Benson’s Wild Animal Farm may just have been the “strangest farm on earth.” That’s how John T. Benson described the zoo he founded in Hudson, NH in 1924.
For nearly a century, Benson’s has been a land of dueling personalities competing for your attention. Even today, where else can you get ice cream, walk your dog, climb around in a restored gorilla cage, and visit a 9/11 memorial that includes a piece of steel from the elevator shaft of the World Trade Center’s North Tower?
Benson’s Wild Animal Farm closed in 1987, but thanks to the restoration efforts of the state of New Hampshire, the town of Hudson, and many in the community, you can still dwell among the ghosts of past childhoods on the property’s restored park structures and its four miles of walking trails.
Reopened to the public in 2010 as Benson Park, the Hudson Department of Public Works maintains its 166 acres today. Open daily with free parking and free admission, the park embodies an inspiring story of conservation, restoration, and nostalgia.
But, the long and intricate web of its stories is what makes Benson Park resonate with its visitors from all over New England.
Never mind that the story of Benson’s is the story that includes a:
- 500-lb. silverback gorilla who once ran for president
- beloved pet elephant who’s buried on the property, and a
- kangaroo who ran away from a traveling circus to join Benson’s.
Benson’s is a story that starts with ….
A Boy Who Ran Away to Join the Circus
When he was just eight years old in the late 1870s, John T. Benson ran away from his home in Dewsbury in the English country of Yorkshire. He joined the Bostock & Wombwell Circus.
In the circus, he became an animal trainer, like his father. That set the course for the rest of his life.
Twenty years later, around 1890, Benson came to the US for the first time, with an exhibit that featured a wrestling lion. He stayed and found work buying and selling exotic animals.
He then returned to training animals. He helped establish zoos in faraway places like Jamaica and Cuba. He helped start the Franklin Park Zoo in Dorchester, Massachusetts as its first curator.
By the early 1920s, he had bought a 200-acre farm in Hudson, NH with a nearby Boston & Maine railroad station. He brought in wild animals and conditioned them for zoos and circuses. He hired more trainers. The business grew.
A few years later, he opened Benson’s Wild Animal Farm to the public. He charged admission, except to Hudson residents who could come in for free.
Benson soon discovered that he make more money running a sort of zoo. He brought in tigers, zebra, fleas for a real-life flea circus, and …
A Lucky Concrete Elephant
In 1941, Benson added a “lucky Chinese elephant” to his wild animal farm. The elephant soon got its own legend in Benson’s lore.
If you slipped a coin into a slot on the elephant’s back–the legend went–your wish would be granted. While evidence of wishes granted seems to have not survived over the decades, park workers emptied the coins regularly through a trapdoor in the elephant’s belly. They then donated the coins to charity.
Visitors to Benson’s frequently saw elephants–both the concrete and flesh-and-blood types–at the park. Early in Benson’s history, John Benson’s real-life pet elephant Betsy emerged as one of the park’s earliest stars. Betsy was best remembered for her baths in the park’s pond and for giving rides to park visitors in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s. Betsy survived John Benson by 28 years, dying in 1971. She’s said to be buried somewhere on the park’s grounds.
Children of the Gen X years may better remember the concrete elephant, a 10-foot-tall concrete statue of an Indian elephant who started life with a downward-pointing trunk before the park’s final owner traded it out for an upward-pointing trunk sometime around 1979, for ‘better luck’ as the legend goes.
Benson’s lucky concrete elephant survived even longer than the park. After the park closed in 1987, alumni bought it for Tufts University in Medford, Mass., whose mascot happened to be an elephant. There, it ‘lived’ for another 28 years before it just fell apart in 2015.
But, even more popular than the concrete elephant at Benson’s, there was …
A Gorilla who Thought He Was a Man
If you remember going to Benson’s between the 1960s and 1987, you probably remember Colossus, the huge silverback gorilla who lived in the smallish cage in the middle of the park.
Even today, you can still walk over to Colossus’ cage, restored to its 20th-century glory. Colossus–weighing over 500 lbs, standing more than six feet tall, and with feet that measured eight inches wide–was probably the largest gorilla ever held in captivity. Also known as Tony, he was born in West Africa.
As the park’s main attraction, Colossus might have been best known for his love of “General Hospital.” He often escaped the gaze of onlookers by retreating into the small room at the back of his cage to watch the soap opera on TV.
Besides being the largest gorilla ever held in captivity, Colossus also appears to have been the only one who has run for president. The park’s final owner, Arthur Provencher, entered him into both presidential primaries in New Hampshire in 1980. Colossus G. Benson ran against both Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter. The results showing how many votes he received don’t seem to be readily available today.
When Benson’s Wild Animal Farm closed in 1987, all 550 of its animals, including Colossus, needed new homes. They were sold at auction.
Colossus moved onto the Gulf Breeze Zoo in Florida first, and then lived his final years at the Cincinnati Zoo.
Before Benson’s closed, Colossus had lived nearly all of his 20-something years in captivity alone and without seeing other gorillas. In Cincinnati, his keepers quickly learned that he needed to be reintroduced to other gorillas, according to a 1988 AP article published in the Annapolis Capital. To get him ready to meet and interact with other gorillas, they had to show him videotapes from National Geographic.
He just preferred the company of humans more.
He eventually learned to live with other gorillas, although zookeepers were never successful in getting him to mate with female gorillas to expand the gene pool with one of the last wild gorillas held in captivity.
He lived until 2006 when he died during an operation to treat a cracked tooth. While under anesthesia, he suffered a massive heart attack. He was 40 years old.
Benson’s Wild Animal Farm–The Last Years
By the time the 1970s rolled around, the park was already in decline. Nashua native Arthur Provencher bought Benson’s and tried to save it. He brought new investment into the park, negotiating a multimillion-dollar deal with Hershey in 1983 before it ultimately fell through, and then a year later, a joint ownership deal with Agawam, Mass.-based Riverside Park.
The partnership lasted less than a year.
In 1985, Benson’s filed for bankruptcy. Provencher tried to get creative, even considering a plan to take the park public and sell stock. But, that never happened.
As a last attempt, Provencher bought the rights to characters like Deputy Dawg and Mighty Mouse in 1987 and even rebranded Benson’s as the New England Playworld Amusement Park and Zoo. But, in the end, it either was too late or not enough.
At the end of the 1987 season, Benson’s closed.
For years, the park lay in disrepair and was vandalized and forgotten until the state of New Hampshire, the town of Hudson, and many groups and people in the community banded together to restore the park and preserve its memory.
Today, Benson Park offers walking trails, restored park structures, a playground, and a dog park.
Shortly before Arthur Provencher died in 2013, he toured the park he tried to save. He told the Nashua Telegraph that he was “pleasantly surprised” and that visitors could now “visualize what was here before and the beauty of the grounds.”
Indeed, it’s a happy ending for those who remember Benson’s as a key destination of their childhoods.