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  • Courtesy photo

    Publicity stunts like this photo showing two of his resident monkeys playing cowboys and Indians were typical of John T. Benson's flair for showmanship
  • Courtesy photo

    Famed Benson's animal trainer Joe Arcaris performed a "wedding ceremony" of two of his lions in the 1940s for a delighted crowd at the Hudson attraction.
  • Courtesy photo

    Not only did Betsy the elephant graciously give rides to thousands of visiting children, she was long one of Benson's most popular creatures.
  • John T. Benson, the man who turned a lazy Hudson Center crossroads into a thriving wild animal compound
Saturday, July 30, 2011

Reunion evokes memories of Benson’s

Dean Shalhoup

If you had a choice, would you rather be chosen the “prettiest boy” or the “heaviest girl” from 50 or so of your peers?

Either way, there’s one plaque that would never make the trophy case, right?

But given the circumstances, I bet every one of the 10 boys and girls whose moms and dads carried them, and their awards, home from “the first baby show ever conducted by the Nashua Rotary Club” long held those cups among their most precious keepsakes, mainly because of where the whimsical little competition took place: at the storied Benson’s Wild Animal Farm in Hudson.

It’s doubtful this particular show will come up at the giant Benson’s reunion from noon-5 p.m. today – it took place in September 1932. But who knows? Maybe a couple of the winners – they’d be about 80 now – got wind of the reunion and are planning to come.

The Rotary’s baby show was far from the only “first” or “one-of-a-kind” events, planned and unplanned, that regularly threw the legendary “Strangest Farm on Earth” into the spotlight ever since British runaway John T. Benson opened part of his 250-acre quarantine farm to the public in 1927.

Nobody had any idea that Benson, who founded Boston’s Franklin Park Zoo before landing in nowheresville Hudson Center, New Hampshire, in 1924 and scooping up the old Interstate Health Farm off Route 111, would bring a larger-than-life flamboyance that soon turned the sleepy crossroads into a nationally known, must-see attraction that even ran its own passenger rail system.

In the farm’s heyday, from the late 1920s to the start of its unfortunate demise in the ’80s, word was, if Ringling Brothers or Barnum & Bailey did it, Benson did it bigger and better.

Aside from what’s probably the park’s most infamous episode – the brazen “farm invasion” and robbery the morning of July 13, 1959 – the 1930s could’ve been its most eventful decade. In June 1936, for instance, people came from hundreds of miles around to witness the launching of Noah’s Ark – promoted, in classic John Benson fashion, as an opportunity to meet and “cheer 7-year-old David Bridges, son of N.H. Gov. Styles Bridges, as he officially christens the ark and calls upon Noah to open the doors and release his animals.”

Of course, why invite a boring old politician when you can just as easily get his angelic, towheaded kid up there? A Telegraph story told how David and a friend, Robert Stevens, helped escort the animals around the park after they emerged at the command of “Noah,” who was really Herbert Russell garbed in flowing white robes, the story reported.

Benson got the ark idea, the Telegraph reported, when he returned from a trip abroad one spring to find 20 acres of the farm underwater. “Mr. Benson decided it would wise to get ready for the next flood,” the paper quipped, telling how he quickly hired a bunch of boat-builders.

Is that priceless, or what?

A year after the ark was “launched,” Benson proudly debuted his next brainchild: passenger rail service between the nearby Hudson Center depot and Boston’s North Station exclusively for Benson’s patrons.

Dubbed the “Jungle Train,” the operation was pure Benson: There were guides dressed as “Indian elephant boys”; huge, colorful boarding passes; and each arriving train was greeted by an elephant, antelope, goat and a gander in, yes, a pink apron and shoes, that escorted passengers to the farm.

Then early in 1938, William E. Kane, the mayor of Woburn, Mass., came to visit Benson with a rather unusual request: Would Benson take him to see his lion and tiger cages?

Picking the largest one, Kane whipped out a tape measure. Not quite high enough, he told Benson. But wait, Benson said, knowing full well this was one potential publicity stunt that wasn’t getting away.

It seems Kane, perhaps descended from old-time prohibitionists, had conjured up a clever way to handle his city’s growing drunkenness problem: Buy and modify one of Benson’s animal cages, plop it on a flatbed truck, round up and cage the besotted offenders and parade them through the streets of Woburn.

Benson, of course, seized the moment, putting on his best carnival-barker face for hungry news hounds:

“We can raise the height, pad the cage the way we do for giraffes and, if Mayor Kane wants to stand the expense, we will install divans, wash basins and other conveniences for the use of the intoxicated persons he proposes to put on exhibition,” he declared.

It gets funnier. While there, The Telegraph reported, Kane figured he’d check out another of Benson’s attractions: the set of Colonial-era stocks where visitors “locked” each other up and took photos.

But apparently, Kane did have a bit of a benevolent streak after all, according to The Telegraph story. After inspecting and trying them out, Kane “decided the use of these early methods of punishment were too severe and stuck to his idea of using a tiger cage.”

Benson, known to toy with even the fairly macabre from time to time, hit another publicity homer in the late ’30s when he acquired a pair of Egyptian mummies on an overseas trip, custom-built a nice tomb and opened another exhibit.

Legend has it that after Benson died in the early ’40s, a manager named Henry Collier wanted to dispense of the bizarre curiosity, so he sought, and received, approval to bury them in Westview Cemetery. Or so he thought.

Selectmen objected, claiming the interment was nothing but a publicity stunt that would make a mockery of the town. Although professional testing proved they were in fact real Egyptian mummies around 2,000 years old, selectmen still balked, and the mummies ended up with collectors.

As for the 1959 robbery, the case was finally solved months later, largely through the dogged determination of then-Hudson Police Chief Andrew J. Polak. Three Massachusetts guys were charged and imprisoned for popping the safe and stealing more than $23,000. Night watchman Charles Pelkey and animal trainer Joe Arcaris, whom the thugs bound and pistol-whipped, soon recovered and returned to work.

Finally, I won’t tell who the heaviest babies were back in ’32 – but I will tell you that, according to the judges, Doris Trombly, of Nashua, was the prettiest girl younger than 6 months, while Joyce Mann, of Chelmsford, Mass., was the prettiest older than 6 months.

Dean Shalhoup’s column appears Saturdays in The Telegraph. He can be reached at 673-3100, ext. 31, or dshalhoup@nashuatelegraph.com.