That dastardly year of 1951.
Sure, the Jayhawks were playing some good basketball — they would win the National Championship in the spring of '52 — but there weren't many other pleasant moments in the year.
It was in 1951, of course, when the great flood came. The Kansas River swelled, and then swallowed. Farmers watched entire fields be overtaken by the river. Homeowners watched the water consume their houses inch by inch. People of all different stripes can recount losses in 1951.
I'll tell you who else, though, didn't have a good year: Suzie the Monkey. You don't know about Suzie the Monkey? Well, you must not know about the days when Lawrence had its own zoo.
No, I don't mean the Oread Neighborhood on a Saturday night. I mean a real live zoo, complete with a resident monkey. And while we're not likely to have a zoo again, we might soon have new occasion to think about the days when we did.
Why Will Green wanted a zoo seems to be lost to history.
Maybe it was because one of Green's friends needed a job. The story goes that C.D. Bunker, the assistant curator at KU's Museum of Natural History, was out of a job because Dyche Hall had been closed for structural repairs in 1932. So he and his buddy Green — an owner of a hardware store that also sold John Deere tractors in the 600 block of Massachusetts Street — started building some animal cages in the mid-1930s.
Green had just the place for them too. He owned a slice of the country that happened to be in the city. It was several acres with a pond behind what is now the former VFW building at 138 Alabama St. Before long, the property was Green's private zoo.
There was quite an assortment of animals: A Gila monster, four or five coyotes, six raccoons, two red foxes, porcupines, a mountain lion, four bears, a 7-foot alligator and a couple of smaller ones.
"I think they trapped the coyotes, but I don't know where they acquired the alligators," says Harlan Miller, the great-nephew of Will Green.
Over the years Miller has dug up stories about the zoo from old newspaper clippings and family documents. What he found was the area was widely known as Green's Park, although it was never owned by the city, and it was open to the public to visit free of charge.
For reasons not clear to Miller, Green wanted to operate a zoo at the site. A 1980 article in the Journal-World reported that the zoo operated from the mid-1930s to 1951.
There it is again, that year, 1951. If you know anything about the property at 138 Alabama St., you know that it is just a long football field away from the Kansas River. By 1951, Miller's research indicates that the zoo already was kind of on its last leg — well, its last two legs and two long hairy arms anyway.
They were those of Suzie the Monkey. While lots of people were moving lots of things as the Kansas River rose in 1951, Suzie was not one of them. The flood waters came, and then they went. With them went Lawrence's zoo. And Suzie.
"I'm pretty sure it was Lawrence's first zoo, and I'm pretty sure it will be Lawrence's last zoo," Miller says.
Suzie and the animals — there also was a bear that frequently was out of its cage and had its picture taken while amiably sitting in a rocking chair — weren't the only curiosities at Green's Park.
Green was an avid collector of . . . well, perhaps anything he happened to find. There were old Civil War relics, old printing presses, tools from a slaughterhouse, and an old skull that was found floating in the Kansas River. He stored them all in an old log cabin that sits on the site.
Miller recalls being in the cabin as a child. He thinks Green probably got started in curio collecting by salvaging the interesting artifacts that were on the site of the property when he bought it. The property in the late 1800s and early 1900s served as home to the Lawrence Vitrified Brick and Tile Co. Several tools were left from the plant, which in its heyday produced 35,000 bricks daily, many of which were used to create the first paved streets in Lawrence.
There's even a rumor that an old steam shovel is at the bottom of the pond, but there's also a rumor that Green once drained the pond to look for an AWOL alligator. Neither the alligator nor the steam shovel ever turned up, as far as Miller knows.
The whereabouts of many of the artifacts — estimated at more than 1,000 in the 1980s Journal-World article — also are a mystery. Miller said he recalls his great-uncle moving many of them to the hardware store before the flood, but where they are now, he doesn't know.
Some would be interesting to find, like the hangman's noose that dangled from the ceiling of the cabin. The story has it that it was used to hang a man from the Kansas River bridge in the 1880s.
A conversation piece for sure. And, perhaps, the site isn't done creating conversations yet. Of all the artifacts of the site, the most interesting may end up being the cabin, which is still on the property.
In his research, Miller found a 1942 magazine article that profiled his great-uncle. The article included a short line about how Green recently had purchased the "Branson Cabin, famed in the history of Kansas," and moved it to the site. No more mention is made of the cabin's history, but the most famous Branson in Kansas history is Jacob Branson, a Douglas County abolitionist whose capture by pro-slavery forces led to the Wakarusa War in the Bleeding Kansas period.
Several local historians told me recently they had never heard of the reference before, and most didn't even know of the cabin's existence. It may be difficult to prove if the cabin indeed is the one that Branson was living in when captured by pro-slavery forces, but historians were excited by the possibility.
"It would be an amazing find," said Judy Sweets, a former archivist at the Dole Institute of Politics and a noted historian of the Bleeding Kansas period.
The stories aren't detailed enough to know whether Suzie's corpse was ever found. That's probably fitting because it seems that one of the great appeals of this little hidden piece of property are the mysteries that go with it.
Soon, we all may get a chance to solve them, or create new ones. As we previously have reported, the property is owned by the Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center. Bert Nash officials have offered to donate the portion of the property with the cabin and the pond for use as a city nature park. The city preliminarily has accepted the offer, and is awaiting word on a grant application to build a trail on the property.
It is possible that by this time next year, residents will be walking the property and coming up with their own questions about it. Miller hopes something will be done to remember his great-uncle, perhaps naming the pond or the cabin after him. That seems appropriate. After all, Will Green has left us a gift too: a piece of property that will keep us curious. Is there a steam shovel at the bottom of the lake? Does this cabin have a Bleeding Kansas story to tell? Where is that hangman's noose?
And maybe that is just the beginning. It is fun to wonder what else we'll find when this little hidden haven is truly opened to the public.
Who knows, maybe even a really old monkey with a heck of a story to tell.
— Each Sunday, Lawhorn’s Lawrence focuses on the people, places or past of Lawrence and the surrounding area. If you have a story idea, send it to Chad at firstname.lastname@example.org.