Jenny, Quanicassee’s Beer Drinking Bear

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. 

Jenny Bear3

Jenny Drew Crowds to the Thumb 

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 weekends…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 hangover.”

Jenny bear4

The Final Days Of Jenny

Black Bear
Wikimedia – The Field Museum Library,

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. 


Michigan's Thumb ThumbWind


4 thoughts on “Jenny, Quanicassee’s Beer Drinking Bear”

  1. I love these kind of local stories, too! Too often the backstory of local lore is lost—thanks for keeping this one in circulation.

  2. I am interested in early 1880’s hostory about a camp and crew who “drained the swamps of Quanicasee”…I have a story told to my mother, and related to me of such an event. any information would be appreciated. Seems my great grandfather was a camp boss of such a happening,,????

    • It seems quite possible. The entire area south of Sand Point to Bay City was swampy. The Ora Labora colony drained hundreds of acres which became some of the finest farmland to this day. Check out a story I have on another site about Ora Labora to tell about conditions of early homesteaders in the 1860s. Its highly possible that your g-g-grandfather knew of the Colony or helped them out later. . If you have other stories or information I would love to hear about it.

  3. I just wanted to make a workable and knowledgeable comment to the meaning of the place name Quanicassee: With much thought, I don’t believe there is sufficient evidence that it means “Long Tree” as reported on Wikipedia. There is no real source or reference information given for that meaning elsewhere or at Wikipedia. There were three streams between the Saginaw River and the Wiscoggin Creek with the later emptying into the Saginaw Bay at today’s town of Unionville, MI. I understand those three streams to have been the “The Bear River and the Two Ladys’ or Squaws’ Creeks”. On the 1855 Farmer Map of MI, the west branch of today’s Quanicassee River was originally called Maqua-ne-kesee[be]. To give what I feel is its source or root, “Makwa” means bear while “seebe” means river hence the meaning essentially of Bear River or as some have referred to it as “Stump-tailed Bear River”. This wetland area early on was by the Ojibwa and Ottawa used as a rice gathering area or Boygoning . . . The Great Rice Gathering marsh as a bit closer to Saginaw and called Cheboygoning. On the Farmer Map, two streams ran into the Boygoning marsh just northeast of Maqua-ne-ke-see [called now Quanicassee]. Boygoning means simply the thrashing or gathering [of rice] place. The two squaw creeks were both called Quan-a-kus-see. It seems the name Quanakussee or the name Quanicassee may have been interchanged in location to the western river later or the name Maquanekesse was shortened or corrupted. The two Quanakussee creeks were later both partly or fully called by American’s Squaw Creek. In Ojibwa, “Ikkwe-sibi” means Squaw Creek. The real root of Quanicassee perhaps is the Squaw Creek or where the ladies in the marsh worked and gathered. The Objiwa phrase “Ikkwe-nijos-sibii” means squaw two Creeks. You may also note on the 1855 Farmer Map, too, that today’s Wiscoggin Creek was called Sebewaing. The Cass River has been referred to as the Onottoway-Sebewaing. The ending “waing” of both the later two stream names I feel meaning “in the fur place”. In Ojibwa at the end of the word “waain” means fur. The thumb of Michigan was called Le Pays Peles on a 1700’s map likely meaning the Country of Pelts or Fur. Today’s Sebewaing River that empties into Saginaw Bay at today’s town of Sebewaing was called on Farmer’s Map . . . Rio De Fil, which is in English the Thread River. I note that many place names in our “Country of Fur” used the ending “waning”. That ending seems to set places in this region apart from other nearby areas that were denoted with the ending “waing” or “waning”. I have always thought that the public showing of Jenny the Bear at the town of Quanicassee was a reminiscence of the original meaning of the name of the town of the Quanicassee and Quanicassee River, which was originally Maqua-ne-kessee or the [Stump-tailed] Bear River!

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: