Carl LaVO shares stories of historic Bucks County animals
Some friends suggested that I study a few stories from different sections of our historic county. Sally Sondesky of the Bensalem Historical Society recounted the legend of a tiger that terrorized the Torresdale Manor section of Bensalem in 1879. Fletcher Walls of the Doylestown Historical Society sent me information about a pigeon farm unlike any other in New Britain in 1925.
First, the story of the tiger.
Newspaper articles described a man named Hartranft asleep in his home along the Pennsylvania Railroad near the village of Torresdale in northeast Philadelphia when a loud rumble woke him up.
It was dawn on October 24, 1879. As he left, he was shocked to see a 310 pound Bengal tiger on the rails. “Naturally, he immediately sought shelter as coping unarmed with a tiger was no big deal,” the Harrisburg Daily Independent reported.
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Hartranft rushed into the village to alert the citizens. Quickly, the “town came out with everything in arms” to find the escapee from Forepaugh’s Menagerie, a circus who had arrived in Torresdale.
Adam John Forepaugh, the owner, was an innovative showman. He designed the first use of railroad cars for a traveling circus in 1877, the first three-ring presentation and the first Wild West show.
Among his menagerie of wild animals in Torresdale were Bengal tigers. One of them escaped from his cage, abandoning two cubs and fleeing to the Delaware River in Andalusia.
With hunters in pursuit, the tiger took refuge in a forest around Edgewood, a mansion owned by wealthy Philadelphia banker and stockbroker Edward Whelen. The irony of a tiger in its woods did not escape him.
As he later told the New York Times, “Last year my daughter had carefully explained to some children the impossibility of meeting a tiger in these woods, and that was probably why the animal had gone to that particular place. He was a very dangerous neighbor and could have cost several lives.
The hunters caught up with the animal and shot it down. The big cat managed to make it to a nearby property before exhaling. The hunting party transported the carcass to the aptly named Red Lion Inn on the border of Bensalem and Philadelphia.
The incident gave the Whelen property a new name that still persists today: Edgewood Tigers. The mansion on the property dating from 1684 has been lovingly restored by current owners David and Marlene Fackler.
A “nest” with 5,000 Bucks pigeons
On a climbing trip to Europe many years ago, my friends and I stopped by a little restaurant in the south of France in the hopes of eating fried chicken. We didn’t speak the language but Max mimicked our desire for chicken by flapping his arms.
“Could you write it down?” asked the waiter, which we did not understand. Giving up, he wrote something down and disappeared into the kitchen. What a surprise when he reappeared with plates of grilled birds, head forward, feet in the air and the size of force-fed sparrows.
Lots of garlic and little to eat. Maybe what was served were youngsters. But I had never eaten a pigeon or wanted to.
Here in Bucks County at the turn of the 20th century, pigeons were big business. Howard Butcher’s Pigeon Nest farm in New Britain Township has supplied New York City with hundreds of fattened young birds every week. Just as Yardley had his famous duck farm for the culinary trade, New Britain provided the best pigeons for foodies.
Butcher grew up in Philadelphia raising carrier pigeons in his backyard. This led to the founding of a pigeon farm in New Britain in 1903. No, no carrier pigeons. The edible version of a squab with a taste comparable to the dark meat of a chicken.
By crossing, Butcher has developed a “Carmontaise” variety that is highly sought after for gastronomy. Doylestown’s Intelligencer newspaper reported 2,500 pairs of cooing birds at Pigeon Nest Farm where human silence was required. Explained Butcher, “These birds are never disturbed or excited and it is necessary to keep them silent at all times.”
So much the better for breeding new youngsters, ready to market at 4 weeks old and weighing just under a pound. Butcher employed “squab pickers” to harvest and pluck the birds, which were packed in barrels of ice for shipping. The newspaper called Butcher’s nearly 13,000-square-foot roost the “premier pigeon hotel” in eastern Pennsylvania.
It made me wonder how expensive it was to dine on a squab in the Big Apple. Back then, hotels charged $ 3.50 for a pigeon dinner. It would be $ 54 today. The Intelligencer reported that “the housewife pays up to $ 1.50 a pound for a youngster.” It would be $ 22.58 today.
I wonder what Mary Anne would think if I brought home some choice pigeons from Rittenhouse Square for dinner?
Sources include “The Refugee Tiger Shot at Torresdale” published in the Harrisburg Daily Independent on October 24, 1879; a letter to the editor of Edward S. Whelen published in the New York Times on October 25, 1879; “A Great Showman Dead” published in the Philadelphia Times on January 24, 1890, concerning Adam John Forepaugh; and “Mammoth Pigeon Farm has over 5,000 birds” published in The Intelligencer on May 27, 1925.
Carl LaVO can be contacted at [email protected]