If you walk to the center of Lynchburg’s Miller Park today, between the Aviary and what’s called the “fireman’s fountain,” you’ll find a flowerbed. The contents of this flowerbed aren’t remarkable — one small tree, a few clumps of hostas, other common plants — but what is noteworthy is its border.
At first glance, the rectangle of flagstone slabs, connected with heavy, iron staples, looks like overkill. After all, it’s only corralling foliage and mulch. But what a lot of people don’t know is that in its previous life this flowerbed was a bear pit.
Yes, you read that correctly. There were once bears at Miller Park, along with deer, monkeys, snakes, birds, alligators, wolves and other wildlife. During the early part of the 20th century, the City of Lynchburg operated a zoo at what was once known as “City Park” and later named for local philanthropist Samuel Miller.
It’s difficult to say exactly when the zoo opened. There is, however, mention of it in the Nov. 22, 1899, edition of the Lynchburg News.
A story headlined “Bears for the Park” reports that “two fine bears” just arrived in Lynchburg aboard a Norfolk & Western freight train. The bears were acquired by the city from C.N. Otey, said to be a “well-to-do business man of Wytheville.”
The article further explains that prior to that time Otey had kept the bears as pets.
Why Otey relinquished the bears isn’t stated, but the 1900 U.S. Census might offer a clue. At the time, the 42-year-old Otey was a bartender and married father of six. Otey’s brother and father-in-law also live in the house.
That said, one can imagine Otey’s wife of 15 years, Ella, thinking something had to go. So Lynchburg got two bears.
In “The History of Lynchburg, Virginia, 1786-1946,” author Philip Lightfoot Scruggs writes that the zoo “was initiated through a buck deer being given to E.C. Hamner, chairman of City Council’s committee on parks.” The year isn’t mentioned.
Over the years, the City of Lynchburg’s Committee on Parks reported annual expenses and other statistics related to the zoo. For example, the city’s 1900 Annual Report lists the following expenses were incurred in 1899:
Food for animals — $414.48
Addition to green-house and monkey house — $156.08
Bear pit — $942.20
Fencing — $189.11
Parot [sic] house — $125.14
Winter quarters for monkeys and birds — $110.60
Animals and birds bought — $129.68
Eagle house — $83.85
The Committee on Parks reported in 1902 that former Lynchburg citizen Randolph Guggenheimer, then a resident of New York, had donated money to build the Aviary. Hamner said the building would cost $2,500 “without the heating and painting,” and would “enable us to take better care of the small animals and birds during the winter, and also enables visitors to see them.”
In his book, Scruggs describes the Aviary as “especially interesting” and said its “most fearsome” feature “was a great rattlesnake which so impressed younger visitors that they were likely to think of the aviary as a snake house.”
In 1902, Hamner also reported that the zoo had the following animals in its collection: 13 monkeys, three bears, seven parrots, two ferrets, two cockatoos, 35 guinea pigs, 20 rabbits, five owls, four groundhogs, two caracaras, 60 pigeons, six fantail pigeons, two Australian doves, three silver pheasants, two falcons, three white turkey, four peafowl, six deer, one badger, one coati, three red foxes, three gray foxes, six raccoons, 50 squirrels, two gophers, one turtle, one wolf, five alligators, 100 goldfish and four guinea fowl.
Donations — “animals presented,” as stated in the 1902 report — also were noted. Among these were two cockatoos, donated by Louis Lazarus, and two alligators and a turtle, donated by W.B. Bigbie.
One can imagine the stories behind these donations. Perhaps, Bigbie brought two tiny alligators home from a trip to Florida in a shoebox, only to have them grow too big for the family bathtub. Something had to be done with them, so off they went to the zoo.
Deaths also were reported. In 1904, Park Superintendent R.C. Driver said the following animals had died or had been killed by dogs: “three monkeys, nine deer (killed by dogs), five raccoons, three black-snakes, one peafowl, sixteen rabbits (killed by dogs), thirty guinea pigs (killed by dogs), two ducks, one falcon, two American eagles, one buzzard, three groundhogs, two silver pheasants and one sea-dove.”
The zoo was a popular local attraction. In 1903, Hamner said the Aviary “has now become the main point of attraction and a source of enjoyment for both young and old.” He added, “As the zoological department is constantly growing, so the number of people who visit the park is increasing, and even in wet weather the crowds are large.”
Hamner also noted that the local Knights of Pythias built a squirrel enclosure for the zoo, where the children could “feed [the] animals from their own hands.” This, Hamner added, “can give the little ones much pleasure.”
Sometimes, however, this didn’t work out so well.
In 1921, the zoo was closed. As reported in the publication The Playground in 1924, “In 1921, the city manager of Lynchburg, Virginia, abolished the zoo at Miller Park in order to supply recreation facilities which would serve a larger number of people and permit active participation in recreation activities.”
The Aviary eventually became a public library, among other things, and is currently operated by the city’s parks and recreation department as an events venue. At some point, the bear pit was filled with dirt and plants.
Because it’s been almost 100 years since the zoo closed, photos and personal accounts of the zoo are hard — perhaps impossible — to come by. Sometimes, I forget that people didn’t always walk around with cameras in their pockets.
Also, those who would remember going to the zoo, even in the early 1920s as young children, would be pushing 100 years old today.
There are secondhand accounts, though, if you ask around. For example, Doug Harvey, director of Lynchburg Museum System, remembers his aunt, Lillian Burnette Tweedy, talking about the zoo.
“[She] told us that she rode the street cars from Floyd Street to the park for a nickel to see the bears,” Harvey said. “This was about 1917.”
And Lynchburg native Don Bobbitt, posting on the Facebook group Living in Lynchburg, wrote the following:
I remember, as a child visiting an aunt, and she had a collection of those pictures you looked at through a viewer. I was fascinated by how amazing the old Miller Park was, with exotic flowers and plants and animals, and people dressed in their Sunday finest, walking around. There were dozens of them. But alas, she and her kids are long gone. Perhaps someone has a set of these?
Perhaps someone does. One can hope! And if I find copies, you’ll be the first to know!
Thanks to Doug Harvey, Wayne Fitzgerald and Don Bobbitt for your help with this article.