Off The Beaten Path: East Coast Elephant Fun

Patti and Tom Burkett

Once in a while, exploring out-of-the-way places puts us on the path of a much greater adventure – checking out Cincinnati’s painted pigs, Lexington’s painted horses, and Fort Wayne’s painted frogs.

Recently, we took a stab at finding some of the 47 unique Mr. Potato Head statues adopted by communities in Rhode Island.

One of these is Betty The Learned Elephant, who sits behind the town hall in Chepachet, Rhode Island (see interactive map below).  Asking a local resident why choose an elephant, we were treated to an amazing story.  We’ll tell it to you somewhat backwards, the way we first learned it.

“Head out to the Putnam Pike Bridge,” we were told, “and look for the plaque.”

Erected in 1976, the monument recognizes Little Bett, an elephant who was shot down on the bridge by local residents in 1826.  It seems the Puritan town fathers didn’t look kindly on the fact that local residents were spending their money on frivolous and exotic entertainment. After 150 years the town decided to come clean, admit the deed, and declare Elephant Day in honor of the 12-year-old pachyderm who had amazed audiences from Massachusetts to North Carolina with her intelligence and personality.

Little Bett was part of a traveling menagerie owned by Hecaliah Bailey, of Somers, New York.  By chance, Bailey had seen the very first elephant ever to come to North America as it was being offloaded from a ship, the America, in New York harbor in 1796.  He was entranced. Imagine his surprise when, several years later, he again saw the elephant, this time offered for sale at a livestock auction he was attending.  He bought the behemoth, named Betty, and took her home.  Bailey imagined rightly that his neighbors would pay a few cents to have a look, and he was right.  It wasn’t too long before he gave up farming and earned his living traveling with a menagerie of animals and sideshow attractions.

Several of his neighbors became partners and competitors in these endeavors.  When one of them married the star of a traveling acrobatic show and joined the two entertainments, the American circus was born.

Somers, New York is known as the birthplace of the circus, and when you visit, you can climb to the third floor of the Elephant Hotel and see exhibits of early traveling show history.  Sadly, Bailey’s first elephant, bought at the cattle auction, was also shot dead by religious fanatics, and the museum and hotel stands as a memorial to her.

Hecaliah served as a mentor and role model for young PT Barnum, and the Bailey family continues in the circus business to this day.  You can discover more of the story at the Barnum Museum in Bridgeport, Connecticut.  So, the chance encounter with a Mr. Potato Head elephant led us first to New York, then to Bridgeport, and then back to Mister Ed’s Elephant Museum and Candy Emporium on the Lincoln Highway in Pennsylvania.

With an eye open for new stories, we now collect elephant lore as we travel, and have found some great tales.  If you like, we’ll tell you one the next time we see you somewhere, out there, off the beaten path.