I can hear it now: the cheerfully wailing whistle, and the chug of the “Zoo Choo” as it circled the perimeter of the zoo. I particularly remember hearing the whistle as we walked up the gravel path to the zoo entrance; the anticipation was great, and when inside the magical place I think I was too distracted with other things to notice the whistle as much.
This month is the sixtieth anniversary of the opening of Mill Mountain Zoo, and, having been enjoying it myself for close to fifty years, I’ve built up some memories of the place.
Early on it was known as The Mill Mountain Children’s Zoo, and it definitely lived up to the “children’s” part, for every detail about the place seemed to cater to little ones’ imaginations, mainly through a storybook theme. At the entrance, visitors were greeted by a huge shoe, from “old lady who lived in a shoe” fame. Framing the big blue boot were stacks of giant alphabet blocks which spelled out the words “baby pets,” (?!) and arching above them was colorfully lettered “Children’s Zoo.” Talk about a grand entrance.
Upon entering the zoo proper, through an ingenious tunnel in the shoe, it was easy for a little kid to get pleasantly overwhelmed by all the distractions. First there was the Mary had a Little Lamb enclosure for, yep, a few sheep. It was complete with even a miniature schoolhouse that kids could enter and sit at the little desks. Next door was the craggy domain of Billy Goat Gruff, home to a few scruffy goats. On the way to the miniature castle, which held the reptile exhibit, one would be waylaid by the ever-popular funhouse mirrors. You can never get enough of those.
There were many other memorable exhibits at that breezy, shady enclave of a mountaintop zoo. There was the small cement pool with a facsimile of Noah’s ark in the middle of it. I’ve forgotten what animals were exhibited within the ark, but alas I’m pretty sure it was not two of every creature on earth. I remember asking my mother about that one.
Following in the small-cement-pool-with-something-in-the-middle-of-it theme, there was a concrete, open-mouthed whale, like Jonah in the Bible, which housed, perhaps a little unexpectedly, the zoo’s bird exhibit. I loved that one. The whale was painted bright blue.
Of course, most of the animal enclosures were no-nonsense chain link fence affairs, and they held for our observation – and amusement – creatures like foxes, rabbits, a bobcat, some large birds with identities I don’t recall, and goodness even a lumbering old bear.
The concession stand in the center of the zoo sold not only hot dogs and popcorn, but Yahoo chocolate drinks too. The Yahoos alone are worthy of a fine, lingering memory. A ramp led up to the roof of the concession stand where you could eat at the picnic table there or just look out and soak up the view.
Riding the Zoo Choo was, and still is, a fine way to take in the lovely mountaintop scenery and soak up some of the character of the zoo. Besides the ding ding of the “rail crossings” and the sound of the whistle, I remember best riding through the tunnel, where the chug-chug of the engine sounded especially exquisite.
The rustic little log mill, complete with water flowing over the wooden wheel, was situated down the hill by the Zoo Choo tracks, and it housed a small gift shop. Once, when on a Vacation Bible School field trip to the zoo I bought a cheap sheath knife with a four-inch blade. My teacher, Miss Andrews, with a somewhat horrified expression on her face immediately confiscated it. Oh well.
There was one exhibit that stood out above all the rest, and mesmerized kids of all ages: The magnificent prairie dogs. What can I say? Watching the little dogs scamper around their circular cement pen, seeing them converse, argue, fight, and love each other, not to mention eating their bushy-ended carrots, was always a treat. I think it was hard for our parents and grandparents to drag us away from them.
Even today the prairie dogs seem to embody the innocent magic of the Mill Mountain Zoo, and imagining what I supposed as a kid their network of endless tunnels and cozy homes beneath their pen will always stick with me as an example of one of my best childhood memories.