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Lions and tigers and bears…

By Don Canney | Oct 6, 2019

Sipping my morning coffee while watching a news story on the Chicago Zoo, I couldn’t help but think back about the local popular tourist attraction we once had in Hudson. Benson’s Wild Animal Farm, which billed itself as, “The Strangest Farm on Earth,” was once host to some 500,000 visitors per year, with as many as 10,000 people on any given day, according to a story in a June 1973 edition of the Telegraph.

In 1927, John T. Benson, who hailed from England, originally used it as a holding spot for animals arriving in the US on route to circuses and zoos around the world. Legend has it that he decided to start charging people to view the animals because they were eating him out of house and home. It eventually became an attraction that put Hudson on the map with 130 plus acres of animals, attractions and parking for over 3,000 cars. There were even rumors in the early 70’s that Disney was considering its acquisition, but that turned out to be just rumor. I can’t see Disney World north really making it in a climate where snow is measured in feet versus inches.

I remember as a youth what a treat it was to spend a day at “The Farm” as the employees called it. By today’s standards, it didn’t meet the criteria for animal comfort and care that Animal Kingdom and other major zoos have, where most animals roam freely. I often felt sorry for some of the animals that appeared to be in cages too small for their size. But just viewing the magnificent lions, pachyderms and gorillas was quite the sight for these much younger eyes. It was always a treat to feed them and watch their antics as they appeared to be talking to and performing just for me.

If memory serves me, upon entering the park, the first attraction was the Kodiak and Polar bears. The monkey house was always a favorite, with mandrills, gibbons, baboons and good old Junior the chimp being the star attraction. One could always spot tourists and visitors who were seeing him for the first time, because they would get just a little too close for comfort. Junior was known by locals to launch quite the wads of sputum to those visitors who got too friendly. I can remember seeing a tourist with a little one on his shoulders hoping for a better view. The kid got a better view but ended up being the target of old Junior’s “welcome present.”

The star attraction was a lowland gorilla originally named Tony, later renamed Colossus, for whom they built a gorilla house. He was a massive guy weighing in at about 400 pounds in his youth, with arms that could easily crush any human. I can remember watching him eat what appeared to be a tootsie roll pop (but probably an animal friendly version). He was quite dainty while enjoying it and meticulously placed the empty stick on the floor when done. When Benson’s closed, he was sold to a zoo in Florida, where he lived until his passing.

The eighties proved to be a difficult time for the park as competition stiffened and the animal rights movement was front and center. It was purchased by local businessman Arthur Provencher, who was himself a longtime fan of the park and very visible to attendees, often participating in parades. He added thrill rides, renamed the park New England Playworld and introduced the Loony Tunes characters to try to attract a more broad-based audience. It even became a lighted Christmas wonderland for a few seasons. But even Bugs and Daffy themselves were not enough to turn things around permanently, as it was forced to close in 1987 after nearly 60 years of operation.

Today though, we can roam through Benson’s Park and use our imaginations to relive how it used to be. I can see old Tony sitting in his gorilla house eating a tootsie roll pop, the elephants with youngsters on their backs sauntering around the park and the bears eating my peanuts while splashing around in the swimming pool. Listen: Can you hear that load roar in the distance?

Don Canney is a freelance writer and professional voice artist. He was born and raised in downtown Nashua with great interest in Nashua history circa 1950-1970. He now resides in Litchfield.

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