

Stories all around us. Put enough of them together and find yourself transported to another place. I love history.

PiedType said...

I'm constantly coming across interesting new stories about Colorado's history, since I've only lived here 9 years. But so far nothing specific to my community beyond things like this trail was an old trappers' trail, or settlers' trail, or canal. Haven't found any elephants yet, but I'm fond of the Frozen Dead Guy up in Nederland.

That was one smart elephant, heading for the bakery. Given the schnoz on an elephant, I can't imagine him going anywhere else. Bakery smells are intoxicating!

Alan G said...

Well what's not to love about that story! Thanks for sharing the fruits of your research. It is certainly an unusual series of events.

Not aware of any such unique stories from around here although there probably are a few - made up or otherwise.

Kay said...

Michigan sure has a story to remember. The only one I remember in Chicago is about the coyote that wandered into Quiznos and sat in their refrigerated section on a blistering hot day.

It's a good thing the elephant wasn't hurt when it crashed through the subfloor. Sheesh! What a story!