Akron Zoological Park officially opened its doors 60 years ago on May 17, 1953. Originally known as Perkins Woods at the turn of the 20th century, the park was a favorite picnic place for generations of families. The big attraction was the two brown bears, Nellie and Grouch, that lived on Mutton Hill, an area that got its name because Simon Perkins Jr. and neighbor John Brown used it for grazing sheep.
Today, the hillside has been rechristened Grizzly Ridge. In July, more than 30 years after the last bear left the park, it will be home to a new generation of bears in the $12 million, 3.7-acre exhibit.
To celebrate the diamond anniversary of the zoo opening, admission will be 60 cents per person today through Sunday for anyone born on or before May 17, 18 and 19, 1953. This group of visitors will be asked if they would care to share their memories of the zoo on video.
Zoo employees also will provide history talks throughout Saturday and Sunday.
Perkins Woods was a gift from George Tod Perkins, grandson of Akron’s founder, Col. Simon Perkins, who had donated 76 acres of land to the city in 1900 with the stipulation that it be developed as a place for children to learn.
The bears, also a gift, arrived in 1918 and entertained children and adults for 35 years before they died in 1951.
In 1949, Richard Barnhardt, superintendent of Akron parks, re-established Perkins Woods as a museum of natural history using a vacant brick building to house a terrarium with living plants and animals, local fish and tree exhibits. Small animals — gray and red foxes, rabbits, opossums, raccoons, groundhogs and pheasants — were housed at the exhibit.
More than 29,000 people visited the museum the first year.
The community got behind the small enterprise after prominent Akronite Ivan Albrecht returned from a trip to Africa in 1951 with six Rhesus monkeys that he donated to the museum. A contest to name the primates netted more than 2,000 submissions and $5 each from children who entered the contest.
By the spring of 1952, Barnhardt realized the museum needed to add a children’s zoo, and a volunteer committee was formed to raise the $12,500 needed to build 12 outdoor exhibits with fencing. The farm animals that would live in a Mother Goose-themed park were donated.
Over the next three decades, funding dried up and conditions at the zoo deteriorated. Two of three bears that were donated to the zoo died of complications of pneumonia brought on by the damp, poor conditions of their cages. In the late 1970s, the darkest decade of the zoo’s history, the bears on Mutton Hill were gone, replaced by bighorn sheep and, later, turtles.
The brick museum, which became the administrative offices for zoo personnel, flooded out at every rain.
“It was pretty deplorable. The basement was under water,” recalls David Barnhardt, grandson of the man whose vision brought the zoo to the community.
“Nobody went down there. It was off limits,” recalls Barnhardt, who visited the zoo regularly with his father, Patrick Brandhardt, who became zoo supervisor in 1969.
The building was demolished in 2003 when the $4.6 million Barnhardt Family Welcome Center opened, named for three generations of Barnhardts: Richard; his son, Patrick; and his son, David, who currently works as director of marketing and guest services.
Grizzly Ridge will house animals that are (or were) indigenous to this area. Year-old bear cubs, orphaned in Wyoming, are being fostered by the Cleveland Zoo for a few more weeks. Otters, red wolves, bald eagles and coyotes will inhabit their own exhibits on the ridge.
A 2,450-square-foot aviary, replacing a 1979 building still in use, also will sit atop the hill. Bird lovers can see blue-winged teal ducks, turkeys, cardinals, goldfinches, mourning doves, titmice, chickadees, robins, blackbirds and white-throated sparrows in the new aviary.
Each animal in Grizzly Ridge comes with the approval of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, a nonprofit agency that accredits zoos that meet its rigorous standards. Fewer than 10 percent of the approximately 2,400 animal exhibitors licensed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture are AZA accredited, according to the association’s website.
Unlike most zoos that contract food services from outside vendors, officials decided the zoo’s cafeteria would feature dishes made on the premises. The decision allows its food service department to cater weddings, reunions, private parties and business luncheons and outings.
Sixty years after first opening its doors, the zoo set a new attendance record with 332,960 visitors in 2012 and last week was named Attraction of the Year in 2012 Zenith Awards given by the Akron/Summit Convention & Visitors Bureau.
For more information, go to www.akronzoo.org.
Kathy Antoniotti can be reached at 330-996-3565 or firstname.lastname@example.org.