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Oh, what milk money can buy: The little-known story of Belle Isle’s first elephant

Jan 24, 2017

"She is five tons of gray, ponderous beauty."

That's how Rex G. White of the Detroit News described the now-forgotten treasure of the Belle Isle Zoo: Sheba the Asian elephant.

She arrived in Detroit in 1923 and lived at the Belle Isle Zoo until she died on Jan. 2, 1959.

And it all began with a letter written by a schoolgirl.

Lori Feret is writing the first comprehensive history of Belle Isle with former Detroit Free Press reporter Dan Austin. Feret joined Stateside to tell the untold story of Sheba. It goes something like this:

A little girl wrote a letter to the Detroit News and asked if there was a way for schoolchildren to work together and buy something the Belle Isle Zoo didn't have: an elephant. The zoo started in the late 1800's with smaller animals, but as the 20th century approached, the animals in the zoo got bigger – more like a modern-day zoo. 

The News saw this as an opportunity for some good publicity, so a campaign was launched to have an "elephant day," where children across the city could contribute their lunch or milk money to the cause. 150,000 schoolchildren pooled their money together to raise about $2,000 to help cover the $2,750 price tag (more than $38,000 by today's money) of the 600-pound elephant.

The News sent a reporter to New York City to travel alongside the young elephant as she made the journey to Buffalo. After some adventures in Buffalo, they took a boat to the elephant's new home in Detroit

When she arrived, Sheba was tremendously popular. She was dubbed "The School Children's Elephant".

More elephants would follow her to Belle Isle in later years, but Sheba remained a star until the zoo closed in 1956. 

Listen to the full interview above to hear about the trouble Sheba got into on the way to Detroit, and what happened when a drunk man snuck into the elephant house and tried to take a nap with the elephant.

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