Ask Rufus: Tom Locke's Zoo

June 26, 2010 7:08:00 PM

Rufus Ward - [email protected]


Many people still remember the small zoo that was in Propst Park but few recall the large private zoo that was once in Columbus. It was located south of Friendship Cemetery and was the 1920s endeavor of Tom Locke. 


Tom Locke took over the family wholesale grocery business, T J Locke & Son, in 1918. It was a thriving business and it enabled him to pursue an unusual hobby. It may have all started when he had a pit dug in the back yard of his house on Fourth Street South in Columbus and put some pet crocodiles in it.  


In 1921 he purchased a club house on Locke Lake just south of Friendship Cemetery. The entrance to the property was through a gate on either side of which stood marble pillars, each with the statue of an eagle perched on top. He soon began buying exotic animals from passing circuses. His club property and lake which he renamed Lake Irene after his daughter became the setting for a large private zoo. 


His menagerie grew from crocodiles to include bears, lions, deer, camels, monkeys and a drove of elk. The first camel born in Mississippi since the great Pleistocene extinction was said to have been born there. He was named "Mississippi" and became a popular attraction. 


There was one local guest at the zoo. Samuel Kaye and Harry Wilson caught 100-pound turtle in the Tombigbee and towed it from the river bank to Lake Irene. There the turtle was advertised as having been present at the founding of Columbus. 


Locke would also at times send animals to other zoos that needed them or had helped him. The most notable instance was when he sent a black panther named Satan to the Memphis Zoo. The Memphis Evening Appeal reported that the panther was; "the meanest thing in captivity and doesn''t care who knows it." 


The zoo was open to the public on Sundays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Many civic groups held events at the zoo and club house. In August 1921 the Aberdeen and Columbus Rotary Clubs jointly held a barbecue there. 


Wholesale groceries and the zoo were not Locke''s only interest. In 1919 he had purchased a controlling interest in the Columbus Opera House (later the Varsity Theater). In 1936 Tom Locke died and his business interest and the zoo were sold. 


Locke''s grandson, Tom Mayfield, has compiled a fascinating look at "The Life and Times of Tom Locke" a copy of which was given to the Billups-Garth Archives of the Columbus-Lowndes Public Library.

Rufus Ward is a Columbus native a local historian. E-mail your questions about local history to Rufus at [email protected]