40 years at Riverbanks

Original Riverbanks Zoo backers amazed at how it has grown for 40 years

jholleman@thestate.comApril 24, 2014 

  • Happy birthday, Riverbanks

    The celebration of the 40th anniversary of Riverbanks Zoo and Garden is this weekend.

    Friday: Actual anniversary of the April 25, 1974 grand opening; 1,974th visitor will receive special prizes; birthday cake will be served.

    Friday night: Wine Tasting at Riverbanks Botanical Garden (sold out), 7-9:30 p.m.

    Saturday: Party for the Planet! is Riverbanks’ take on Earth Day, with interactive educational activities 9 a.m.-3 p.m.; also Spring Plant Sale at the Botanical Garden 9 a.m.-noon.

— O. Stanley Smith Jr. helped get the ball rolling, with a huge assist from a beautiful tiger and thousands of nickel- and dime-toting children.

Don Barton used his savvy with leaders in the community to facilitate the next important steps to get Riverbanks Zoo and Garden built and opened on April 25, 1974.

Even they sometimes can’t believe what the zoo has become 40 years later. As Riverbanks celebrates another milestone anniversary this week, the two men look back with pride on the effort that led to its conception.

The full story of those formative years is detailed in “Riverbanks Zoo and Garden: Forty Wild Years,” a book by longtime Riverbanks director Satch Krantz and Monique Jacobs. But if you ever get the chance to speak with Smith or Barton, it’s more fun to hear them tell the tales.

Smith bought a tiger cub from Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo in 1964, with a dual purpose. The tiger would draw attention to his car wash and Esso gas station, back when Esso advertised that its gas would “put a tiger in your tank.” More importantly, the tiger would rally the community behind the idea of building a small zoo in Columbia.

The ploy worked. The State newspaper played up a contest to name the tiger – Happy was chosen –and routinely ran photos of children donating change to the zoo fund.

“The amount of money (they gave) wasn’t really a factor, but seeing the children donate fired up the politicians,” Smith says.

The Greater Columbia Chamber of Commerce put its weight behind the idea. Politicians went back and forth for several years on the funding possibilities. A seven-member Riverbanks Parks Commission was created in 1969 to guide the project, and Barton, an advertising executive, was an original member.

“The biggest problem was getting the money,” Barton says. “That was the era of stagflation ... and it was hard to get public funding.”

They couldn’t just nickel-and-dime the zoo into existence behind Happy the Tiger. But like Smith, Barton notes that “whenever we had problems with funding, the children came through. ... The public support has been there from the very start.”

Both men credit the zoo’s original executive director, John Mehrtens, with taking the dream from modest black-and-white to vibrant technicolor. An over-the-top character, Mehrtens insisted everything at Riverbanks should be a world class. What originally had been a proposal for a $350,000 petting zoo grew to $1.2 million, then $3.3 million, then $6 million for a first-class zoological park.

Mehrtens, who died in 1988, was a visionary builder, but he didn’t have the demeanor to run a zoo. He came across as if he felt superior to others, and he could be abrasive when he didn’t get his way. Because he did have superior vision and ideas, and because people gave in to that powerful personality during the building process, Mehrtens built a great zoo.

“He said he would build the finest zoo for a city of this size,” Barton says, “And he said he’d never run it.”

“He was a crazy man, but he got things done,” Smith says of Mehrtens.

Less than a year after the zoo opened, Mehrtens’ refusal to rein in spending for the operation of the facility prompted the commission to ask for his resignation.

After the nasty split with Mehrtens, the commission named Krantz, a 26-year-old who grew up in the Columbia area, as interim director. He’s still in that position, though now it’s called CEO.

Mehrtens was ideal for building the zoo, and Krantz’s friendly personality and feel for the local community were perfect for making Riverbanks a local favorite.

“We had the good fortune to find the right people at the right time,” says Smith, 90.

Krantz also understood the zoo had to update and change through the years to remain fresh. Barton notes that several major renovation projects have kept the zoo among the best in the country. Not coincidentally, people coming to the 40th anniversary will have to come through a temporary entrance because the latest construction effort involves a new entrance plaza and a sea lion exhibit.

“It’s beautiful now, but it’s nothing compared to what it’s going to be,” says Barton, still one of the zoo’s biggest backers at age 89.

With more than 1 million annual visitors in recent years, Riverbanks is the top ticketed tourist attraction in the state.

“What delights me the most is when I go out there and ride through the parking lot and see the out-of-state plates,” Barton says. “The people have gotten their money’s worth.”

Happy the Tiger was one of the first zoo residents, and a statue on the zoo grounds now commemorates the big cat. Happy’s original owner is proud of the connection.

“It’s a marvelous facility,” Smith says. “It has exceeded our imagination.”

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