Zoo Detective Series: The “Boys” Who Built the Zoo

You’re a nature-lover, right? Then maybe you have camped on the Native American ground that shares a connection to the Oklahoma City Zoo. It’s the Osage Hills State Park, near Bartlesville, Oklahoma.

How are the zoo and the park related, you ask? It’s a story that goes back 85 years, like this…

The 1930s Backstory:

During the Great Depression, the men of the Civilian Conservation Corp (CCC) lived and worked on Zoo property from 1933-1937. The government paid them to build the Zoo’s amphitheater, bathhouse and picnic pavilions. These men were known as Company #895. Once they finished at the Zoo, they spent a short time in Colorado before returning to Oklahoma to build outdoor park structures at Osage Hills.

The mostly-unknown connection between the Zoo and Osage Hills workers began to become clear about five years ago, like this…

The 2012 Backstory:

I met fellow-history detective, Kyle Thoreson, at a gathering of nature educators. Light bulbs came on for both of us when we discovered a shared interest in CCC Co. #895. Thoreson is a park ranger at Osage Hills. We realized that by swapping information, we could start to solve some shared puzzles. 

Now, we both know so much more!

“When I started at Osage Hills, I realized how few answers we had about our CCC buildings and ruins. I took it upon myself to find out as much as I could,” Thoreson said. “Sadly, some things we’ll never know, because history that isn’t shared is lost forever.”

After scouring our own resources, the Oklahoma History Center and the National Archive, we uncovered names, dates, photographs, even daily lunch menus! These were real men living on our properties--and their work is still in evidence.

“Osage Hills and the Oklahoma City Zoo share Co. #895, so telling the story of one tells the story of the other,” Thoreson said.

The Exhibit Story:

So naturally, we pooled information to create a ZooZeum exhibit about the Zoo and Osage Hills “boys” of Co. #895, which is on display until the end of the year.

The exhibit features CCC artifacts from both of our collections, plus a few items on loan from the Oklahoma History Center, 45th Infantry Museum, and Oklahoma State Parks. By a great stroke of fortune, Ranger Thoreson was gifted an original Co. #895 pennant for his personal collection--which is a highlight of the ZooZeum exhibit.

“A far greater number of public will see and appreciate the artifacts at the Zoo than if they are in my private office or in the park archive.”

Thoreson describes himself as a “history detective on a mission.” 

“My hope is that the CCC is not forgotten, and on a bigger scale, it’s important to see what a country can do in the depths of despair,” Thoreson said. “During the Great Depression, the country found its hope in the young people. I suppose every generation questions their youth, but in 1935, the youth pulled us out of a hole.”

The Zoo certainly benefited from the government’s nation-wide effort to put young men to work. During a time when zookeepers relied on neighbors to provide food scraps for the animals—it is highly likely that the Zoo could have folded without the influx of infrastructure provided by the CCC.

We continue to gain a better understanding of how they lived and worked at the Zoo and Osage Hills. Although many things about Co. #895 are still a mystery, pieces reveal themselves all the time.

“Ultimately, it comes down to history sleuths to uncover those clues from the past,” Thoreson said.

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Solving real historical mysteries never ends. Each case uncovers more mysteries to solve—and that’s why the Zoo is an amazing place to be a Treasure Hunter. Want to help? Keep an eye open for OKC Zoo memorabilia at antique stores, estate sales, online, or in your family collection--especially anything related to CCC Co. #895 or #875, a smaller unit that temporarily worked at the Zoo.

The Civilian Conservation Corp exhibit will be on display at the Patricia and Byron J. Gambulos ZooZeum, located in the elephant habitat area, through 2017.

- Amy Dee Stephens, Naturalist Instructor Supervisor 

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