Monday, July 18, 2011

Tillie the Elephant

Tillie was one of the Asian elephants who performed in the Robinson Circus for over 30 years in the late 19th and early 20th century.  John Robinson was a circus owner who purchased his 1855 Terrace Park OH home and property in 1886 as a place to keep the circus animals in the winter months. He also built the opera house in 1872 that once stood across from Cincinnati City Hall at 9th & Plum.

After the Robinson Circus was bought out by another circus around 1916, Tillie and 3 of the other elephants remained in Terrace Park as retirees.

I first learned the story of Tillie in a book called "A Place Called Terrace Park". Tillie and her other Asian elephant's comrades actually roamed the streets of Terrace Park at times and even assisted in installing utility poles, hauling heavy items and other various odd jobs and sometimes would even get into general mischief around town. I am picturing something like the Flintstones here but I don't think she was ever used to vacuum carpets.

When Tillie died at the age of 65 (although the circus claimed the unlikely age of 120), it was a pretty big civic event and everyone came out. Children were even let out of school to attend. It is rumored that her legs were cut off in order to bury her or in order remove the body from the barn or perhaps to fit her in the grave that was not big enough. It is more likely they were removed simply for monetary gain as another story confirms that after the funeral attendees left the scene her legs were removed to be re-used sold for products such as umbrella stands or tables. While she was loved by her community, remember that this was 1932 when things like this were generally acceptable. At one time the Cincinnati Art Museum had one of these umbrella stands but I'm not sure if it is still there.

reenactment of Tillies funeral
I told my kids all about Tillie and how no one knew where her grave was which we thought was kind of a sad and unfitting end for the old girl. So, on one rainy evening last summer we decided to do our own re-enactment of Tillie the Elephant's graveside service that occurred on Jan 17th, 1932. The people of Terrace Park and Tillie's mourners are portrayed here by many wonderful characters. John F. Robinson is portrayed by Sir Paul McCartney. Her legs there in the front have not yet been made into umbrella stands.

In the book, I mentioned previously there was a fuzzy black and white picture that showed some sort of memorial marker for Tillie but it didn't say exactly where it was located but I thought it might be near the house. Since there were some geocaches in the area and other historical items nearby I decided it was worth checking out.  The kids and I mosied over to Circus Place in Terrace Park on August 7th, 2010 to check it all out.

the Tillie Memorial (with her exaggerated age)
Approaching the house, I was immediately surprised. Greeting us between two driveways was a huge stone marker with Tillie's name on it that matched the picture I'd seen. There happened to be a woman outside next door who noticed us looking around. After striking up a conversation with her I would soon learn she is the Secretary of the Terrace Park Historical Society. This was a nice bonus! She was very gracious to take our picture and we had a nice chat about Tillie and other items of interest in Terrace Park. I asked her if she had any ideas where Tillie was buried and she heard that Tillie was buried in an unused cistern and that this marker was moved here from another location in Terrace Park at one point. Another rumor by someone who claims to have seen the burial is that Tillie is buried near the field on Wooster Pike where she gave rides to children but there are homes occupying that spot now. At any rate, Tillie definitely wasn't here with the marker. The neighbor also told me that at the time the circus was here all the surrounding homes were not here and all of them had little odds and ends of reminders of that time when the circus was here. It was a good chat and history lesson but then we were off for some geocaching and other history sightseeing.
If you are ever in Terrace Park, stop by and pay your condolences to Tillie or if you are in the market for a new home, as of this writing the impressive Robinson house is again for sale for a cool $1.2 million.

Robinson House - The T shaped window is for Tillie
Click here and here for more information about Tillie and the Robinson Circus in Terrace Park OH. There are some great old pictures of the circus and the house in that article. Other information about the history of the Robinson House is available at this website.

3/10/2017: Updated some of the dead links in the post

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