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 boomtown of Port Crescent, and the grace and luxury of early hotels and resorts of Bay Port and Pointe Aux Barques. One great story was that of Jenny, the beer-drinking bear.
In the early 1900s, the biggest social changing event was that of the automobile. People could extend their world beyond the harbors and rail lines and no longer care for and feed horses. While roads were still considered not much more than cart paths in the rural areas, the high wheelbase of early autos meant that folks of means could go just about anywhere.
Frank Vanderbilt Comes to Quanicassee
During this time, Frank Vanderbilt came and invested in Quanicassee at the base of Michigan’s 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 prizefighter. 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 barn, he came to the tiny village looking for a fresh start. He knew the trend of road travel was starting to take off. He became the owner of a hotel and saloon.
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. Frank’s acquired young cub is truly unknown, but it became part of the saloon’s attraction. The bear was smart and performed for pieces of bread, milk, and meat. Frank named the famed cub Jenny.
The Final Days Of Jenny
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 placed 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.
It was said that out of guilt, Frank Vanderbilt placed a statue of Jenny near his former resort’s site. It can be seen today as one of the Thumb’s roadside attractions. It’s one of the neat roadside attractions located near the Bay Shore Bar in Quanicassee Mi. It’s a part of the lore at the base of Michigan’s Thumb.