By Brad Hicks
For 100 years, Erwin has been known as the town that hung the elephant.
The story of Mary the circus elephant has been told countless times since the fateful day she was brought to the Clinchfield Railroad yard for her public execution. A derrick was used to hoist the large mammal off the ground by her neck. A crowd of onlookers watched as life left the star attraction of the Sparks World Famous Shows circus.
The infamy of Mary’s Sept. 13, 1916, hanging has for generations left Erwin with a stigma that time has not erased, but it has become apparent that many were not content to let Mary’s story end with her demise.
Over the past several weeks, members of the community have helped write a new chapter in the tale of Mary and, in the process, have given Erwin a new elephant-related identity. Erwin is now the sole community supporter of an organization dedicated to providing care and habitat to captive elephants.
The Erwin Elephant Revival culminated Saturday in downtown Erwin. The event was conceived by a group known as R.I.S.E. (Rejuvenate, Invest, Support, Energize) Erwin as a way to not only honor the memory of Mary ahead of the 100th anniversary of her death, but also as a way to turn a black mark in the community’s history into a positive by having the event serve as a fundraiser for the Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee, a nonprofit refuge in Hohenwald that is home to 13 elephants retired from North American zoos and circuses.
Saturday’s free festivities kicked off with “Elephant Magic Night,” which featured an interactive kids’ zone, a magic show, music and games. The Erwin Elephant Revival concluded Saturday evening with the Elephant Glow Parade, which featured buskers, belly dancers, a marching band and the unveiling of a large statue of the famous pachyderm.
“It’s been 100 years in the making,” R.I.S.E. President Jamie Rice said of the Erwin Elephant Revival following Saturday’s parade. “We just felt like this year was the year to honor Mary, and the community that has hung its head for 100 years said, ‘We are not going to hang our head anymore. We’re going to support this Elephant Sanctuary and we are proud to be from Erwin and we’re moving forward.”
The parking lot beside the Unicoi County Courthouse was packed for Elephant Magic Night, which was made possible through a partnership between event organizers, Hands-On Regional Museum and Kindermusik. Among other activities, children were able to make elephant masks and “elephant boogers.” The streets of downtown Erwin were lined for the evening’s Elephant Glow Parade, the crowd applauding as the Mary statue made its way up Main Avenue.
Free watermelon was also handed out throughout Saturday’s portion of the Erwin Elephant Revival in honor of Mary. According to legend, as Mary tried to stray from a parade to nibble on a discarded watermelon rind, her trainer struck her with a barbed bullhook to keep the elephant in line. By some accounts, this was what led Mary to kill her trainer in Sullivan County on Sept. 12, 1916. His death led to Mary’s hanging in Erwin.
Enough watermelon was leftover at the end of Saturday evening to send plenty to the elephants housed at the Elephant Sanctuary.
In the middle of Saturday’s festivities, Rice and Erwin Mayor Doris Hensley, on behalf of the community, presented a check for $6,393 to Todd Montgomery, education manager with the Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee. This amount represented the money raised throughout the course of the Erwin Elephant Revival for the elephant refuge.
“To say ‘Thank you’ is certainly an understatement, but I think that’s the best summary of how we feel,” Montgomery said. “I’ve told everybody in my short but wonderful time in Erwin how much it means to me and the Sanctuary as Tennesseans that this is happening right up the road from where we are. And I think it says a lot about our shared community, that we have these people here who care as much as they do about the elephants and are doing something really, really wonderful to help improve the lives of the elephants that are in the care of the Sanctuary.”
Montgomery said the money raised by members of the community will be put toward any number of items to provide a better life for the elephants at the Sanctuary, including hay, medicine and fencing. He also confirmed that Erwin is the only community that formally supports the Elephant Sanctuary, as all other donations come from individuals and organizations.
“To my knowledge, I cannot think of a situation where we had an entire community or town sort of come together in this way, in a unified fashion, to support the Sanctuary,” Montgomery said. “So I hope this is, certainly, the first of many, and I think Erwin has set a fantastic example to be followed here.”
Kristin Anders with R.I.S.E. said this is something that the community should take pride in, as its members made this a reality. She added it was important to note that the check provided to the Elephant Sanctuary was from the community.
“I don’t think you can ever force things to be forgotten,” Anders said. “We will always be known and associated with an elephant being from Erwin. So why not make it something positive? And this is not an individual or our group’s initiative. It is now our town’s.”
The community’s support began well before Saturday. Throughout the Erwin Elephant Revival, community members have purchased event T-shirts, tickets to various events and even lemonade, with proceeds going toward the Sanctuary.
“It wasn’t just one big donor,” Rice said. “Everybody gave a little bit.”
Other events that comprised the Erwin Elephant Revival and helped raise funds for the Elephant Sanctuary included the Unicoi County High School Drama Department’s Aug. 20 and Aug. 21 performances of a one-act production titled “Mary’s Story: A Hundred Years Later,” The “Trunk Show” Antique Car Show on Aug. 25, and the Low-Country Boil charity dinner held on Aug. 26.
Hensley, who, along with Montgomery, served as grand marshal for Saturday’s Elephant Glow Parade, said although the past cannot be changed, it was time to make amends. She expressed her appreciation for the community’s support of the Erwin Elephant Revival, adding she hopes the community raising thousands of dollars for the Elephant Sanctuary has helped heal the “ill feelings” many have harbored against Erwin over Mary’s death.
“I think that this has been a community effort,” Hensley said. “Even though the R.I.S.E. has put their commitment and their time and their energy into making this happen, it took the community to support them. And, so, I do want to thank the community for the support that they have shown us. I look forward to the next project R.I.S.E. takes on because I’m sure they’re not going to give up. They’re going to keep on going, and I’m very appreciative and proud of the young people that we have in Erwin. It just shows that we’re going to have good leadership in the future.”
Both Rice and Anders said community support for the Erwin Elephant Revival remained high throughout the duration of the event. The event actually kicked off on Aug. 19 with the countywide, social media-based “#SeekMary” scavenger hunt. Rice said participation in this portion of the Erwin Elephant Revival was an indicator of things to come.
“We knew from people’s interest in #SeekMary that this was going to be a hit, because there was so much online participation for #SeekMary,” she said. “We got people from all around the region coming to Unicoi County trying to find these different locations. And that was one of our goals with all this, as well, is just promoting how beautiful our county is and all the good things we have to offer.”
But Rice admitted that she “never could have imagined” Saturday’s turnout would as great as it was. She and Anders used words such as “speechless” and “blown away” when describing the crowd and the community’s support.
“They want to embrace it. I think it provides healing,” Anders said. “Granted, it wasn’t our generation 100 years ago and we can’t control that, but we can control the future and be a part of it and make it something positive.”
And, as Rice explained, the Erwin Elephant Revival was about more than offering the community a chance to heal the wounds that have remained from Mary’s hanging. She said it was the chance to bring together a community that needed further healing following last year’s closure of the local CSX office, which was around the time planning for the event began.
“It was a struggle, so we thought, ‘What is something that would help our town heal and that we could really get behind to bring our community together?’” Rice said.
“And it being the 100th year of Mary, it wasn’t better timing,” Anders added.
Anders said with Saturday’s portion of the Erwin Elephant Revival taken into account, more than $7,000 has been raised for the Elephant Sanctuary. And although the Erwin Elephant Revival has concluded, fundraising for the Sanctuary is far from over. Eight small elephant statues featured in Saturday’s parade were previously purchased from the Elephant Parade, a Denmark-based organization that brings awareness to elephant habitat loss.
“When they heard our story, they just jumped onboard wanting to help us, so they partnered with town officials and we coordinated and got these international elephants to Erwin, which is pretty amazing,” Rice said.
R.I.S.E. Erwin is still seeking sponsors for these elephant statues, which artists will be commissioned to paint over the winter. It is hoped that the uniquely-painted statues will be ready to be debuted in the spring of 2017, and they will be displayed throughout downtown Erwin over the next summer. At the end of the summer of 2017, the statues will be auctioned off with the money going to the Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee.
The large statue of Mary that was featured prominently in Saturday’s parade will likely continue to pop up around town. The statue, which is around 11-feet tall, 18-feet long and 6-feet wide, was built by Chris Kastner, owner of the Backyard Terrors Dinosaur Park in Bluff City. Rice said the statue may be displayed at a local playground or another public area.
“You will see her everywhere,” Rice said. “I bet she’s going to be in every parade from now on.”
And it is unlikely that Mary will be forgotten anytime soon, as the Erwin Elephant Revival’s success could lead to it becoming an annual happening.
“With the success that has been shown in the last week, I definitely think the town officials will want to make this a yearly event, something for people to look forward to all year, something different and exciting and new,” Rice said.
Local fundraising efforts for the Elephant Sanctuary are also ongoing. Anders said T-shirts and other elephants items sold throughout the Erwin Elephant Revival will be sold at the Erwin Farmers Market, held Tuesday evenings in downtown Erwin.
Those interested in sponsoring one of the elephant statues may contact R.I.S.E. Erwin at email@example.com.