Ole Bergstrom's footage of the Moorhead zoo, circa 1930 (HCSCC).
"A Moorhead Zoo"
By Mark Peihl, HCSCC Senior Archivist
from The Hourglass, Summer 2017
* * * * * * * * * *
Recently my wife and I visited Fargo’s Red River Zoo. Like museums, zoos are educational institutions but dedicated to wildlife conservation. Opened in 1999, the Red River Zoo manages an award-winning captive breeding program and is accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. But it wasn’t the first area zoo. In fact, from 1929 to the mid-1930s, Moorhead was home to a zoo, albeit a very different one.
A little background: Andrew and Conie Holes were among Moorhead’s earliest residents. They arrived in 1871 before the railroad and grew wealthy buying and selling real estate. In 1878 they built a gorgeous two-story, brick veneered, Italianate style home right where Usher’s restaurant stands today (the Nov/Dec 2001 issue of The Hourglass discusses the history of the Holes’ property). The Holes carefully landscaped their yard and encouraged others to do so. Andrew and Conie named their home Arbor Vitae Place. It was a showcase for many decades.
Andrew died in 1903. Conie remained in the house until 1921. The following year she offered to sell the property to Moorhead for a city park. Moorhead had no real parks at the time so the City Council took her up on the deal. However, the park needed a name. In a 4th of July address, Moorhead attorney Christian Dosland proposed “Memorial Park” to commemorate the local men who had died in World War 1. The name stuck. It’s still Memorial Park today, though for years many called it “Holes’ Park.”
Through the twenties, the park was the scene of many picnics, concerts and other gatherings -- and at the end of the decade, it became home to a small zoo.
In June 1929, a fellow in Leonard, Minnesota (northwest of Bemidji), caught a newly-born Whitetail fawn. He contacted the Minnesota Department of Conservation for permission to keep it, but a recently passed state law forbade private citizens from owning wild animals. Local Deputy Game Warden Harry Broad offered the Moorhead City Council the little deer for the cost of transporting it. They approved. On July 1, Broad delivered the fawn to the city dog pound – Jack Lamb’s coal shed on 5th Street – and it remained there until City Engineer C. H. Luckey finished building its cage.
Whitetail Deer were pretty exotic critters in Moorhead then. Though common today, there were few deer in the farming areas of Minnesota in the 1920s. Shortly before, just the sighting of some deer near Hawley had elicited front-page headlines in local papers.
The new Moorhead zoo in Memorial Park grew quickly. On July 6, a buck and a doe from Warroad joined the fawn in Lamb’s coal shed. The buck died shortly after, but two more deer and a young Black Bear arrived by the end of July. Locals suggested naming the bruin Gar or Oscar, for attorney Gar Rustad or businessman Oscar Martinson. Upon closer inspection, they dubbed the little bear Jacquiline, the feminine version of Jack Lamb’s name. The bear spent time in a cell in Moorhead’s jail until Engineer Luckey built a small cave-like “den” for her in the base of the bluff northwest of the Holes home. By year’s end, the zoo was home to at least four deer, three raccoons, two bears, two foxes, and a “pheasant which flew into the Northern Pacific office in Fargo and was dazed.”
Earlier in the year, the city had built a loop road through the park. The Moorhead Country Press reported that “lovers of animals… may drive north on 8th St, enter the park by the new winding road which skirts the lower reaches of the grounds, circle completely around the fenced enclosure to observe the creatures and drive out on the same road.”
Apparently, the zoo never had an official name and it’s not entirely clear who was responsible for its day-to-day management. The park fund paid for the animal feed and materials and labor for cages and the City Engineer reported to the City Council in November that “he could secure the present caretaker of the Holes’ Park [Emil Rehn] at the rate of $15.00 per month for the care of the animals during the winter.” The Council agreed “to the proposition… for the care of the animals until spring, or such time as Street Commissioner [Axel] Nelson is able to take care of the work.” Eventually, park employee Rehn kept the job for two years and a 1930 newspaper article referred to Engineer Luckey as “zoo manager.”
The next summer it became obvious that the 5 1/2 foot square concrete-lined “cave” was far too small for the zoo’s two bears (the second was named Bruno). Volunteers built a new 20 x 24 foot brick “bear pit.” Some of the 16,500 bricks were salvaged from the ruins of Old Main, the Moorhead State Teachers College (now Minnesota State University - Moorhead) administration building which had been destroyed by fire the previous winter. By some accounts, the iron bars for the door came from the Clay County jail, left over from a 1913 renovation. The pit featured a three-foot deep, four-foot by six-foot “bath tub.” Over a dozen volunteers, under the direction of Moorhead Police Officer Roscoe Brown, built the cage over ten days. Brown spent his summer vacation overseeing the project. Veteran Moorhead bricklayer Charles Johnson constructed the foot-thick walls. (The eleven-foot deep cage still stands at the base of the bluff, northwest of Usher’s House.)
Through the early ‘30s the menagerie continued to grow, partly the result of “the natural increase of the deer herd” and partly by well-meaning but misguided individuals who caught wild animals and kept them as pets until they became too much trouble. In June, a Fargo man caught a large snapping turtle and kept it in a wire dog cage in his yard. Three times the turtle broke out and terrorized the man’s neighbors before it wound up in the zoo. Others contributed an Arctic Owl, a badger, and a monkey. A bite from the latter cost caretaker Emil Rehn two fingers. Rehn quit to become a Moorhead police officer and Pat Rorick took over as caretaker.
The zoo was very popular with locals. In 1933, Park Commissioner J. W. Briggs reported that “hundreds of visitors gather about the pens in the zoo daily.” But given the small cages, it couldn’t have been much of a life for the poor animals. Fortunately, most of today’s zoos have moved away from cramped, drafty concrete and chicken wire cells for animal exhibitions.
The zoo’s growing population made problems for the city. By fall 1932, the deer became so numerous that several had to be moved to area farms. Still, “fourteen blessed events” were expected the following spring.
It’s unclear what happened to the animals and the zoo. In December 1933, the City Council “moved that Game Warden [Robert] Streich be seen and requested to get rid of the animals in Holes Park.” The critters survived, however, for some time. Early in 1935 the Moorhead Daily News reported that “’ Jacquiline,’ the chunky, fat bear that occupied the Moorhead zoo pen for more than five years went to her happy hunting ground this afternoon. The bear was shot on order of the state game and fish department by R. E. Streich, local game warden… it was put on display in front of the Zervas meat market... Friday and Saturday bear steaks, chops and other choice cuts will go on sale to the public.” In January 1936, the elderly caretaker Pat Rorick died with “only his animal charges at the Moorhead zoo left to mourn him.” The animals were apparently dispersed later.
After acquiring the Holes’ property, the city rented out the house. Through the 1930s, it fell into disrepair. By 1935 it was a mere shadow of the show place it had been. That fall, WPA workmen tore down Arbor Vitae Place to make way for a stone-block community auditorium and American Legion club building. In the mid-1990s, the American Legion moved to a new facility on the east edge of town and a new restaurant opened in the old building in late 2001. Owners named it the Red Bear to commemorate the Red River and the two bruins that lived at the site. It then existed briefly as the Broken Axe before its most recent life as Usher’s House, a fine local restaurant.