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Elegy for an elephant: Oquawka commemorates 50 years since the death of Norma Jean

Fifty years ago, an Asian elephant was struck and killed by lightning in a small Illinois village along the Mississippi River.

Her name was Norma Jean.

Now the people of Oquawka are planning to commemorate the anniversary of her death in the village park where she died and was laid to rest.

The circus comes to town

On July 17, 1972, the Clark & Walters circus came to Oquawka, sponsored by the village’s Youth Baseball Association.

Tickets were $1 each, and shows were scheduled for 6 p.m. and 8 p.m. in the park located in the center of town.

Norma Jean, a 29-year-old elephant weighing approximately 6,500 pounds, was the star of the show.

Susan Meyer, a volunteer for Oquawka Parks and Tourism, said many people in town remember that day.

“There are quite a few because a lot of people in their 50s were young lads and lasses,” Meyer said. “They have memories of going to the show, and the big storm that hit that night.”

As the story goes, Norma Jean’s caretaker, who was known as Red Possum, tied her to a tree in the park with a metal chain as the storm blew in.

When lightning struck the tree and the voltage went through that chain, Norma Jean was zapped to the ground, dead, in an instant.

How to bury an elephant

Meyer said others in Oquawka are more familiar with what happened after that.

“Some of the older people remember how there was nothing to do with the carcass, so they just had a dozer come in and dig a hole and bury her right there on the spot,” she said.

Within a few years, a local pharmacist named Wade Meloan led efforts to create a memorial and tombstone for Norma Jean at the site.

Norma Jean’s final resting place features a curved limestone tombstone, a concrete elephant monument, newspaper accounts of the tragedy encased in glass, and an engraved plaque.

Remembering Norma Jean

Oquawka Parks and Tourism is a group of volunteers that work to beautify and promote the village of around 1,200 residents.

Their vision is also to support residents’ needs and create revenue for local businesses.

So when village officials came up with the idea to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Norma Jean’s death, they turned to Oquawka Parks and Tourism.

The circus-themed “Remembering Norma Jean” event is scheduled for 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday, July 17, at the park where the elephant is buried.

“We’re going to have free hot dogs, peanuts, popcorn, crackerjack, cotton candy, snow cones, cookies and drinks until everything runs out,” Meyer said.

The event will coincide with Henderson County Local Artists’ “Art in the Park” and is funded in part through a grant from the Two Rivers Art Council.

Youth will be able to paint their versions of Norma Jean, with the artwork to hang in an exhibit in the village hall.

Face-painting and elephant-themed crafts are also planned, as is a storytime where those who remember the day Norma Jean came to town can share their memories.

Quite famous

Meyer herself was not there the day of the circus 50 years ago.

She moved to Oquawka in 1975, three years after Norma Jean’s demise.

But she says Norma Jean means something to everyone in Oquawka, whether they were there or not.

“It means the world to people in Oquawka. And Norma Jean has become quite famous. You cannot believe the people just driving through town that go up to see the monument,” Meyer said.

A green sign at Schuyler and Fifth streets points visitors to Norma Jean’s grave.

At Sunday’s event, Norma Jean the Elephant t-shirts and postcards will be for sale.

Local businesses are getting in on the celebration, too.

The Muddy Cup Coffee Company will be serving free pancakes in honor of Oquawka’s elephant that morning, while supplies last.

Tri States Public Radio produced this story.  TSPR relies on financial support from our readers and listeners in order to provide coverage of the issues that matter to west central Illinois, southeast Iowa, and northeast Missouri. As someone who values the content created by TSPR's news department please consider making a financial contribution.

Jane Carlson is TSPR's regional reporter.