With two bears appearing at a local Sears store this week, my memory is drawn to a real live bear story that was told during my childhood in West Virginia.
The day the bears fought in Newell.
The Homer Laughlin China Company, producers of Fiestaware, built the town of Newell. Most of the infrastructure of the West Virginia town – roads, sewers, rail lines, bridges – was paid for by the Wells family, owners of the pottery, more than one hundred years ago. As the pottery thrived, the town grew.
It’s the way things used to get built in America.
The pottery was successful. The owners built a park in the center of town along with a zoo and a library, all for the betterment of the workers and all on the company’s tab.
Nobody knows where the Kodiak bear came from, originally. Some say the massive animal was brought back by steamship from Canada. A female black bear, captured from the wilds of Hancock County, was brought in as the Kodiak’s mate. Those who built the zoo never considered that two different species of bears might not get along. It wasn’t their field of expertise. Besides, they had other problems.
They were busy building one of the great small businesses in America into one of the great big ones.
It was just about then that the bears began to fight.
Word spread. Everyone was excited to hear the story: there was a bear fight in the zoo!
The two bears, occupying the same cage, had not gotten right down to mating, as everyone had hoped. Instead, the Kodiak and the black bear were fighting to the death.
A huge crowd gathered to watch. People arrived on streetcars from East Liverpool, Ohio. Folks drove down in Model A Fords from Chester and plodded up the riverbank on horse drawn wagons from New Cumberland. Everyone flooded into Newell to watch two bears fight to the death in a cage match.
And while the bears fought, the millionaires packed.
The bear fight was a nationally reported news item, carried on radio and in newspapers. While it was nice for the residents to bask in a small amount of publicity, it did not save the zoo.
It soon closed.
The park that surrounded the zoo closed as well, a few years later.
You can go to Newell now and see the pottery, still owned by the Wells family, thriving on the strength of rainbow-colored Fiestaware. You can also see the bridge to Ohio the pottery magnates built. And, if you squint just right, you can see where the zoo once stood. One day, long ago, two bears fought to the death in front of a crowd of pottery workers.
It’s all true.
Once, long ago, millionaires started businesses in the Northern Panhandle of West Virginia.
And bears fought to the death.