Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Ghost Zoo--Dietch's Kiddie Zoo, Fair Lawn, New Jersey


By Wm. L. Elbirn. Bandwagon, Vol. 5, No. 5 (Sep-Oct-Nov), 1961, pp. 12-13.

Following my visit to RBBB at Madison Square Garden in April of this year and taking notes on the wagons still being used (The Bandwagon, May-June, 1961), 1 wasn't content until I could visit the Bob Dietch Kiddie Zoo in Fairlawn, N.J., to find out first hand just what wagons and cages were still in existence. This story is a report of that visit.
Located on N.J. Route No. 208 and only about two miles from the N.J. Parkway is probably the most varied collection of animals, both wild and domestic, that I have ever seen in a privately owned zoo. Located on several acres of ground, this enterprise is fronted by a park full of kiddie rides and concession stands. To get to the zoo, the customers must pay a small fee but what they get for their money is really something worthwhile. Here is a conglomeration of pens, stalls, barns, cages and ponds filled with just about any type of animal worth seeing. Following the paths toward the back end, you finally emerge in a grove of trees where the Ringling cages are on display. Surrounding the whole area is a train with reproduction of old cars that carry passengers for a small fee.
Mr. Dietch has surrounded himself with quite a staff that includes two former Ringling hands, Chas. Ackerman and L. M. "Red" Harsh, formerly with the train department. Also home based here are two wild life units that take to the road in semi units and are extremely well painted. I'm sorry to say that the same can't be said of the Ringling wagons.
Following the demise of the rail show in 1956, the Ringling management evidently felt that the menagerie and sideshow were a must in New York and so a part of the menagerie was sent to the Pawtucket, R.I., Zoo where it remained for two years. Since that time they have been located at their present location which is only a matter of minutes from downtown New York. Each Spring for the Garden engagement the wagons are loaded on lowboy trailers and trucked across the Hudson River to 47th St. and 8th Ave. The following listing has every piece of Ringling equipment that is based here at the present time.
No. 10 - 14' baggage wagon that is now used to store the sideshow props and stages used in N.Y. This wagon is painted red but has no number or title and is beginning to deteriorate badly. Here is one that should be saved for it dates back to the early 1930's, having been built on the Barnes show by Red Forbes. This is one of the very few remaining Barnes wagons.
No. .. - Baggage wagon painted aluminum. Red Harsh said that this one was numbered No. 40 at one time but I find no record of that number being used in recent seasons. I feel that this was one of the Miller Bros. concession dept. wagons, possibly No. 49, the popcorn wagon.
No. 83 - Giraffe den, 18', lowboy painted green and still has pens mounted on side brackets.
No. 82 - Rhino den, 21', painted green.
No. 85 - Hippo den, 21', tank type cage, containing small hippo bought recently by the show to replace the one that died.
No. .. - Cat act cage, 23', painted green, low boy profile. This is either No. 92 or No. 94 and is still used in the Garden for one of the cage acts.
No. 71 - Cage, 12', monkeys and kangaroo; originally a monkey cage.
No. 72 - Cage, 12', lioness with cubs and leopard; originally a tiger cage.
No. 73 - Cage, 12', wolf and tiger; originally jaguar cage.
No. 75 - Cage, 12', lion and lioness; originally lion den.
No. 76 - Cage, 12', baboons and monkeys; originally baboon cage.
No. 78 - Cage, 12', brown bear and three black bears; originally polar bear cage.
No. 79 - Cage, 12', guanaco and kangaroo; originally lion cage.
No. 80 - Cage, 12', lion; originally orangutang cage.
No. 81 - Cage, 12', 2 tigers; originally leopard cage.
This completes the lineup of wagons now being stored here. I say being stored here as I believe that the Show still owns the wagons as when I asked Mr. Dietch as to the ownership he replied that some were his and some were show owned. However, I have recently learned that an agent of the show visited the premises to inventory the equipment.
To get back to the 12' cages for a minute, they are still painted green with the jungle motif still being used on the sky boards and side boards. Joe Bradbury gave me a little background on these particular wagons recently. According to Joe, Bill Yeske built twelve of these short cages during the winter of 1948-49 at Sarasota quarters from war surplus army ordnance 4 wheel trailers. When they first appeared on the show in 1949 they were painted red with the same jungle motif on the boards, but with no trim on the wagon bodies. As you can probably see from this list, only nine of the original twelve are listed. Missing are numbers 70, 74 and 77. Number 70 was converted into the sideshow calliope wagon and at a later date into the sideshow ticket wagon. Just what years these changes were effected is not known to me. No. 74 was a glass enclosed cage and carried chimps for many seasons and No. 77 was either built or rebuilt with a small tank and carried the pygmy hippo. Joe further states that one of these wagons is now in The Circus Hall of Fame but did not recall which one it was.
As to the future of these wagons, we can only hope that somehow, someone will be able to preserve them so that when the time comes for their disposal, they will be able to be removed to a museum and saved for future generations to gaze upon as we today look with admiration at the vehicles of bygone eras.
As to the ownership of the animals, Mr. Dietch stated that Ringling owns the two giraffes, the small hippo and the okapi, all based here, but that the other animals were his property.
The zoo is open on weekends all winter and I would highly recommend to all fans a visit to this last outpost of the rail show era in this section of the country.


Susan_Walsh said...

The locomotive engines are at the Boothbay Railway Village in Maine (where they originally came from) and at least one of them is undergoing a complete restoration. Van Walsh, my father, was Bob's partner and got involved in starting the zoo so he could have a place for his choo choo's.

Wade G. Burck said...

Welcome and thank you for that additional "history" of Dietch's Kiddie Zoo.