Yes, An Elephant Really Did Get Trapped in a Plainwell, MI Basement
Bizarre things happen when the circus comes to town! For one West Michigan community fact is stranger than fiction with regard to an infamous visit from a traveling circus in 1916.
Though I grew up in nearby Allegan I must admit, I don't spend nearly as much time in Plainwell as I should. Apparently, this story is well-known amongst Plainwell locals, but it was certainly news to me!
When the Circus Comes to Town
A well-documented incident, records from 1916 show a traveling circus came to Plainwell via railroad, arriving at the depot on the East Street Bridge. In order to get to the fairgrounds located across town the entire circus crew, animals included, needed to make their way across the Kalamazoo River by way of the Anderson Bridge.
Though the bridge was made of iron, it reportedly spooked the elephants who refused to cross it. Instead, circus handlers attempted to get the elephants to swim across the bridge which proved to be successful until the elephants began to lose control in the water and ran off scared.
Elephants on the Loose
One elephant ran north and was found on a farm near Sherwood Road. Farmer Ed Morgan allegedly stayed calm, having remembered the circus was in town after all and was able to usher the animal back to its handler
However, recovering the second elephant proved to be quite a challenge. This elephant was apparently lured into the city's center by the delicious scents emanating from the local bakery-- can you blame it?
Unfortunately, the building next to the bakery, the three-story Spencer-Woodard building, was under construction at the time with no more than the sub-flooring in place. When the elephant went traipsing towards the bakery its weight caused it to crash through the sub-flooring and into the basement of the newly constructed building. You can't make this stuff up!
Big Problem vs. Bigger Problem
Now not only did the circus have an elephant on the loose but it was also trapped in a basement! How does one go about rescuing a 1,000-pound elephant trapped below ground level?
It's unclear whose idea it was, but the solution ended up being railroad ties. A bunch of workmen brought in railroad ties which acted as a ramp for the elephant to use to get out of the basement. That's some quick thinking!
Though it's been over 100 years since the infamous elephant incident, its legacy is still heard throughout Plainwell to this day. The building in question, which now houses Campbells Drugs, has a historic plaque located on the exterior near the building's side door to commemorate the event.
The story has also been passed down for generations with locals like Margaret Reed saying,
My grandma used to tell me that story! She was 6 when it happened, and she remembered it.