Miss Fancy the elephant returns triumphant to Birmingham’s Avondale Park
For about 20 years, the huge elephant reigned supreme at the Avondale Zoo, the city’s first large public zoo. It closed in 1934.
It’s been about eight years since a bronze statue of Miss Fancy, affectionately known as Little Miss Fancy, was “spirited away” after a drunk driver damaged the piece, said Avondale resident Leslie Smukler. After that, the statue’s whereabouts were largely unknown until Smukler investigated and learned the damaged piece was being housed at Legion field, in a storage room.
During the past two months, Birmingham sculptor Mike Chiarito has repaired and retrofitted the beloved statue into a fully operational fountain. Miss Fancy is again the master of her domain, perched atop her new platform at the western edge of Avondale Park.
On Saturday, June 19, at 5 p.m., Smukler and Chiarito will host a neighborhood celebration as an official “welcome home” to the 200-pound. statue. Those attending will enjoy balloons and treats, as well as a trivia contest with Miss Fancy T-shirts and books as prizes.
For the party, Chiarito invites everyone to bring a jug of water to start the fountain’s system and allow the elephant statue to spray water from its trunk: “I thought it would be neat to have people come out, after the fountain is ready to be turned on, and have them contribute a little bit of water into the fountain so they can have a part in the whole process.”
A plaque in Miss Fancy’s honor will adorn the statue. Smukler noted that it’s a long-awaited celebration: Indeed, it’s been about 84 years since Miss Fancy roamed the park.
From humble beginnings to ‘Fancy’ life
It was around 1913 or 1914 when residents began to talk about building a zoo in Avondale Park, according to “The History of Avondale.” Many stories have circulated about the zoo’s humble beginnings, but the most popular version is that the struggling Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus came to town and its train car was stranded. When that news reached the Birmingham Advertising Club, Browne wrote, its members knew that an elephant was the perfect means to gather a crowd.
A mammoth of flesh and blood was rarely seen in the South. Residents were thrilled to hear that an Indian elephant could be seen in their fair city – if only they could raise the money. So obsessed were the city’s youngsters, Avondale resident Irene Latham wrote in “Meet Miss Fancy,” that eager children held a penny drive. Certainly, the popular Lincoln “wheat pennies” first minted in 1909 were among the 50,000 collected by youngsters. Miss Fancy’s total cost was $2,000.
Thus, the huge mammal found a home at the fledgling Avondale Zoo. For about 20 years – from 1914 to 1934 – the huge elephant was the queen of the zoo.
Queen of the Avondale Zoo
In 1914, the city of Birmingham budgeted $500 for an elephant house. While Miss Fancy was the most popular animal, “The History of Avondale” noted that other exotic species lived at the zoo. There was no charge to enter. Miss Fancy had a happy career at the zoo, with visitors often supplying treats, such as peanuts. Under careful supervision by her zoo caretakers, up to seven youngsters at a time rode on Miss Fancy’s back.
The elephant liked to frolic outside the zoo. Smukler, a licensed massage therapist who has lived in Avondale for 15 years, said that long-time neighbors remember Miss Fancy looking in windows.
“Miss Fancy tossed hay at visitors with her hose-pipe trunk. … Her ears flap-flapped as she and her tail swish-swished as she strolled down neighborhood streets …,” Latham wrote.
In 1931, the elephant escaped from her holding pen and ran through trees on Red Mountain until she was finally caught at Overlook Road.
It’s likely that alcohol fueled some misadventures. In October 2012, “Alabama Heritage” magazine published a story that noted the sale of alcohol was illegal for most of the years Miss Fancy was in Birmingham. The zoo worker John Todd, who cared for the elephant, persuaded city officials to “give him bottles of confiscated illegal liquor to medicate Miss Fancy.”
It’s thought that these bouts of drinking led to Miss Fancy escaping about 12 times. In a comical account in the “History of Avondale,” longtime resident Ollie Powers said that Miss Fancy’s trainer took her to Cannon’s Coal Yard for weighing.
“On one such trip with the huge elephant, they had reached the area of the tennis courts when a red patrol car pulled up and noticed that John was walking unsteadily,” Browne recorded. “In those days, police drove red patrol cars. The police were very familiar with John and the elephant he escorted around. The officers arrested John and put him in the back seat of the patrol car, but then they faced a real dilemma. What could they do with Miss Fancy? They tried – but unsuccessfully – to get the elephant to move, but Miss Fancy only responded to comments from her trainer, so she just refused to budge an inch. Finally, the policeman had to get John out of the patrol car so that he could take Miss Fancy back to her home.”
When the Great Depression struck in 1929, the city of Birmingham could no longer afford Miss Fancy’s food and care. She daily ate an elephant-sized amount of food: up to 170 pounds of hay and up to 5 gallons of grain. She guzzled as much as 110 gallons of water.
With a lack of funds, the zoo continued its decline. In October 1934, the city sold Miss Fancy and several other animals – six monkeys, a bear, a llama and a cow – to Cole Brothers-Clyde Beatty Circus. The city received only $500 for Miss Fancy, one-fourth the original amount paid.
According to “Alabama Heritage,” Miss Fancy toured for two years with the circus. In April 1939, she was sold to the Buffalo Zoo in New York. She lived to be 83.
Not everyone is aware of Miss Fancy, but her legend lives on at Avondale Brewing Co., where her image is used on trucks, labels and T-shirts.
From Avondale resident to community activist
For a long while, after the damaged statue had been removed, Smukler pondered the statue’s disappearance. An admitted elephant lover who calls herself a “do-it-yourselfer,” Smukler was determined to solve the mystery.
“I started asking my friend Claire Parker, who is on the board of Friends of Avondale Park, what had happened to the elephant,” said Smukler, who formerly lived in Los Angeles. “One day last fall, she called and said, ‘I know where she is.’ Someone mentioned the statue was in a storeroom at Legion Field.’ My idea was, if it wasn’t that bad, we could fix it.”
Smukler started a GoFundMe fundraising account to restore Miss Fancy to her original glory. She is friends with Chiarito, a resident of the Forest Park neighborhood in Avondale, and immediately thought of him for the project. Chiarito estimated the entire project – soldering and repair of the elephant’s metalwork, retrofitting as a fountain and building a platform – would cost about $7,000.
“In two weeks, we got everything from $5 to $1,000,” Smukler said. “I care about the community; there is real community here. This is a community project.
“It was in the middle of COVID and was kind of a cool thing to cheer people up,” Smukler said. “I’m flabbergasted by the response. It tells everybody we love her. It’s just been fun at a time when things definitely were not fun.”
Adding artistry to electrical skills
As an artist who sculpts in stone – and one of few in Birmingham who works with bronze and brass – Chiarito had the metal-working abilities to restore the statue. Chiarito is a Renaissance man, of sorts: He also knows the skilled trades very well after working five years under a master plumber, electrician and heating and air specialist.
First, he carefully transported the damaged statue from Legion Field to his workroom in Avondale.
“I got really excited about the process of bringing her back,” said Chiarito, who saw the possibilities of using his engineering and creative skills. “It’s exciting because Little Miss Fancy has been and will remain an icon for Avondale Park. When she’s out here, in her place and working as a fountain, when kids come by and see Little Miss Fancy … it draws excitement and just imagination.”
It was a different task for Chiarito, who is well-known for his marble sculptures. While working on Miss Fancy, he also was completing a commissioned piece: a botanical-type sculpture that is the centerpiece of a Birmingham couple’s backyard garden. Chiarito made the one-hour drive from Birmingham to Sylacauga – home of some of the world’s finest marble – to select a slab to create his latest verdant statue.
To start the process of converting Little Miss Fancy into a fountain, Chiarito began by making a concrete base for the elephant. He then formed a concrete basin to catch the water, which will recycle the water into a pump that pushes the water out of the statue. The water travels into the basin, funnels into a hole, then pumps into the leg of the statue, where a port is located. The water then shoots from the tusk of the statue.
Using weather-resistant steel, Chiarito fashioned a platform that resembles a circus stand for the elephant. The stand contains the pump’s electrical apparatus. Chiarito bolted the statue to the stand.
“All you have to do is hit a switch, and she’ll be pumping water,” Chiarito said, with a smile. He’s excited to bring the elephant to “life,” when the fountain is flowing. “It’s going to be a sight to see.”
In the long term, the statue will hold many benefits for those who visit Avondale Park, he said.
“Kids are going to do better in school, even,” Chiarito said. “Art in itself helps communities, individuals – it helps things that most people wouldn’t even imagine would be helpful. It’s because it makes you think about what we’re capable of, what we can do individually, in groups, creatively and effectively for society, and for parks, and just togetherness in general.”
(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)