Rebecca McKinsey | Staff Writer
Although Chautauqua offered the same draw 50 years ago that it did today — education, religion, arts and recreation — many Chautauquans in 1956 found themselves making the trek to Mayville, N.Y., to see an unusual attraction — a circus elephant.
The elephant’s name was Lena, and for more than six months, she provided entertainment to Mayville and Jamestown residents and Chautauquans alike.
The stories explaining exactly how Lena was acquired vary, said Devon Taylor, historian for the village of Mayville and the town of Chautauqua.
However, one former Mayville resident recalls an unusual trade. Pat Lucariello, currently of Bemus Point, N.Y., said he used to work for a man in Mayville who bought and sold exotic animals. This man traded Lena for $500 worth of monkeys in June 1956, Lucariello said.
“That elephant was the pride of Mayville,” Lucariello said.
The elephant became a popular attraction, and people of all ages came to see her.
Everybody loved Lena, said Mary Carlson of Mayville, who was in her early 20s when Lena arrived in Mayville.
“How many times do you have an elephant?” Carlson said. “Towns can have all kinds of scandal, murder — but we had an elephant.”
Children especially enjoyed the elephant, and when the Super Duper grocery store opened in Jamestown, Lena was there, giving rides to the children who attended, hoping for a glimpse of the sight.
During Lena’s months in Mayville, Lucariello was responsible for escorting her to various events and exhibits. When she was loaded into a truck, the huge animal would sway the vehicle back and forth and poke out her head, causing a shock for anyone who wasn’t prepared to see her advancing down the road, Lucariello said.
On several occasions, when Lucariello took Lena to events in Jamestown or elsewhere and needed to find accommodations for her, the elephant managed to find her way out of the structures holding her captive, Lucariello said.
The elephant was in the Fourth of July parade that year, and Lucariello watched the proceedings from a special vantage point — atop Lena’s back.
“This elephant was truly a magnificent beast,” he said. “The minute they started playing the music, her head perked up, and she had her legs up high, trying to march.”
Lena enjoyed people’s company, said Mary Lou McCloskey, who was 9 years old when she met Lena.
“She was a very sweet, gentle elephant,” McCloskey said. “She would curl up her trunk so you could stand on it and swing you around to her hay, so you could get some and feed it to her.
“I grew up in a different era. Kids would just go out and do stuff. That was what we did — be entertained by the elephant.”
During the summer, McCloskey recalled, she invited the elephant to her birthday party — and Lena showed up to the park and gave rides to the partygoers, she said.
Newspapers at the time described Lena as a century old, but Taylor estimated she had been 60 or 80. He said that some people believe her age was the reason she was released from the circus.
However, those who remembered Lena said she didn’t seem old or tired and rather described her as mischievous.
“When they took her to the lake, she liked to wander to the side, get into people’s yards and create a little havoc,” Taylor said. “But people didn’t mind.”
Lucariello and McCloskey recalled another popular story of one of Lena’s many escapes early in her time in Mayville. She went into a nearby backyard and began stealing apples from a neighbor’s tree. It took several calls to the police before the sheriff’s deputies believed there really was an elephant.
It was Lena’s inquisitive nature that caused her death.
The building in which the elephant was kept was unheated, and in January 1957, Lena pulled apart water pipes in the buildings and was soaked. She got pneumonia and died soon after.
However, the memories of Lena remain in those who knew her 55 years ago, and McCloskey said she hopes to take those memories a step further by writing a book about the elephant.
“It’s a pretty remarkable event,” she said. “It seems like it was meant to be a children’s book.”