Header Graphic
The Man Who Made the Zoo

This article appeared in the Dayton Daily News January 3, 1932


By Howard Burba


     Now that the fate of the Cincinnati Zoo hangs in the balance the career of the man actually responsible for its development is of more than passing interest.  This is especially true in this particular part of Ohio, for Sol Stephan gave to Cincinnati her far-famed zoo, and Dayton gave to the world Sol Stephan.

     It is not generally known that this picturesque character is a native-born Daytonian.  Throughout the world, wherever wild animals are captured, trained or admired in captivity, the name of sol Stephan ranks in familiarity with that of the late Carl Hagenbeck.  In the amusement world, and especially the world of outdoor amusements, Sol Stephan is recognized as the “Daddy of Park Men.”  Nature seems to have endowed him with an uncanny understanding of the animal world.  More than a half-century of experience in catering to the public craving for entertainment has made of him one of the world’s master showmen.

     Sol Stephan’s father, a musician of considerable note, was born in Dayton.  He was engaged in the hotel business here when he married Louise Shafer, a sister of Salvatore Shafer, one of the pioneer merchants of the city.  The second child of this union, the Sol Stephan of whom we write, was still an infant of scarcely more than a year when his father, growing restless with each new report of fabulous “strikes” being made in the California gold fields, left his family to seek his fortune on the coast.  The mother and babe were promptly esconsced in the home of Salvatore Shafer and here they remained for a couple of years.

     Whether or not the elder Stephan found the end of the rainbow he sought in the gold belt, no one seems to know.  Sol Stephan himself steadfastly refuses to discuss it, and his is equally reluctant to talk about how he spent his childhood days after the mother bundled up her treasured belongings and left Dayton to take up her residence in Cincinnati.  At any rate, little Sol became a part and parcel of that city, the city wherein he was to be in later years honored and respected as one of its most lovable, and valuable, citizens.

     He attended a public school in the western part of Cincinnati, and it was while a pupil of that school that his unusual devotion to the residents of the animal world first became apparent.  Before he was a dozen years old he was the friend of every dog and cat in the neighborhood, and the owner of one or more of most every variety of “varmint,” as the neighbors classified his pets, that could be captured in the rocky crevices of the Mill creek valley hills.

     An acquaintance of the Stephan family, owner of a farm in that part of northern Indiana, then pretty much given over to cattle grazing, persuaded Mrs. Stephan to let the youth spend his 13th summer on the farm.  To Sol Stephan it was an invitation to paradise.  It offered an outlet for his ambitions, for even that early in life boys do possess such things, and young Sol’s was to become a wild animal trainer.  So we find him at the tender age of 13 gazing into the bland faces of the immense herd of cows owned by the pioneer Hoosier farmer.

     But the novelty of it soon wore away.  Fantastic pictures of the sawdust ring and the sea unrolled themselves before his boyish eyes.  The life of those who followed the gay-painted circus wagons, or of those who went down to the sea in ships, appealed strongly to him.  Through a relative he secured the address of the owner of the Great Eastern circus, whose outfit was at that time wintering in Texas.  He entered into correspondence with the circus man, and with the first hint of spring he was on his way to realize another boyhood dream.

     His first duties with the circus were of his own choosing.  Asked just what particular part of the circus menagerie he was most interested in, Sol quickly displayed his ability to choose the top rung of the ladder to start his climbing.  He wanted to assist the elephant trainer in looking after his herd.  His wish was granted, and as assistant to Jack Johnson, then widely known in the circus world, he became a fullfledged circus “trouper.”

     The elephants liked the lad; it is needless to say he quickly became devoted to them.  But he couldn’t bring himself to endorse the methods used by Johnson in training them and putting them through their various stunts.  He considered Johnson’s methods brutal.  Something arose in his throat, and pained him, when Johnson would prod the big beasts with the steel spike or pull them into place with the familiar “bull hook” carried by all elephant trainers.  Sol Stephan told himself that the same brand of kindness that won the friendship of dogs and cats would likewise appeal to elephant, known as “Conqueror.” as his method and scorned the “bull hook” upon all occasions.

     In the herd was one old bull elephant, known as “Conqueror.”  There was little love lost between the big animal and Johnson, and on several occasions the trainer had narrowly escaped serious injury when “Conqueror” had objected to the use of the prod and hook.  Stephan “made up” to the big beast; he saw an opportunity to test his theory that kindness would accomplish more than brutality or force.  It was not long until Sol and “Conqueror” were the best of pals, while “Conqueror,” completely transferring his affections from Johnson to the 19-year-old boy, reached the point where Johnson dared not approach that part of the menagerie tent in which the elephants were kept.

    Johnson was finally discharged, and Sol was given the job-a job he recalls to this day as the proudest promotion of his entire life.  He traveled overland with the circus for an entire season and then, learning that it was to tour the eastern states instead of the far west, a part of the country he was anxious to visit, he resigned and returned to the cattle range in northern Indiana.  Once more he took up the life of herding, finding that his experience with the menagerie animals added much to his ability as a “cowboy.”  His association with “Conqueror” and the cows under his guardianship, led him into animal training of his own accord.

    Once he captured a wild young deer, which became the nucleus of a small menagerie.  His next capture was a wild goose, and he followed up that achievement with the taking alive of a wild crane that was wading too closely to the shore of a marsh.  Then he added to the collection one snarling prairie wolf.  He built cages for his animal friends, and tended them carefully about the cabin in which he made his home, on a ridge far over from the main house, in which the proprietor of the ranch and his family resided.

     One day his employer, a man named Summers, rode over to the little log hut to see Sol on business connected with the cattle herding, and saw for the first time the rows of animal cages arranged alongside the wall.

     Summers had an eye for but one resident of the four-footed world.  That was a cow.  He could see no profit in anything else that belonged to the animal world, so the zoological collection of one Sol Stephan failed to make a hit with one Mr. summers.  He called sol to his side, berated him for spending his time on what he termed “such foolishness,” and closed the conversation by announcing that from that time on the sum of $5 would be deducted each month from the Stephan pay envelope, in payment for food for the animals.  It did not appeal to Sol Stephan “Make out my time; I’m through with you and your outfit,” was his answer to his employer.

     He owned a buckboard and a spotted horse.  Hitching them up he loaded his miniature cages on the vehicle and drove away, with no destination in mind.  The first village he struck was Kent, Ind., and when he reached there with his strange looking vehicle and stranger looking cargo, he quickly found himself the central figure of a curious crowd.

     Sol tied his horse to a hitch-rack along the one and only street in the town and entered a grocery store.  An aged resident of the village, apparently more curious than the rest, followed him in and wanted to know if he was taking the animals to “the show.”

     “Why, no, not exactly,” stammered Sol.  “Is there a show around here?”

     “Yep. Right at the end of this street,” drawled the native.  And in a few moments Sol was staring at a group of ragged tents pitched on a vacant lot at the edge of the village.  Strung on a wire of the foremost tent, the one facing the end of the street, was a much soiled banner, yet one whose wording was still legible.  So sol Stephan paused to read:

     “Come to see Tom Stephens, the World’s Most Famous Lion Tamer.”

     He spelled out the name again.  Then he entered the tent.  He asked for Tom Stephens, and a few seconds later he stood face-to-face with his brother, three years his senior, who had left home some years before the Indiana cattleman had visited the Stephan home in Cincinnati and won the younger brother away.

     Though he had known Tom had joined a circus shortly after leaving home, he had lost all trace of him.  The spelling of the name confused him for the moment, though in his heart he felt that the owner of it was the missing brother; he reasoned that Tom had merely changed the name to conform with an old circus custom.

     He lingered long enough to see his brother perform, and admired his skill in handling the lions. But he did not suggest that the circus owner add another animal trainer to his roster.  He climbed into his buckboard next morning and traveled on.  His route let to Lafayette, Ind., where a man, possessed of the showman instinct and also a touch of Scotch thrift, offered the sum of $14 for the collection of animals and birds.  Sol refused, and a moment later was approached by a wealthy citizen who owned a considerable estate near the city. He wanted the entire collection, and was willing to pay the sum of $125 for it.  The deal was made after sol had the man’s promise that he would have larger cages built so that the little animals would be more comfortable.

     Driving on to Quincy, Ill., he encountered a small wagon show, and “signed on.”  The outfit ran into an extended season of rain, and was forced to close within two weeks after the youthful animal trainer had joined it. In some way, word of the closing of the little circus reached Cincinnati, where enterprising citizens had organized a company to operate a zoo.  One of the promoters went to the town where the circus property had been stored in a warehouse and several barns, awaiting legal adjustment.  He made the circus owner an offer for the elephant, and since Sol had spent most of his two weeks in attempting to teach the animal new tricks, he was called forward to testify as to the animal’s general conduct.

     Sol Stephan to this day, chuckles when he recalls the incident.  He remembers the elephant as one of the most stubborn and withal the most dangerous carried by any circus.  But he also remembers the docile manner displayed by the old fellow as he led him from his stake to the feet of the would-be purchaser, and saw the property change hands.  It was essential that someone who understood elephants accompany the beast to Cincinnati.  And that man was Sol Stephan.  He had returned “home.”

     The Cincinnati Zoo was organized in 1875.  It had been in operation but one year when Sol Stephan arrived with its greatest attraction—a real elephant.  Andrew Erkenbrecher, a patriotic citizen of the Queen City, was directly responsible for the organization of the company, and it was on his estate, then far out from the city’s corporation line, that the park was laid out.  He formed a liking for young Stephan, and so did everyone who visited the new enterprise.  So did the small collection of animals, that had been assembled.  Sol Stephan appeared to those financially interested, to be the ideal man to manage the zoo.  He was employed for that purpose.

     For 56 years Sol Stephan has been guiding the destinies of the Cincinnati Zoo, and for almost as long the Cincinnati Zoo has been one of the greatest institutions of its kind in the known world.  In fact there is not another of its kind as well known throughout America. It has been for at least a half-century the magnet that has drawn millions to the city it has done much to make famous.

     Sol Stephan has seen it grow from a mere wooded tract to a magnificent park; from a zoo boasting of a single elephant, one tiger and a blind hyena, to a vast collection of more than 1600 birds and animals from every part of the civilized world, some of them the finest specimens ever to be placed in captivity. He became a part of the zoo itself; his life has been lived with the animals, his joy and his happiness has come wholly from his constant association with them. Long ago he became recognized as one of the world’s leading authorities on the care and breeding of wild life, and to this day his advice is constantly sought by circus men, and those having difficult problems to solve.

     A generation ago the Cincinnati Zoo was a successful financial investment.  That was before the arrival of the automobile, with its ability to cover distance so quickly as to bring other amusement enterprises, though of far lesser interest and importance, within easy reach of Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana residents.  Then, too, newer forms of entertainment came on to meet the demands of a younger generation not satisfied with that which appealed to their ancestors.  They stepped into the age of speed, and all that accompanies it, and while wild life appealed to them far more strongly than it did to their parents, it is a different kind of wild life from that to be found in a zoo.

     One thing and another served to deflect the crowd, though each year since its inception has seen the Cincinnati Zoo larger in size and more expensive from an operating standpoint.  For several years the street railway company directed its operation.  Since it could be reached with convenience only by street cars, it still remained a paying proposition.  Then came the auto, a tremendous falling off in car fares on the lines leading to the zoo, and the railway company was forced to relinquish its interest.  For a time the old institution’s fate hung in the balance.

     Recognizing its importance, mindful of its value from an educational standpoint, and realizing its tremendous value as the cleanest and most interesting outdoor amusement enterprise in the middlewest, a couple of wealthy Cincinnati women agreed to meet the annual deficit to be found on the zoo’s books at the close of each season.  This gave the historic old place a new lease on life, and in recent years a newer generation, surfeited with “jazz,” and disgusted with a pace that leads only to an illusionary happiness, has contributed new interest, and the zoo had shown a decided pick-up in attendance.
     Some months ago the last of the philanthropic women supporting the zoo passed on.  Neither had left an endowment to carry on the noble task to which they had set themselves in life.  Heirs apparently placed the almighty dollar ahead of civic pride, so once again the matter of taking care of the zoo’s annual deficit, in round numbers about $30,000 a year, came to the fore.

     Today the fate of the Cincinnati Zoo hangs in the balance.  The city of Cincinnati, mindful of the fact that all other institutions in the city have not, collectively, brought it as much fame as the zoo, is determined that the institution shall not be closed.  To that end a committee of public-spirited citizens is working out plans whereby it is hoped to so endow it that never again will the financial side of its operation threaten its abandonment.

     Through every financial storm, Sol Stephan has stuck with his friends in the cages and pits, and on the waters of the little lakes set like diamonds in a sward of green.  Their welfare came first with Sol Stephan, and it always will as long as there is a zoo at Cincinnati and Sol Stephan is alive.  If it were left to the children, and old children with young hearts, a fund could be raised in 24 hours to build a monument to Sol Stephan a mile high.

     It should not, then, be difficult for the enterprising residents of one of the world’s finest cities—Cincinnati—to work out a way whereby this existing monument to Sol Stephan can be maintained.  The world is too full of tragedy as it is to add still another to the list.  For it would be nothing short of a tragedy to lose the Cincinnati Zoo.