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Taking Nature In As A Side Partner

This article appeared in the Dayton Daily News on January 8, 1928

Taking Nature in as a Side-Partner

By Howard Burba


            There seems to be a general belief in this country that about the only thing we get from the Balkans is a never-ending conglomeration of war clouds.  In fact, we’ve grown to associate turmoil and strife with the word “Balkans.”  When we glimpse a war-scare headline in our daily papers we turn our eyes downward to see what the Balkans are sending us now, as naturally as we look for a Chicago dateline when the when the head tells of beer-running or banditry. 

            But if we want to be fair we must give even his satanic majesty his due.  So we should credit the Balkans with any good that may have come out of it.  No matter how the remainder of the world keeps its books, Dayton, if she follows her customary fairness, must enter on the credit side of her ledger a generous allowance for having received from the Balkans one Aurel Vaszin, whom we offer as evidence that some good can come from any country, even the Balkans.

            Vaszin was born in the heart of the Balkans, of Hungarian and Romanian parentage.  The mixture of nationalities isn’t worrying him in the least, for the simple reason that he is today a full-fledged American by choice and a tax-paying citizen of Dayton by preferment.  Through six grades he plodded in a Balkan schoolroom, and then he set out to collect the living he had been informed the world owed him.  Apprenticing himself to a cabinetmaker, he learned that trade.  When he became thoroughly proficient, he was put on the pay-roll at $1.50 a week.  Those about him were satisfied, because those about him had never heard of the outside world.  Vaszin had given his school geography a little more attention than the rest, however and he discovered that there is a considerable part of the world lying beyond the lines which, though constantly shifting, still form the Balkan boundaries.

            He saved enough money to get to Germany.  There he quickly secured work at his trade.  Germany paid a little better sum to those who did her cabinetwork, and yet not enough to allay the spirit of unrest and dissatisfaction that had early manifested itself in the breast of the little Balkan boy.  He saved every possible penny and one day he journeyed to Hamberg.  He saw the big liners coming in from America.  He saw others ready to depart for there.

            It was but the work of a few moments to procure a ticket to New York.  With this and a $10 bill tucked away securely in his pocket; friendless so far a relatives are concerned because he had long since bidden them farewell, and without a single word of English in his vocabulary, he turned his face toward the setting sun – and America. 

            The ten dollars lasted three days after his arrival in New York.  But at the end of the third day he got what he came over for – a chance to work at his trade.  That was in 1904.  it so happened that his work was one of the country’s  largest outdoor amusement concerns, one specializing in the building of equipment and devices so long a vital part  of parks and carnivals.  He worked by day, by night he studied language and history at a night-school.  Mastering English, he learned where he could secure mall lessons in draughting, so a part of his savings went in that direction.

            In 1918, about the time the late Edward Lanterbach took over the Lakeside park in Dayton, and forthwith set about remodeling the place, Vaszin was working for an amusement device concern in New Haven, Conn.  He was sent on here to superintend the work at Lakeside.  And he fell in love with Dayton. 

            From Dayton he went to Detroit, where he directed the work of installing devices at the Belle Isle bridge amusement park; from there he journeyed into other parts of the country, but still with memories of the moths he had spent in Dayton.  But it was not until 1920 that he finally decided to cast his lot here, and when he did it was with a total capital of $5000 as though each dollar was made of the purest rubber, he began the building of amusement devices.

            Passing rapidly over the years in which he struggled hard to keep his little plant running, and to make both ends meet, we find Aurel Vaszin today not only the sole owner of a plant valued at close to $200,000, and shipping amusement devices to every part of the United States and a half-dozen foreign countries, but we find him signing up old mother nature as a partner in what promises to be an institution in which all Dayton will one day be proud. 

            Vaszin has taken a long lease on 46 acres of land out N. main st., a plat for several years familiarly known as Forest Park.  Here he has laid the foundation for a modern zoological garden – and he has laid it well.

            An outdoor amusement man from head to foot, he was quick to see the natural advantages of this magnificent woodland.  Thickly set with huge poplars and oaks, and a gently rolling as our treasured Hills and Dales, it possesses natural beauty not to be found in the Bronx or Cincinnati soon.  Already winding roadways find their way about the tiny valleys and to the crests of the many hills.  And upon these hills construction crews are now busily engaged in erecting permanent buildings for housing the animal collection.

            Just as the giant oaks at Forest Gables had to spring from tiny acorns, even so will Dayton’s zoo have to start from the ground up.  The collection of birds and animals, even at this early date, is sufficient, however, to convince those who may lean toward skepticism of the possibilities of this new amusement and educational project.

            In the first of the permanent houses to be erected in housed the collection of animals captured by Fredrick Patterson on his recent African hunt.  In the same building are the monkeys and smaller animals, all happy, content and hearty, awaiting the day when they will be removed to cages in the open air.

            Nearby the first units of the bird and small animal cages have been completed, and already they are sheltering the Harbaugh collection of fowls, valued at several thousand dollars.  Chief among this interesting collection is the trip of black swans, a zoology treasure of exceptional rarity.

            Work is proceeding, despite unfavorable weather, on additional animal houses and outside cages in which will be housed animals already purchased and ready for shipment the moment housing facilities are completed.  These include bears, an additional shipment of monkeys and – of exceptional interest to the kiddies – a real, live elephant with the disposition certain to endear him to the entire population.  Elk and deer are already installed in large tracts fenced off especially for them, while negotiations are underway for at least two buffalo, to be a gift from the government. 

            Seldom, if ever, has an institution of this kind, been started under such favorable auspices.  For even now there are several specimens in the collection that rank with anything to be found in any American zoo.  The interest manifested by Mr. Patterson, concrete evidence of which is had in the fact that his own prize specimens have been added to the collection, is expected to serve as an incentive for additional cooperation.  Already Harold Talbott, who with his wife is enroute to South Africa for a hunt of several months’ duration, has notified Mr. Vaszin that he can go right ahead building additional animal houses with the assurance that they will be put to good use upon the return of the Talbotts.

            Owners of smaller pets are also showing a keen interest in Dayton’s zoo, and are generously adding their treasures to the general collection.  In this way, coupled with a generous fund which Mr. Vaszin has provided from his own pocket, but a few years can elapse until the zoo at Forest Park will be of sufficient size and importance to take high rank with those in New York, Philadelphia, Cincinnati and other cities that have long since seen the wide educational advantage of such institutions.

            While Forest Park will be primarily an outdoor amusement place, its chief claim to recognition will lie in its interest from a zoological standpoint.  Commenting on this line, and as an indication of the fact that he has felt his way carefully, and studied every angle and condition of the project, Mr. Vaszin said to the writer:

            “No one, of course, wants to lose hard-earned money, and especially not one who landed in America with but $10 in his pocket and who has had to work long and hard for every dollar he has since secured.  There will be the usual amusements to be found at such zoos as the Bronx and Cincinnati, Figure-Eight, Merry-go-Round, Pony Track and all.

            But the carnival atmosphere will not be present in one respect – there will be no cheap, catch-penny schemes to separate the public from its money.  Only high-class amusement devices will be invited, and these will be in the hands of men schooled in the amusement business.

            All want to see Dayton and the Miami Valley in possession of a zoological garden that will be in keeping with the high standards set by the city for all its institutions, from its churches and schools to its factories.  We have a remarkable citizenship here.  Even our foreign-born are of a higher standard than one can find in the average large American city.  We have, in addition to a steadily growing city, a prosperous and highly-educated citizenship from which to draw.  I place Dayton’s drawing territory at ??0,000 people, and feel that is conservative, within two or three years we should have here a collection of animals well worth a drive of 50 or 75 miles to see.  And that means that the zoo would have a steady summer patronage of at least a half-million people.

            “It is my idea to lay a foundation for a permanent institution, and one that will in the years to come be as valuable to the city from the standpoint of publicity as it will be of educational interest to the thousands easily within reach of it by auto.  We expect to be so far along with it by spring as to occasion the surprise of those who are not acquainted with our plans.  Then each additional season will see more and more buildings erected to house them permanently.

            “I want this institution to be a part of Dayton and to rank with her other institutions, I want it operated along the same plan as Hills and Dales, insofar as that can be done, of course.  There will be no admission fee at any time, and always it will be, though a privately-owned enterprise, a publicly kept one in that those who visit it will take a personal pride in aiding in its beautification.  This year we will have at least one lake ready for the water fowl, of which we already have some beautiful specimens.  Next season, or sooner if it is found necessary, we will add other little bodies of water and artificial brooks.

            “Our plans are all made, but it must be understood tat to be attractive a park must be beautiful, and beautification cannot be hurried.  We have to leave the biggest part of the job to nature.  We are not going to try to do everything at once, but everything we do is going to be done well and for permanence.  We have in mind the history of the Cincinnati zoo.  It has taken a lifetime to establish it.  We hope to work a little faster at Forest Park, because we have better facilities than they had in the early days of the Cincinnati institution.  We can get our animals in greater numbers, and at less expense.  And then, too, we must remember that in leaning heavily on nature to help us out, there is going to be a natural increase in animal population that must be taken into consideration.”

            The other day, before we had met this enterprising product of the Balkans, but today a happy and contented American, we had found no reason to set down a modern zoological garden as a civic responsibility.  Yesterday, before we had ventured back into the beautiful natural tract, we had given no thought to what might be on this man’s mind.  But it’s different now that we have talked with him, and with him have stood knee-deep in the fallen forest leaves of what is some day going to be, unless all signs fail, a public playground of such rare educational interest as to make of Dayton a city to be envied.

            Without a blare of trumpets, and without sending his heralds on ahead; without stock-selling campaigns and without ballyhoo; this man has worked silently, and yet swiftly, in laying the groundwork of a dream that has been his constant companion.  He enjoys a nationwide acquaintance among park and outdoor amusement men, yet even these have been kept in ignorance of his plans.

            But he can’t keep it a secret now, for the groundwork is laid and a permanent institution has started to arise upon the foundation he has so carefully thought out.  He visions a monument to his own civic interest in the form of a magnificent zoological garden that will carry the fame of Dayton into every part of the world.

            You don’t need to talk to Aurel Vaszin to vision this same thing.  It is only necessary to go out to Forest Park and see how well he has started, in so short a time, toward making his dream come true.