Who knew? Moorhead once had a zoo. Bear cage remains near Red River
MOORHEAD -- The bricks are crumbling a bit, the iron bars are rusted and trees and brush have long filled in the space. The enclosure's appearance is unmistakable, however; it was once a bear cage in a city zoo here. Most people may think the Red...
MOORHEAD - The bricks are crumbling a bit, the iron bars are rusted and trees and brush have long filled in the space.
The enclosure's appearance is unmistakable, however; it was once a bear cage in a city zoo here.
Most people may think the Red River Zoo in Fargo is the area's first, but Moorhead's zoo got its start nearly 90 years ago and ran for about a five-year span.
Mark Peihl, senior archivist at the Historical and Cultural Society of Clay County, chronicled its short but important past in a recent blog post titled "A Moorhead Zoo."
Most of the zoo's wild animals, including two black bears, came from "well-meaning but misguided individuals" who at first tried to keep them as pets, Peihl said.
"It became quite a little menagerie here," he said.
The old bear cage is tucked under a bluff next to the former Usher's House restaurant, overlooking Memorial Park along the Red River.
Volunteers built it in the summer of 1930 using recycled materials.
The iron bars were leftover from a renovation at the local jail, and the bricks came from the main administration building at what is now Minnesota State University Moorhead, which was destroyed by fire the previous winter, Peihl said.
The enclosure, made of 16,500 bricks in all, is about 24 feet long and 11 feet high.
The zoo and its bear pit became a popular attraction, drawing more than 100 people a day.
Visitors could drive in from Eighth Street, either seeing creatures from the road or stopping for a closer look.
First animal was 'rare' deer
The property the zoo was built on came courtesy of two of the city's earliest residents.
In 1878, Andrew and Conie Holes built a showcase home where the former Usher's House now stands.
Years after her husband died, Conie sold the property to Moorhead for its first city park, where the zoo was eventually built.
The first animal to initiate the zoo in 1929 was a young whitetail deer - considered exotic at the time. In fact, any deer sighting then was front page news.
The person who found the fawn wanted to keep it as a pet, but a game warden instead offered it to city officials, who kept it in the dog pound until a cage could be built.
More animals soon followed, including raccoons, pheasants, a snapping turtle, a fox and an arctic owl.
Somehow, the zoo also ended up with a monkey, to the dismay of caretaker Emil Rehn.
The monkey bit Rehn on the hand, causing him to lose two fingers to infection, Peihl said.
The zoo's first young black bear, housed in the local jail initially and named Jacquiline, was followed by a second named Bruno.
Most of the animals were kept in cages made of chicken wire, and it wasn't much better for the bears in their brick pit.
"I'm sure they were just basically pacing back and forth and pestering each other," Peihl said.
Fortunately, zoos have changed greatly since, he said, caring for animals in much better ways.
Bear's sad fate
As time went on, the zoo became a burden to the city. The deer multiplied and had to be farmed out to local farmsteads.
In 1935, the bear named Jacquiline wound up in a butcher shop.
The Moorhead Daily News reported she "went to her happy hunting ground."
It seems an odd circumstance now, but cheap food was in need at the time, Peihl said.
It's not clear what happened to the rest of the animals.
In the fall of 1935, the Holes' home next to the zoo was torn down to make way for a stone-block auditorium and American Legion club building.
After the Legion moved out in the mid-1990s, the building became home to three restaurants in succession - the Red Bear, named after the Red River and the zoo's two bears, the Broken Axe and, most recently, Usher's House.
As popular as the zoo was, Peihl said it's remarkable there are really no photos of the animals.
The only one in the archives at the Historical and Cultural Society of Clay County is a blurry image of a few deer.
Anyone who might have such photos can contact HCSCC to help round out the zoo's history.