The Elephant Graveyard
When the Clark and Waters Circus pulled into Oquawka, Il. on July of 1972 they had no idea that they would be leaving shortly after without their biggest star. All was going well for the small Circus, whose big top held a maximum of 1,000 guests and paid $1 each to see the show. The star and Headlining act was a 6,500 lb Asian Elephant named Norma Jean.
Most famously known for having violently died suddenly in this small town, Norma Jeans life shows a pattern of making headlines, even after death. It is no wonder that her legacy is one that endures. She had a knack for attracting attention and it certainly captured mine when I visited the site in May of 2015.
Norma Jean was born August 10, 1942, a twin. Her sister Anna May was sold to infamous Ringling Brothers circus and Norma Jean found her home with Clark and Walters. For years Norma Jean was their main attraction. She was the face of the circus and it was her photo that often appeared as the main focal point of newspaper ads and promotional posters.
The spunky pachyderm first made newspaper headline news in 1971 when she escaped her encampment and went for a midnight stroll! She was found the next day in a local Ligonier, IN backyard and returned home to the circus.
On the evening of July 17, 1972 a nasty storm came through town halting circus construction. Norma Jean was tied to a tree nearby and at 7:30 pm that evening during the height of the storm Norma Jean was struck by lightning . The blast is said to have knocked her trainer backwards 30 feet. The trainer survived but Norma Jean did not.
The incident made headline news. Circus owners expressed deep sympathy at her passing when quoted in the papers as "having lost a family member" but they rolled out of town a short while later having left Norma Jean in an unmarked grave they had hastily dug right next to where she fell. The owners of the circus did not survive the loss of Norma Jean.
A replacement would cost at least $10,000, and was not really an option. The circus was sold to another company within a year after Norma Jeans death. A bizarre side note is that even after her death and the selling of the company, local newspapers from 1977-78 ran an old photo of Norma Jean to accompany several announcements of the circus coming to town but captioning the photo as a different elephant.
It was local pharmacist Wade Meloan who felt bad for what he considered a slighted celebrity as he drove by the spot frequently. He began to care for the spot where Norma Jean was laid to rest, planting grass and leaving wreaths. He then started a campaign buy a headstone for Norma Jean and by the spring of 1977 he had raised $550. The community by now was well aware of Wade's campaign. They came together in a stunning show of support with local companies and volunteers donating time and materials to the project. The result is the beautiful two ton, limestone memorial (pictured above) that is 12' long by 8' tall by 4' wide complete with a display case of newspaper clippings, a memorial plaque with her birth and death dates and an adorable elephant statue.
On May 29, 1977 a few hundred locals gathered to dedicate the memorial and recognize Meloan for his extraordinary efforts. Frazen Brothers Circus was in town to celebrate as well and their elephant Okha was the one to lay a beautiful memorial wreath of white and yellow daisies on Norma Jeans Grave. It was a grand affair for this little town. Wades Kiwanis club even gave him a special "Elephantus Deacessus" award.
The dedication ceremony made the story news headlines again, as it was beyond some peoples comprehension why someone would go to these lengths for a dead elephant. It also spoke to people and made a great feel good story as Wade's kindness shined through in the telling and was sealed with his response to those who questioned :
"If you can't go through life helping people-even if its an old dead elephant- then there's no use being here."
Wade was quite happy with how it all turned out as he even had a few hundred dollars leftover from the donations that he put into trust for perpetual care of the memorial.
In the years since then, Norma Jeans grave has been a roadside attraction complete with "Elephant Struck by Lightning" highway signs. The original three foot long elephant statue was stolen at some point, but in keeping with the running theme of this story, locals pooled and replaced it with the one pictured here. In 1988 filmmaker and University student John Behnke made a 15 minute documentary , Norma Jean: A Shocking True Story, about Wade Meloan, the town and Norma Jeans memorial as part of his graduate thesis. The film was a big success. It went on to win Behnke awards and was shown at film festivals across the country.
Here we are now in 2019 and once again I bring Norma Jean to the spotlight. Her and Wades story is an inspiration. An elephant who brought out the very best of human nature and spread that love across the country. I hope that her story reaches in and warms your heart too <3
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