We love old stories about Michigan’s Upper Thumb. We are fascinated by the rapid growth of the region in the late 1800’s such as the shipbuilding in Caseville, the boom town of Port Crescent and the grace and luxury of early hotels and resorts of Bay Port and Pointe Aux Barques.
In the early 1900’s the biggest social changing event was that of the automobile. People could extend their world beyond the harbors and rail lines and no longer had to care and feed horses. While roads were still considered not much more then cart paths in the rural areas, the high wheelbase of early autos meant that folks of means could go just about anywhere.
It was during this time that Frank Vanderbilt came and invested in Quanicassee at the base of the Thumb. The name “Quanicassee” is of Native American origin meaning “lone tree”. The entire area had been a fishing village and the marshes were known for wild rice long before the arrival of white settlers. Frank was a hustler and knew how to take care of himself. He was a winning prize fighter. In a fight in Bay City in 1893 when he was 26 he took the $100 prize and all the gate proceeds for beating a local favorite. As a saloon keeper in Essexville he had been shot during a festival. After a fire of his house and bar he came to the tiny village looking for a fresh start. He knew the trend of road travel was just starting to take off. He became owner of a hotel and saloon.
Frank knew how to draw a crowd. It was during this time of early motor travel that roadside attractions became popular. Small museums, oddity displays, and amusement parks popped up next to gas stations and restaurants. Vanderbilt started collecting wild animals for a roadside zoo. One of his early acquisitions was a female black bear. The cub was supposedly orphaned after a fire in the Clare area. How Frank acquired the young cub is truly unknown but it became part of the saloons attraction. The bear was smart and performed for pieces of bread, milk and meat. Frank named the famed cub Jenny.
In 1909 Jenny became a momma. She had her first and only cub with another captive bear named Billy who Vanderbilt acquired after Jenny. The birth announcement when on to say that the roadside attraction had three bears, 28 racoons and a pond full of hungry carp. It also mentioned that “several Indians survive on his bounty”. (Bay City Tribune, January 28, 1909) It was also noted that Jenny was a “topper” for her ability to remove beer caps before guzzling down a brew.
One account was by the Don Miller who wrote on a post about the topic. “…in the summer of 1911 at 15 he [my dad] moved to Frank Vanderbilt’s Resort to mend nets, do fishing boat chores and care for the “zoo” which Frank had put together. Frank provided him a shack. He cared for Jennie the bear as well as other zoo residents. The bear was famous for the beer drinking from a bottle on week-ends…dad fed her bread and milk before the evenings (Fri & Sat) to fortify her capacity. Cost was Fifty cents to buy her a beer. She was housed in a big concrete bridge drain tube with a straw bed & fitted with bars. When in the tavern she would be on a round section of a huge tree trunk, with chain and collared. Over time she became alcoholic got ornery with a hang-over.”
The final chapter of the Beer Drinking Bear Jenny is a bit fuzzy. One account is that due to prohibition the saloon and hotel soon were failing. Unable to care for the large animal Jenny was sold to a hunting club who then proceeded to place the bruin on the menu at a wild game dinner. Another account has the bear was euthanized after attacking a customer’s child. The real story is likely a combination of both. Regardless it was a sad end for the alcoholic bear who was so exploited.
In the end it was said that out of guilt Frank Vanderbilt placed the statue of Jenny as a memorial and tribute. Today it’s a part of the lore at the base of Michigan’s Thumb.