Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Liz and Queenie (the Water Skiing Elephant of Ponce de Leon Springs)


Liz Green Dane somehow came across a past post about the water skiing elephant of Ponce de Leon Springs and notified me that I had incorrectly identified the elephant in the painting from the state park’s small museum. Liz ought to know, because it was she and her elephant Queenie that performed at De Leon Springs in the late ’50s! (The first water skiing elephant at the Springs was Sunshine Sally accompanied by Marj Rusing from the Marj and Jim Rusing water ski show.)

Liz has been kind enough to answer some questions about what it was like growing up with an elephant and performing at a roadside attraction in Florida in the ’50s and ’60s. But first here is some background:

Liz was 9 years old when she took a train with her parents to New York City in 1953. Her folks had promised her a tip to the pet store in the Big Apple and when they arrived they were met by a camera crew from the Today Show, who were there to film her visit. Amidst the usual dogs, cats, birds and fish, one unique animal stood out, a 250 lb. baby elephant. Allowed to pick out the pet of her choice, Liz was soon on her way home to New Hampshire with a 6 month old baby elephant.


A year later her family moved to Vermont and opened Bill Green’s Rare Bird and Animal Farm, a roadside attraction where Liz and her elephant Queenie would eventually perform. Queenie’s fame grew from appearances on television shows from the Tonight Show to I’ve Got a Secret, and when she learned to water ski she was featured in a series of print advertisements for Mercury Outboard Motors. Liz and Queenie performed at Ponce de Leon Springs during the winters of 1959 and 1960 but after Liz went to college the Greens sold Queenie to another outfit who had other performing elephants. Liz was re-united with Queenie 38 years later in 2005, when she tracked down her pachyderm pal living at a theme park in Valdosta, Georgia. After almost 4 decades with no contact, the elephant Liz grew up with still remembered her. She now visits Queenie at least once a year.


When you visited the pet store in 1953, did your father know you would pick Queenie for your pet?
Yes. It was all prearranged by Henry Trefflich and my Dad but totally unknown to me. As you know, a film crew was there and my brother and a friend of his were waiting outside in our 1953 Mercury (with the back seat removed) to bring Queenie home. My Dad, Mom and I traveled to/from NY City on the train.

Have you ever seen the footage from the Today Show of your trip to the pet store?
Unfortunately, I have never been able to find any TV footage or newspaper accounts of the event. I’ve tried on several different occasions to “search” via the internet but – no luck. I’ve been told that the NY Daily newspaper would be the most likely one to carry such a story – but haven’t taken the time to completely research that.

I’m curious about Bill Green’s Rare Bird and Animal Farm. Was it a roadside attraction? How many animals did it have? How long was it open?
The “Farm” began in Orfordville, NH as a private collection of animals – at first simply comprised of animals my Dad had captured himself. Queenie was one of his first foreign and/or exotic mammal purchases. The private collection soon became a financial burden, so it became “open” to the public for a fee. The next challenge was finding sufficient space to house everything and to expand as my Dad had visions of doing. That was accomplished when my folks bought a large tract of land on State Route 5 in Fairlee, Vermont, in 1954. It was then that the Rare Bird and Animal Farm was “born” and went on to became a very popular “roadside attraction”. We had over 250 animals/bird and reptiles. It flourished through the mid 1960s – until the construction of Interstate 91 cut off a big chunk of our land. My Dad passed away in 1965 and my Mom, Betty Green, and of course lots of hired help, kept the attraction going until she sold everything in 1968. The folks that bought it kept it open to the public for a couple more years but weren’t able to make “a go of it”. Sadly, everything got auctioned off and the “Farm” became a treasured memory.


Tell me about your father. He seemed like quite the showman!
Yes, “quite the showman” is a perfect description of my Dad. I’m going to take the easy way out of this one by sending you a separate document – my notes and pictures of a presentation I made a couple of years ago to the Fairlee, Vermont Historical Society. You should be able to glean quite a bit of information about my Dad and events leading up to the “Farm”. Once you receive/read that – please let me know if you have more questions.

What was it like growing up with an elephant? Did Queenie require lots of attention? Was it your responsibility to feed and care for her?
When we first brought Queenie home she required A LOT of attention. She was housed in a special enclosure within a heated building and her every sound was monitored via a device similar to the “baby monitors” that parents use today. Mom and Dad could even hear Queenie breathing from a speaker in their bedroom. As she was too young to eat hay and grain, my Mom would cook up great amounts of an oatmeal and milk mixture that she would get several times a day supplemented with lots of bananas, bread and vitamins. Naturally, once she could begin eating hay and grain, her care wasn’t quite so demanding. However, we always had hired animal caretakers and for the first couple of years, a special one just for Queenie. So, no – it wasn’t my direct responsibility to feed and care for her – but rather, just to love her and share a tremendous bond that we had. You see, she was barely six-months old and I had just turned nine when we first got her. She was my “buddy” – a “shoulder” to cry on when sad, a playmate when happy!

As Visual Ephemera focuses on Florida, I’m very interested in what De Leon Springs was like when you performed there. Today it is a quiet state park, it is hard to imagine with ski shows and animal acts. What was it like?

Oh how I wish my folks (and I) would have been more “camera” savvy back then. I have very few pictures. When my Dad and Queenie were first at the Springs (Jan – May, 1959) I was enrolled in high school, up in Callahan, FL where we had a “winter” home. Mom and I would go down to the Springs on weekends. As I think I’m recollecting correctly, a family by the name of “Dunbar” lived in the house that was built on the “Indian Burial Mound”. I don’t know who owned the park at that time, but I don’t think it belonged to the Dunbar’s – but rather, he was the main caretaker. But I could be totally wrong, so please don’t quote me on that. I do remember that Mr. Dunbar and I had our picture taken admiring one of the huge Florida Live Oak trees on the property. The picture was made into a postcard which I will e-mail to you. Marj and Jim Rusing were there and put on daily water-ski shows. I do have some 8 mm movie footage but have only had a small portion transferred to DVD – as seen on the YouTube clip submitted by Ron Williamson – of the Daytona Newspaper.
I remember Jan – April, 1960 better as I spent all my time there. My Mom and I lived in the hotel. Again, if memory serves me correctly, the park was then owned by a Lee Norwood. He eventually lost the park as I believe he went to prison for “insider trading”. Lee had a couple of miniature gas powered antique car replicas that he would bring out every now and then. My Mom and I used to ride them around the park. I also remember that a Mr. Jonas (of the famous Jonas Brothers Taxidermy family) was using one of the buildings on the grounds to create fiberglass models of the dinosaurs that would eventually be built for the Sinclair Oil Company’s exhibit at the New York World’s Fair.
Ad showing Sinclair Dinosaur from World's Fair

I was not enrolled in a conventional high school then, but rather, kept up my studies via correspondence courses. I remember sitting on a blanket by the “Fountain of Youth” pool studying Biology and U.S. Geography. I also remember a guy by the name of “Art” and another couple that used to don scuba gear and dive down into the “boil”. Not sure how far down they would go, or if they ever found any artifacts.

Getting back to the hotel – in addition to rooms for quests to stay in, there was a dining room that offered dinner (and maybe lunches too). A lady by the name of Dolly worked there and for something to do, I would help her by making up the relish trays (consisting of celery and carrot sticks, and fancy “rosebud cut” radishes) and clearing off tables.

State Archives of Florida

Dolly’s husband, Jim, also worked at the Springs. They lived in a little house on the road that went from the Springs to Deland.

I can remember watching Marj and Jim Rusing perform their water-ski show. Jim always used to make a spectacular jump up over the ski ramp and through the air before landing back on the water. One time especially sticks out in my mind, as he landed on a huge gar fish that was swimming too close to the surface. I won’t go into details here – but just imagine what would happen when a gar fish, two water-skis and a big man collide. Not a pretty picture.
Did Queenie ski right over the spring itself or in the run leading from the spring- it is hard to tell in the film footage.
No, we did not ski on the spring itself as that area was used for swimming. A cement wall created a “pool” and two “spillways” allowed the millions of gallons of water to flow out into Spring Garden Lake, aka Mud Lake ~ which is where the water-ski shows were held.
How many people would be on hand to watch you perform at De Leon Springs?
I don’t recollect exactly how many, but a steady flow of tourists came to the Springs on a daily basis. The bleachers would be full for most of the performances.
Were there other animal acts when you were there? And were you and Queenie part of the water-skiing show or did you have your own show?
Yes, we had several other trained animal acts ~ six llamas that performed a Liberty Drill, a zebra that did a “pick-out” act ~ and a dog/monkey/miniature Sicilian donkey act.

Queenie and I water-skied as well performed in the ring.

Was Queenie full grown when you were performing at the spring?
No, she was only six - seven years old. Elephants don’t normally attain their full height until around age 16 and they continue to fill-out for another few years.
Image from ad for Mercury Outboards

Have you ever visited De Leon Springs State Park? If so does it bring back memories or does it seem completely different from when you were there?
Yes, several times and as recently as this October (2009). Of course, many memories come flooding back each time I visit. The hotel is gone. I think it burned many years ago?? A building is there now – but certainly not the original structure. The “sugar mill” and water-wheel has been beautifully renovated – it is now a “cook ‘em yourself” pancake restaurant. The water-ski jump that was in Mud Lake is gone. The island that Jim Rusing used to jump his boat over is now covered and not really even distinguishable as an island due to lots of brush and grass growing on it, plus vegetation in the water between the island and where the bleachers used to be.

Overall, I remember the area open to the public as being much more expansive than it is now. I’ve got a real neat sketch of the entire area as it looked back then.

The statue of Ponce de Leon and a bathing beauty at the main entrance is gone. Here again, I’ve got a postcard depicting it.



How hard was it to say goodbye to Queenie in 1967?
It was a sad yet happy time. Sad as I thought I would probably never see her again, but happy that she would be joining other elephants that would become her new family.
When you first saw Queenie in 2005 after not seeing her for 38 years, did you recognize her immediately? Is there any way to put into words the bond you two have?
Of course, I recognized her immediately. Every elephant has unique features ~ the shape of their heads, ears, etc.

Well, I guess the answer to your second question is simply, “No”. But there is definitely a life-long bond and the saying, “An elephant never forgets”, is absolutely true – at least as far as Queenie is concerned. Her caregivers told me they felt that my visiting Queenie was great therapy for her.
Wow – I feel as if I just wrote a book!!!

Images courtesy of Liz Dane

11 comments:

  1. That's a great story. I guess an elephant really never forgets!

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  2. Thanks. I think so too. I was so excited when I first heard from Liz. I hope to meet her in person next month.

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  3. Such a great collection of imagery and a great write-up! Thanks Rick!

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  4. Well, I meant to say a great "interview"! How lovely to hear Liz recount her childhood with Queenie. A great slice of life and Americana. :~)

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  5. I agree! You have a knack for seeking out the odd players that make up the fabric of our kooky state.

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  7. I am working on a scrapbook for my sister and I. I was so excited to hear about Queenie. My sister and I first rode Queenie in 1956 at Green's Animal farm. I am going to add the rest of Queenie's story in my scrapbook.
    Donna

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  8. I was born four decades too late. I would have loved to have been around to enjoy these attractions and shows. I hope to get to Weeki Wachee someday to see their mermaids, while they are still performing!

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  9. I was so excited to read and see this. Bill Green was my great-grandfather. I don't have many pictures or have heard many stories as Aunt Liz lived aways from my home town. But, seeing this makes me closer to home, even if I'm far away. This is my heritage, and our love for all creatures will always be in our blood.

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  10. Here's an audio interview with Liz: http://myfloridahistory.org/frontiers/shows/012

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  11. Wonderful story! My parents used to take us by boat from Sanford to DeLeon Springs for weekend getaways. We always stayed in the hotel at the springs and I remember V. Lee Norwood very well! The Pancake House was there, but as I remember...it was not really open to the public as a restaurant. If the folks were there, we could get in and make breakfast for ourselves at one of the griddle tables. There was a glass viewing area in the springs and a huge slide....early 60's...I never saw the elephant water ski...but I heard the stories! Ah...the memories!

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