Thursday, June 13, 2024

Fairground Park in St. Louis Has A Rich History

You can see it from Fairground Park’s southeast corner, just near Grand and Natural Bridge. It is an ornate fortress wall made of brick and stone and divided by four crenelated towers. It is the only remaining structure from St. Louis’ original zoo, and once housed bears.

The land now known as the park was the site of an annual Agricultural and Mechanical Fair. It was held every year since 1856. Exhibition halls, a 3-story “gallinarium”, (chicken palace), for showing poultry; a half-mile horse racing track; a grandstand; and an amphitheater capable of holding tens to thousands of spectators were all part of the fairgrounds. The Union Army turned the amphitheater into an emergency room when the Civil War broke out. The Fairgrounds and an adjoining property became the Benton Barracks. Thousands of soldiers and some refugee slaves passed through.

The annual fair was revived after the war and the organizers set out to build a zoo. In 1876, they built many structures, including the fortress wall. It was close to the entrance and large enough to house bear pits. The zoo added tapirs and kangaroos to its collection within a decade. But the main attraction was still the bears. Adult admission was 25c, and children were only 10c.

However, the zoo was still struggling financially. The animals were sold at a public auction in 1891. The Ringling Brothers and a few private citizens purchased specimens. However, many more were taken by the city which was creating a new Forest Park zoo. The city was able to acquire, among others, an elk herd, a Zebu cow, and a bull camel named Clint. These two animals were taken through the streets to their new homes. The more timid animals had to travel in wooden crates.

Fairgrounds Zoo was always a wild place. One groundskeeper was gored and his clothes were ripped by a leopard. The dismantling of the zoo was especially chaotic. Kate, an old lioness, refused to go into her crate. She had to be subdued using ropes. After being lured into the box with a piece of meat, Pat the panther began to scream. The chase lasted five miles after the black wolf managed to escape.

Although it is not clear from media reports, what happened to the bears remains a mystery. Fairground Park was established in 1909 by the city. The idea of turning the bear pits into a comfort station or handball court was discussed. Instead, the bear pits were sealed up and are now used as storage for the parks department. It’s perhaps just as well that they have been sealed up and are now used for storage by the parks department. In 1919, Forest Park officials acknowledged that bears need habitats and not pits.

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