The sad, mysterious tale of Baby Mine, the Iowa State Fair elephant
Baby Mine, a 3,000-pound spectacle of wonder in the 1930s, enjoyed a life with young fairgoers before she was sold to a circus more than a decade later. State Historical Society of Iowa, Des Moines, State Historical Society of Iowa, Des Moines
Not even the Iowa State Fair was immune from the Great Depression.
As the market plummeted in 1929, the fair needed to drum up more and more excitement as the public became choosier and choosier with how they spent their leisure funds.
So the fair board got together with the Des Moines Register and Tribune and schemed up a way to bring both community institutions some publicity.
An elephant, they decided. They needed to buy an elephant.
Exactly why they landed on having Iowa’s schoolchildren crowdsource the funds for a pachyderm is lost to history, but a coupon soliciting nickels and dimes soon appeared in the Register, and, indeed, excitement for the fair was whipped into a never-before-seen frenzy.
More than 20,000 owners, errr, kids, showed up for her “coronation” at the Iowa State Fair Grandstand.
But then, as mysteriously as she came, she was gone. No heralding. No crowds of children. After more than a decade at the fair, she was sold to the circus, changing hands multiple times before eventually becoming the grand prize in a radio giveaway.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Before we get to the sad end of Mine’s twisted life, we have to turn back our clocks. Back to before digital tethers allowed us to see whatever our hearts’ desire with the click of a button. Back to when touching an elephant seemed as implausible as man landing on the moon.
“In 1929, it's a different time and place and Iowans are trying to think of, 'OK, what’s a new attraction?’” state curator Leo Landis said. “Well, the idea of seeing a real live elephant would've been thrilling to most Iowans.”
In 1929, the Des Moines Register and the Iowa State Fair teamed up with the children of Iowa to buy an elephant. It was funded by donations from Iowa children. Zachary Boyden-Holmes, DesMoines
‘Dear Elephant Editor’
“Dear Elephant Editor of the Des Moines Register and Tribune,” read an odd-looking coupon printed in the paper in the first months of 1929.
“I think it is a great idea for the boys and girls of Iowa to own an elephant,” the ad continued. “I am enclosing … (not more than a dime). I will watch for my name as one of the owners in next Sunday’s Register.”
Names and dimes poured in by the thousands, and, in short order, the fair reached the $3,000 needed for pachyderm payment.
Mine’s origins are impossible to pin down because pertinent records were destroyed in World War II, but she was either captured wild and shipped from the busy port in Hamburg, Germany, or was born in captivity in the Carl Hagenbeck Teripark in the same city.
Wherever she came from, the 1,100-pound elephant crossed at least two oceans and three continents to reach Iowa’s capital city for her debut on Friday, Aug. 23 — Children’s Day at the 1929 fair.
Between 20,000 and 25,000 children packed the Grandstand that morning, Landis said, marking “probably the largest, single crowd of children at the Iowa State Fair in one place.”
Spotting their elephant across the fairgrounds, the gathered kids went crazy. They climbed over each other for the best possible view of Mine — clad in a pink and white dress and matching lacy hat. The kids “broke through police lines,” the Register reported.
“Usually it is the elephant that tramples humans; but Friday, the 700-pound jungle baby was for several minutes in danger of being trampled underfoot by thousands of 70-pound humans,” the Register said.
Mine was, apparently, unmoved. Her hazel eyes “already have the disillusioned look of an elephant of the world,” the Register wrote.
“Nonchalant, indifferent, dignified and aloof as a Lindbergh or any other celebrity, this 2-year-old infant of the Indian jungles lumbered, but lumbered daintily,” the newspaper reported.
The first order of business was a name. After “hours of deliberation,” “Mine” — not “Baby Mine” — was selected because every young Iowa child who had contributed to her purchase would be able to call her theirs just by saying her name.
As a coronation, fair members poured popcorn over Mine’s head, which she submitted to “gracefully and indulgently” — save for a “ladylike self-consciousness” over the few kernels that got caught in her hair “like confetti after a masquerade ball.”
When she wasn’t displayed during the State Fair, Mine toured local county fairs and events to fray the costs of her care. Annoyed and alarmed by her schedule, her trainer demanded Mine also have time to rest.
By her fourth birthday, however, Mine was being used in less performative ways.
“Last week, to save time, she was used to tread the dirt in a trench where sewer pipes were being laid,” the Register reported. “She walked up and down the trench with her 2,200 pounds of weight and in short time the earth was packed.”
The story was an unfortunate harbinger of her life to come; Mine’s last fair appearance as “Iowa’s Pride and Joy” came in 1941.
Slow spiral to obscurity
In July 1942, the fair board sold Mine and her companion, Dandy the horse, to the Cole Brothers circus for $775, donating their profit to polio victims.
Days after the sale, Mine, then 4,000 pounds, went on a “minor rampage” as she was being moved from the Iowa State Fairgrounds, according to the Register.
Grabbing circus worker Eugene Scott with her trunk, she “tossed him 12 feet.” Though his only injury was a badly bruised left leg, Scott was reluctant to get close to Mine’s trunk when the Register reporter requested a picture.
“She’s been sentenced to a siege of hard labor,” the Register reported.
Renamed Katie and then Rosie, Mine performed in the circus for a few years, but became more and more “ornery.” She appeared on the Fairgrounds one last time as a circus performer in 1946.
“The marketing manager of the day said, ‘Oh, all I hear is, ‘Baby Mine! Baby Mine! Where's Baby Mine?’” Landis said. “So she still had a strong following even in that period when she was gone.”
A few years later, Mine, then 22 and 8,000 pounds, was given away as the grand prize in a radio promotion. But the winner chose to take the $2,000 cash prize instead.
Realizing her plight, a Des Moines zoo asked to buy Mine, but she was sold to another circus as a working elephant, relegated to moving tents and props, not performing. She worked until at least 1953.
She died in total obscurity in the mid-1950s. No heralding. No crowds of children. No obit.
Today, the only remnant of her on the fairgrounds is a worn-down statue in the Fun Forest. Set off from the stage where kids’ attention is rapt by jugglers and magicians, the sign marking her spot is tattered and a layer of dirt suggests how long it's been since anyone’s noticed her.
Elephant a reminder of the connection to the real
Since first hearing Mine's story, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about how her life turned so dark so quickly.
But marching through the fairgrounds these past few days, this story has followed me in an unexpected way.
Everywhere I turn, I feel the same excitement and whimsy described in reports of Mine’s first days. I am heartened by the simple, unbreakable joy imbued in the Grand Concourse and the Elwell Food Center and Grandfather's Barn.
Museums, encyclopedias and photos all existed in 1929, but the State Fair gave Iowa's schoolchildren a chance to touch, to be in the presence of the largest land animal known to man.
Today, even as we can see and do with the click of a finger, there still is no replacement to the opportunity to touch and to be a part of. In Iowa, we're lucky enough to get that once a year at the fair.
Take the outdoor stages. Audiences shuffle into booths for a quick rest or some shade and find themselves not only caught up in but actually cheering for powerlifting or backgammon or apple pie or hot dog eating. Some decide to try their hand at it, too.
All humanity gets thrown together at the fair and, for the most part, we all get along. I don’t subscribe to the belief that the news is too sad, but this is a side of the world that gets lost too often to Walmart shootings or presidential tweets.
I started this column thinking I’d admonish Iowans for not giving Mine the sendoff she deserved (and some tsk-tsks are deserved).
But instead, I’d like to thank her for reminding me that no matter how connected we feel behind the screen of a computer, there’s no comparison to sharing a corndog, hearing the giggle of a midway ride-goer or maybe even spotting an elephant at our Iowa State Fair.