The Lucky Elephant and Benson Wild Animal Farm of Hudson, New Hampshire

Mary Manning and niece Judy Beauregard with the original Benson's Wild Animal Park lucky elephant, sometime in the 1940s.

My mother, Mary Manning and her  niece Judy Beauregard with the original Benson’s Wild Animal Farm ‘lucky elephant, ‘sometime in the 1940s. Photograph copyright Janice W. Brown

A few months ago there was a flurry of stories about the large concrete elephant at Tufts University having finally fallen apart, with a new (and different) one being constructed to replace it. The disintegrated 10-foot elephant was a “lucky” one that originally sat at Benson’s Wild Animal Farm in Hudson, New Hampshire.

According to several published stories, the elephant was bought in 1993 by Tufts University alumni class of 1958 for $4,500 from Benson’s Animal farm to replace a former mascot (despite the fact that the new mascot was an Indian elephant, while the school’s original “Jumbo” was an African elephant).  The original trunk of this cement elephant was dropped down (see photograph of original elephant on left).  Arthur Provencher, who bought the park in 1979, replaced the trunk portion so that it would be ‘luckier’ by curling up instead of down.

Benson’s Wild Animal Farm is now a history museum playground.  There is an interesting story behind the founding of this place.  I will let the newspaper stories about John Thomas Benson speak for themselves.

John T. Benson likeness

John T. Benson likeness

October 31, 1937 Trenton Evening Times (Trenton, N.J.) page 50
WILD ANIMAL FARMER

As a boy, John T. Benson actually realized almost every youngster’s dream. He did run away and join a circus. He was 8 at the time, an English lad whose father had been an animal trainer. Tired of school, the boy quit to follow his father’s footsteps.

Tall, stout, Mr. Benson, did become an animal trainer and has more than 300 scars on his body to prove it. But eventually he quiet that hazardous life, “settled down” to provide wild animals to others to train. Today he’s maestro of “Benson’s Wild Animal Farm” at Nashua, N.H.–“the strangest farm on earth.”

Before the World War, John T. Benson left circus life, opened an office in Hoboken, N.J. from which he handled the business of importing animals for circuses and zoos. Later, he bought the land in New Hampshire as a quiet place to live. There, in 1929, he established his farm to train animals for their circus roles.

“Bigger than a zoo; getter than a circus” is what “Farmer” Benson calls his layout. For there, lions, tigers, snakes and so on, fresh from jungles, are handed over to skilled trainers to be taught the tricks you see them do in circuses. Most of the animals are captured by Mr. Benson’s agents, but often he himself goes abroad to “bring ’em back alive.” He’s had his share of hair-raising experiences, such as the time he finally brought down a charging rhinoceros when the brute was only 20 feet away!

A showman to the tips of his toes, Mr. Benson has a sense of humor. One of his crowd-drawers at the farm is a pet pig tugging a miniature covered wagon. On the wagon’s top is painted: “I Ham Bringing Home the Bacon at Benson’s.”

At 67, John T. Benson is reaping financial reward for his years of dangerous living and his flair for showmanship. Circuses as far away as Australia pay well to get animals trained at his farm. Besides that, there is the revenue from the hordes of visitors.

Those visitors are another story. When Mr. Benson first opened the farm it wasn’t for the public, he says. But an animal act is one of the biggest magnets in show business and the public just wouldn’t stay away. So what could Mr. Benson do? He just had to charge admission, he explains, in “self-defense.”

John T Benson 2Monday, September 20, 1943 Boston Herald (Boston MA), page 15
JOHN T. BENSON, 72, DIED IN N.H.
Animal Farm Owner Once Zoo Curator Here
[Special Dispatch to the Herald]
NASHUA, N.H., Sept. 19–John T. Benson, 72, founder and head of the Benson Wild Animal Farm, and first curator of the Franklin park zoo, Boston, died today at the Memorial Hospital.

Born in Dewsbury, Yorkshire, England, Mr. Benson spent his early years traveling with the Bostock animal show in England. He came to this country when he was 20 years of age, and after a short career in selling and exhibiting animals, he turned to training them.

He was in charge of the zoo at Norumbega park, Auburndale, Mass., and later interested Boston city officials in a zoo for Franklin park, of which he was the first curator.

Before he opened his wild animal farm in 1926 where he trained animals for circuses, Mr. Benson was American representative of Carl Hagenbeck in Hamburg, Germany, at that time the largest importer of wild animals in the world. Many of his trained beasts appeared in the Hagenbeck and Wallace circuses.

Mr. Benson made more than 30 trips to India and Asia to obtain animals for zoos throughout the country. Interest in his work was so great that in 1927, he opened his farm to the general public. Many of the wild animal acts in leading circuses the past 15 years have been first seen by thousands of children who visited the farm.1936 clipping

Mr. Benson was a member of the National Association of Parks, Pools and Beaches; the National Association of Zoological Directors, the Showmen’s Association of America, the Circus Fans Association of America, and was active in the Masons, Elks and Rotary clubs.

He leaves two cousins, Thomas Benson of Winthrop, Mass., and Walter Benson of Atlantic, Mass. Funeral services will be held at the farm Tuesday at 2 P.M. followed by Masonic services in Lexington, Mass, at the Marshall funeral home, Wednesday. Burial will be in Lexington.

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1952 photograph of my brother Pete Webster watching the elephant act. Seemed appropriate to post in this article. Copyright janice Brown.

1952 photograph of my brother Pete Webster watching the elephant act at Benson’s Animal Farm. Seemed appropriate to post in this article. Copyright Janice Brown.

Sometime after Mr. Benson’s death, Benson Wild Animal Farm was purchased by Raymond W. Lapham, who was a former president of Boston Garden. He died 11 July 1976 at his summer home at Prout’s Neck, Maine. He had been born in Boston MA, and graduated form the Hotchkiss School, and Yale University class of 1928.

Arthur J. Provencher bought the park in 1979, and he closed it in 1987. Arthur passed away in 2103.

****Additional Reading****

Benson’s Historical Structures Report – PDF

Benson’s in 33rd Season (1961)

 

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8 Responses to The Lucky Elephant and Benson Wild Animal Farm of Hudson, New Hampshire

  1. Patricia Manning says:

    Hello What Great article
    Grammie Manning and Bunny Bernard Meaning
    And Aunt Helen & Ancle Freddie Murdock
    Used to take me To Benson’s I’ve found Memories of it all
    The for all this info

  2. Patricia Manning says:

    Oops forgive type o was supposed to be Bunny Bernard Manning

  3. Janet Smith Gilbert says:

    My dad, Gardner I Smith, resident of Hudson, NH, worked for John T Benson and that was about 1926. He told of working with the horses at Madison Square Gardens in NY for Benson. Not sure of the year, but probably about 1927. My dad told of meeting Jimmy Durante and Judy Garland during that trip to NY. A few more stories he shared with me are still in my memories. He also told of driving Benson’s vehicle around the farm.

  4. Bradley Ford says:

    That elephant was really lucky for me. I met my wife, Mary, there in 1952. Back then, most all the kids in Hudson worked the summers at Benson’s. Mary worked at one of the entrance ticket booths and I worked at several of the concessions, mostly the “Jack-in-the Box”, a souviner stand. At the end of the season Benson’s would throw a party for all the employees, and opened up the rides for us to enjoy. I asked Mary to join me on the “Miniature Train” ride, and that’e the first time I held her hand. We dated throughout High School, and got married in 1957. We just celebrated our 58th Wedding Anniversary.

  5. Bob Leal says:

    I remember my grandparents who lived in newmarket, N. H. taking me there in 1956. I had a ride on betsy the elephant. At one point my grandfather was holdin me up so i could see down into the bear pit. at the same time a little girl was being held up next to me for probably the same reason. While I wasn’t paying attention she reached over pulled off my policeman’s hat and threw it in the bear pit. . Immediately one of the bears grabbed it and i was quite embarrassed and a bit mad too, hehe. Oh don’t worry i’m over it now. haha

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