This eve following Christmas I’m pleased to welcome old friend Debbie Hinman to the website, demonstrating one of her many skills, e.g. writing a column. Debbie is the editor of the Historical Reno Preservation Society’s Footprints newsletter, and one of the better researchers and writers in our valley – some can write, others can research but a person that can do both is rare indeed.
The column, rich in the history of Reno and Idlewild Park, belongs in Footprints but she elected to let me have it for the Ol’ Reno Guy. I asked her for her photograph but she declined, so I dug up an old one I had of her addressing a joint meeting of the Nevada Historical Society and the State of Nevada Department of Tourism and Cultural Affairs. While there are several other people in the photo, I’ll just say that it was a warm, sultry afternoon and Debbie came dressed for the occasion so I needn’t ID her in the shot.
Debbie writes now, the first of what I hope will be the first column of many in the future!
While historical research is for the most part very intriguing and well, just plain fun, there is always that chance that you will discover something you never wanted to know. This happened to me recently at the Nevada Historical Society library.
I was scrolling through microfilm, engrossed in a story about testing amphibious jeeps at Virginia Lake, when my eye caught a fuzzy photo of a couple of jocular-looking fellows armed with rifles hamming for the camera. And what was that in the background? I zoomed in to try and get a better look. There appeared to be two buffalo standing behind them, in some sort of enclosure. Then I noted a reference to Reno’s Idlewild Park. Now several years ago, I did a bit of research on Idlewild for a Truckee Meadows Parks Foundation project. I had heard there was a zoo at the park in the early days and fascinated, I began collecting articles on the various animals contained there.
As background, the zoo began in the very early days of Idlewild Park, circa 1924. The first residents were birds and the initial plan was to include only “non-meat eaters.” By December of that year, the bird population included four large bald eagles and a desert raven. But the donation of a wildcat kitten and a fox by a local trapper began to change the face of the zoo. By September of 1925, there were also elk, antelope, deer and—buffalo. In 1927 there were enough buffalo at the park that Mayor Roberts negotiated a trade with the Sacramento Zoo: one buffalo calf for two monkeys, two swans, three raccoons (raccoons, really? All they had to do was check the storm drains in the Old Southwest) and an assortment of other birds. At any rate, by early 1931, the zoo population had soared to 167 assorted creatures.
The denizens of the zoo were always fodder for appealing newspaper stories and the buffalo were no exception. A very heartfelt obituary for Chief Shaggy Buffalo was printed in 1925. “Chief Shaggy,” whose real name was Bos Bison, was apparently a children’s favorite. Park officials believed he was poisoned but had yet to identify the assassin. The obituary stated that Chief Shaggy, who left a widow and two sons, Nickel, 5, and Jitney, 6 months, would be sorely missed. Saddened, I continued following the buffalo throughout the years, finding a second obituary for “Old King,” who at fifteen and fifteen hundred pounds, passed on to the Great Beyond in 1936. I was more philosophical about this passing; King after all had a long, cushy life being fed and watered in attractive surroundings, adored by his local fans.
Reverting to the 1945 photo of the armed men and buffalo that caught my attention, I read the caption and was properly horrified. True, these men were not actually shooting at the buffalo (which in a penned area in a park would be a true fish-in-a-barrel situation), but the buffalo were slated to be slaughtered for — a barbecue hosted by the Lions Club, likely attended by the very same children who visited them regularly at the zoo! They didn’t go peacefully, however. Reported the Reno Evening Gazette: “Vigorously displaying his resentment at losing two of his herd, the 1800-pound bull at the park felled one of the ‘hunters,’ Paul Mathews, and the park employee escaped only by crawling to a water hole in the corral. Pitchforks, lassoes and considerable footwork on the part of the wranglers were required before two 800-pound heifer calves were finally loaded in a truck for their last ride to the Nevada Packing Company.” A suggestion was made to include the troublemaking herd leader in the barbecue but it was argued that his meat would be too tough.
True, the barbecue was for a good cause, to thank locals for buying war bonds and perhaps the buffalo herd needed to be thinned for space considerations, but barbecuing and feasting on zoo animals just outside their former sanctuary still sticks in my craw. I’m just glad Chief Shaggy and King didn’t live to see that day.
Thanks, Debbie – send reader comments or recollections to firstname.lastname@example.org , and include your permission to publish them!
Meeting photograph Jerry Felesina family photo