• Ted Stillwell: When a black panther prowled the town

  • I don’t know how long black panthers live, but keep your eyes open, because somewhere out there may still be one lurking in the dark shadows of our neck of the woods.

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  • I don’t know how long black panthers live, but keep your eyes open, because somewhere out there may still be one lurking in the dark shadows of our neck of the woods. Back in October 1921, a living, breathing, wild, black panther escaped from the Horne Zoo. The rumors and exciting stories abounded from every part of the city for months of various sightings of the beast, but actually the big cat was nowhere to be found and was never recaptured.
    A couple of years before that bold escape on Feb. 17, 1919, a train rolled into the Chicago and Alton train depot in Independence to deliver a 25-car circus to the Horne Zoological Arena Company – the largest shipment of show equipment to ever arrive in the old former covered wagon town. Local businessman Ellis P. Horne had just purchased the entire contents of the Jess M. Willard Circus of Pablo, Fla.
    Among these 25 train cars was Buffalo Bill’s very own historic private rail car from his “Wild West Show,” the elegant private car of circus owner Jess Willard, five sleeping cars, two baggage cars, three horse cars, and 10 flat cars upon which were fancy wagons, harnesses, artillery guns, and a grandstand for seating 10,000 people. When the equipment was unloaded and delivered to the arena, it covered 10 acres of ground.
    Many wild animals, such as monkeys, black panthers, lions, tigers, bears, peacocks, buffalo, elk, exotic birds, and show equipment from all over the world were for sale, so they were constantly being shipped into and out of the Horne Zoo, which was located on the north side of Spring Branch Road, along what is now the 900 block of Truman Road, a half a mile east of the Jackson County Courthouse. Ellis Horne was proud of being able to furnish any animal, at any time, anywhere in the world there was a call for it. The company had purchasing agents standing by to purchase captured animals in all of the dark jungles of the world. This unusual company was the only concern of its kind in the United States that could completely outfit a zoo or a circus with animals and show equipment.
    The incoming and outgoing shipments of rare birds and wild jungle animals were usually handled by the American Express Company. So, Harley K. Burgess, a 43-year veteran with the express office in Independence experienced the days when all sorts of wild animals arrived at his local office. There was a side track along Dodgion Street between East Kansas and Walnut (just south of today’s Roger T. Sermon Community Center), where they once handled a carload of elephants. They were crated and shipped to Mexico for the filming of a movie. Then, Burgess recalled individual residents who raised white mice and rats for experimental purposes and sold them to Horne, who shipped them to laboratories all over the United States.
    Page 2 of 2 - Some of the more dangerous wild animals at the zoo, such as lions and tigers, had to be handled very carefully until they were properly trained for the circus acts. That job usually fell on one professional expert, a black man who used only a kitchen chair and a big leather whip. After the animal sprang into the legs of the chair for several days, then it could be easily controlled by the crack of the whip.
    The Horne Zoo came to a close though, and slipped into the history books upon the death of Ellis Horn in July of 1924. However, last week I saw a couple of white tail deer trotting across the Independence Square at 2 a.m., so I’m still keeping my eyes peeled for that black panther.
    Reference: “Independence and 20th Century Pioneers” by Pearl Wilcox.
    The first comprehensive sesquicentennial driver’s guide to Civil War battlefield sites in Missouri by Gregory Wolk has arrived just in time for Christmas at the Blue and Grey Book Shoppe, 106 E. Walnut St., 2 blocks south of the Independence Square.
    To reach Ted W. Stillwell, send an email to teddystillwell@yahoo.com or call him at 816-252-9909.

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