Old Bet is really showing her age.
The concrete statue of Somers’ totem animal, perched atop a 15-foot shaft of dressed granite since 1935, is falling apart and needs to be replaced, say town historians.
Exposure to the elements are likely to blame for the beloved pachyderm’s decrepitude. (Water works its way into small crevices where it freezes and causes them to expand over time.)
And a number of years ago, a driver suffering some kind of medical condition ran into Old Bet’s pedestal with his car, giving her, as Town Supervisor Rick Morrissey put it recently, “a good shake.”
Big splits can clearly be seen in three of the elephant’s four legs.
In real life, the African elephant was the main draw of one of America’s first traveling menageries.
A Somers farmer named Hachaliah Bailey had spotted her in 1804 at an exhibition in Boston and was smitten.
A few years later, he saw Old Bet, then known as Betty, at a New York City cattle auction where she was being sold for meat.
He purchased the elephant, intending to use her for farm work, and brought her back to his hometown. She wasn’t one for plowing the fields, so he resorted to charging his neighbors for a peek at the big beast.
As his profits mounted, Bailey added trained dogs, pigs and horses to the act and took it on the road.
This proved to be a mammoth mistake—at least as far as his biggest star was concerned.
In 1816, while the show was in Alfred, Maine, a fellow farmer, Daniel Davis, shot Old Bet. He apparently thought it was sinful for the poor to have pay to see one of God’s creatures—or, at least, that’s ONE of the theories.
(The spot where she was done in is marked by a small plaque on Route 4.)
Bailey put up a monument in her memory around 1827 outside Town Hall, aka The Elephant Hotel, on Route 100.
If Old Bet were able to turn around, she could see into the windows of The Museum of the Early American Circus, which is jam-packed with artifacts and memorabilia such as a hand-carved diorama complete with miniature acrobats, clowns—and lions, tigers, and bears, oh, my!
The tiny treasury, located on the third floor, also houses one of famed little person General Tom Thumb’s embroidered costumes, and the trunk from one of Old Bet’s previous versions.
Somers, whose high school sports teams are nicknamed “Tuskers,” is very proud of being the “Cradle of the American Circus.”
It, and Baraboo, Wis., the home of Ringling Brothers, had once gotten into a minor scrap over which town owned the title.
Scholars consider Philadelphia the “Birthplace of the American Circus.”
In her past two “lives,” Old Bet was made out of wood. Those hoping for the symbolic elephant’s reincarnation would like to see her recast in bronze—which ain’t cheap. (A final price tag of $45,000 has been floated.)
Somers Historical Society president Emil Antonaccio has patched up Old Bet at least once, but he and town historian Doris Jane Smith and Grace Zimmerman, the society’s vice president, all agree it’s time for a more permanent solution.
Smith and Zimmerman brought their concerns about the statue’s condition to the Town Board on Thursday, Feb. 6.
“There are only so many repairs it (the statue) can sustain,” Morrissey acknowledged.
The town is more than willing to let the historical team “take the lead” to form a committee to raise money for a new statue.
If the town did it, it would have to put the project out to bid, Morrissey explained.
Somers resident Luigi Badia created the bust of Richard Somers in the nearby circa 1866 Ivandell Cemetery.
(The Italian-born sculptor also made the bronze bust for a monument dedicated in 2013 in the U.S. Navy hero’s birthplace, Somers Point, N.J.)
Badia, who has been involved in early discussions about the project, “would be the preferred artisan who would work on the bronze statue,” Morrissey said.
There’s no doubt that the town needs to replace the Old Bet, but the historians can’t move forward with an “exact plan” until they know where the money for the project is coming from, Smith said Thursday.
Smith and Antonaccio have already approached the town’s Parks and Recreation Board.
“Unbeknownst to a lot of people, the statue is in one of the parks. When Bailey gave that land (to the town), it went from The
Elephant Hotel all the way over to St. Luke’s Church; it was like a meadow,” she said.
Eventually, local traffic began to get out of hand and, after more than a few fender-benders at the old intersection, the road was rerouted through the park.
“Parks and Rec are not just responsible for football; they’re also responsible for parks,” Smith pointed out.
While Badia has spent a lot of time discussing possible designs and making renderings, he “hasn’t formally been asked” to do the work because, Smith said, “there is no contract...because there really is no money.”
Zimmerman said that at this point there’s no concrete plan in place. The historians wanted to “get a sense of what this is going to cost and what the scope is” before they approached the Town Board.
They also sought input from the town’s Historic Properties Board, which oversees the maintenance of the Wright Reis Homestead, Mount Zion Church and Burial Ground, Tomahawk Chapel, The Elephant Hotel, and The Annex, aka “Old Bet House.”
The $20,000 Parks and Rec offered is just the jumping-off point. Once Badia creates a model, the town will suss out the costs of having it cast at a foundry.
“We’re all interested in replacing it,” Councilman Tom Garrity said Thursday. “Without a doubt,” chimed in Morrissey.
The town is already considering buying granite road markers carved with its name and the year it was founded, 1788. These could also be graced with, of course, a brass medallion depicting an elephant.
The Old Bet statue is more important, said Garrity: “It’s a symbol of the town, the schools, it’s everything.”
Zimmerman said she is looking into grants, but any applications must await a determination by the town of the project’s cost.
Councilman Richard Clinchy asked whether there was a historical date or event on the horizon that could be used to promote Old Bet fundraising efforts.
Zimmerman suggested Sept. 22, which is National Elephant Appreciation Day; World Circus Day, which is celebrated on the third Saturday in April; National Preservation Month (May), or National Archives Month (October).
Local historians are currently preparing for 2020 World Circus Day. Celebrations will be held in Bailey Park, under Old Bet’s watchful eye.
Everyone seemed to agree Thursday that many are likely to volunteer for an Old Bet Replacement Committee. “We organize well,” Garrity said.
Pointing to the town’s Bicentennial Committee’s fundraising success, Morrissey said: “They were selling plates and blankets. It was a wonderful event.”
While the “old” Old Bet won’t be trashed, it might be too heavy to trundle up the narrow wooden stairs to the circus museum. She will be exhibited somewhere significant, Smith and Zimmerman promised.
Once historians get their elephants, er, ducks in a row, the town will be there to help in any way it can, Morrissey said.