On Wednesday, July 1, Brookfield Zoo will be 75 years old. Construction began in the mid-1920s but once the Great Depression hit, all building halted. The zoo was not finished until1934.
That was a big summer for Chicago. Dillinger was shot outside the Biograph Theater and the “Century of Progress” World’s Fair had been so well-attended, despite the hard times, it was reopened for a successful second year.
Since 1934 Brookfield Zoo has been a world-class leader in animal care, conservation, and education, inspiring generations of guests to gain a greater appreciation of nature and wildlife.
When the Arcadia Publishing Company heard I was working part time as a motor safari tram guide at the zoo, an editor approached me about doing a new book for their “Images of America” series.
They were especially intent on adding a Brookfield Zoo title to their list of publications in time to celebrate the zoo’s 75th anniversary. A zoo book sounded like a wonderful project, and I’d be working with a co-author, Carla W. Owens, zoo archivist and manager of library services.
The book “tells the story” of the zoo from the beginning, using about 230 vintage and recent photographs, with captions explaining the progression of images. Carla and I found lots of incredible stuff.
We had access to many thousands of pictures, ranging from postcard views to professional photos that ran in publications like Look magazine, Life magazine and the Chicago Tribune. We had a number of charming amateur photos taken by guests themselves over the decades. We also located displays and publicity materials that had not been seen in nearly eight decades.
In the attic level of a big commissary barn on the south side of the zoo we discovered souvenirs and guide books dating back to the 1930s. We even found a number of posters and images from the WPA, the Works Progress Administration. A number of WPA artisans during the Roosevelt years actually had a studio at the zoo and created many murals, lots of signage and sculpture.
The cover photo, a majestic shot of a polar bear at dawn, was featured on a penny picture postcard in 1934. There were many views of the bear grottos in the early years. The innovative “bar-less” exhibits with moats safely separating the guests from the animals were enormously popular. Most zoos still exhibited animals in cages at that time.
Readers can see some of the most popular “stars” of the zoo over the years, from Cookie the cockatoo (still alive and well) to Ziggy the bull elephant who attained cult status to the trio of pandas who came to Brookfield Zoo in the 1930s, creating a national “panda-monium.”
The book Brookfield Zoo and the Chicago Zoological Society is on sale in bookstores as well as at the zoo. Owens and I will be signing copies of the book on the East Mall from 9:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. on July 1.
There will be lots of other special activities all day on July 1. The band Tributosaurus will play music from the different decades since the 1930s. Dr. Stuart Strahl, president and chief executive officer of Brookfield Zoo, will speak, highlighting some of the zoo’s significant moments over the years.
There will be performances by the Chicago Cultural Alliance, Native American dancers and drummers, Scottish bagpipers and Highland Dancers and Brazilian “Planta Azul” performances. There will lots of “zoo chats” in front of various habitats and exhibits, as well as other surprises and treats, such as 75-cent Vienna hotdogs.
There will also be free admission for all children 11 years old and under on June 29, June 30 and July 1.