This past Saturday I went to a lecture/tour at the Milwaukee Public Library marking 90 years since Simba the lion came to live at the Milwaukee Public Museum, which then shared half of the building with the Central Library downtown. What an interesting afternoon it was!
There’s too much material for one post, so I’m splitting it up over a couple of days. Today just some random items.
First, a little background. Simba (called “Sim” by the Museum/Library staff) was an orphaned cub purchased in Africa by a group of Public Museum staff on a specimen-collecting “safari” in 1929. “Simba” is the Swahili word for “lion.”
By the way, one of the Public Museum taxidermists on that safari was famed wildlife artist Owen Gromme! As a non-native Milwaukeean, I hadn’t known that Gromme worked for the Milwaukee Public Museum for almost his entire career until his retirement in 1965.
Sim was brought back to Milwaukee, arriving on April 13, 1929, where he was briefly placed on public display at the Museum. He was supposed to be available to the public for four days, but apparently he was TOO available to them. People were allowed to get close enough to touch him, and they ended up pulling his tail and otherwise handling him so roughly that Museum staff pulled him off public view after only three days. (Note the front-page headlines; Milwaukeeans LOVE their animals!)
After that Sim lived his life out of the public eye, mostly in the taxidermy offices on the fourth floor of the Museum (which shared half the building with the Central Library) and on the building’s roof. His favorite toy was a wooden bowling ball. Museum staff used to throw it down the long 4th-floor hallway, nicknamed the “bowling alley,” and Sim would chase after it.
After the lecture/slideshow in the rare books room ended, the attendees split into three small groups for librarian-led tours of the old Public Museum spaces. When we went up to the fourth floor, Dan Lee, the librarian leading our tour, brought out a replica bowling ball that several librarians chipped in to buy several years ago and suggested that one of us on the tour throw it down the hall. Someone did . . . and it really did look and sound just like a bowling alley, with the granite baseboards acting like bumpers. Here are some photos I took of that hallway up on the fourth floor, currently used for storage but originally home to the Museum’s taxidermy and geology departments as well as the super-cool, 19th-century-looking office of the director. Doesn’t that hallway look like a bowling alley with that thin-planked hardwood floor?
Those doors on the right led to the taxidermy and geology rooms. Simba roamed loose on this floor but spent most of his time hanging out in the taxidermy room with his human buddies.
The taxidermy room is now used to store old card-catalog files.
But there are remnants of the old taxidermy room. There’s a boarded-up opening in the ceiling where winches were once used to raise/lower larger specimens (like elephants) into the room or out to the roof. And there’s the stone slab inset in the floor, where specimens were gutted (easier to clean than the hardwood floors).
Simba loved his humans and his bowling ball.
Sadly, he broke a tooth on that bowling ball and it became infected. He was transferred to the Washington Park Zoo for dental care, where he ended up staying for the rest of his life. And where he got along very well with his human keepers, far better than with the other animals, in which he apparently had no interest at all.
When he died, Sim was returned to his former home on the Central Library’s fourth floor, where, in Room 405, he underwent the transformation that allowed him to become a permanent resident of the Milwaukee Public Museum.
And where, as our librarians noted, he also became the only animal ever to be publicly displayed both dead and alive (his first three days in town) in the Central Library building.
What great history!! Who knew?
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WOW!! That is a lecture I would’ve wanted to attend. My dad was 6 mos old when Simba came to town. I have fond memories of him taking me to the Washington Park Zoo. It was a great zoo in my early years recollection. Every so once in awhile you would hear the Simba story through the years. Neat story and can’t wait for Part Two.
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I envy you your trips to the Washington Park Zoo!
What a great story! Can’t wait to hear more.
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