We Remember “Gratiot County’s Missing Wild Animals”

A pair of wild animals of the 1960s appear in front of the Strand Theatre in Alma. The occasion was the “Wild Circus Sale” in Alma. The date was late June 1967. Jaycees Terry Johnston and Frank Hinderleider stand next to the lion while Strand owner John Musser rides the elephant.
An advertisement from the June 1, 1967 issue of the Gratiot County Herald invites the public to “See Wild Animals” in Ithaca.

Actress Phyllis Diler is caught by a big bear during the 1968 Highland Festival in Alma while the gorilla leads the way.
The last of its kind? The fiberglass elephant remains displayed at Best Sales on State Road south of St. Louis.

Ferocious or friendly? During the 1960s, many residents had to decide which word best described several wild animals that arrived in Gratiot County. These “beasts,” made up of at least seven different species, could be found on display and seen at various times and places in the county.

These animals, made out of fiberglass and often moved on small trailers, were used for promotions by business owners, movie theaters, and parades in Gratiot County starting in the late-1960s. Many young people of that time saw these creatures: an elephant, bear, turtle, rhino, gorilla, lion, and hippo.

One of the first times the fiberglass animals appeared was in June 1967, when they took part in  “bargain circus” sales in downtown Ithaca. Area shoppers were invited to store sales, and children received free snow cones on Friday evening. The animals’ appearance in Ithaca was just the start of several encounters between these beasts and the Gratiot County public starting that summer.

These animal promotions soon spread across Gratiot County. Over at Alma, the Jaycees, led by Terry Johnston and Frank HInderleider, sponsored what they termed the “Greatest Show on Earth,” a combination of promotions for the Strand Theatre and Alma merchants. Theatre owner John Musser promoted P. T. Barnum’s birthday with the reissue of Cecille C. DeMille’s movie “The Greatest Show on Earth,” which starred Charlton Heston, Jimmy Stewart, and Betty Hutton. During that week, on Wednesday, July 5, 1967, an old-fashioned circus parade in Alma featured fiberglass animals. Afterward, when anyone passed the front of the Strand Theatre, they could see the elephant with the lion posed alongside it. At the start of the promotion, Musser, Johnston, and Hinderleider had their picture taken with the two animals, with Musser sitting on the elephant. Inside, the Strand displayed several of P.T. Barnum’s famous exhibits, while a circus barker stood out on the street each evening.

Two months later, in September 1967, the city of St. Louis also used the animals for sidewalk sales. As part of the sales Mayor Larry Shirely dressed as a circus hunter in an African safari-decorated theme in front of Shirely’s Furniture Store with the elephant in front. The elephant continued to be popular at Halloween when Kernen Buick-Opel rented it for car sales in Ithaca. Other merchants also rented some of the animals at different times. Another picture showed one on display in front of the Dog-N-Suds drive-in when it opened south of St. Louis.

Toward the end of the 1960s, the animals showed up in Alma in a parade for Santa’s arrival after Thanksgiving. A picture shows two helpers, dressed as Porky Pig and Donald Duck, pulling Harry the Hippo on a miniature wagon down Superior Street. More animals were probably in the parade on that day. They also made appearances during Alma’s Highland Festival in 1968. One photo shows a lady dressed as actress Phyllis Diller standing between the arms of the bear, each on a small float sponsored by Van Atten’s of Alma.

Gratiot County’s “wild animals” no doubt made many more appearances as the years passed. The question today is, what happened to these fiberglass animals? Before the Covid-19 outbreak in the late summer of 2019, I stopped to look at what may be the last remaining fiberglass animal in the county, the elephant. Today, the elephant is missing one tusk, but he is on display in front of Best Sales and Service,  visible by those passing the business on State Road south of St. Louis.

Many in Gratiot County may recall the famous Dandy/Tony’s Restaurant chicken that sat in front of the restaurant in St. Louis starting in the late 1960s. Was this renowned chicken one of the original fiberglass animals that came to Gratiot County during that decade? The story goes that the chicken was purchased and installed by Joe Nako when he owned the Dandy, making the chicken a landmark in the St. Louis community for decades. However, it is unclear exactly where Nako obtained the chicken.

Regardless, many baby boomers can recall the giant creatures. Possibly they were sold out of state, went into the hands of private collectors, or ended up being destroyed over time. Today, although the fiberglass “wild animals” that came to the county appear to be gone, their memories with the Gratiot baby boom generation continue.

Copyright 2022 James M Goodspeed

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