As she started the research for a novel set in Corvallis in the late 1960s, Laurie Mason kept stumbling across an oddity from the city's past — a bear pit on the south side of Avery Park.
After two years of work scouring thousands of newspaper pages from the Gazette-Times and Albany Democrat-Herald, tracking down leads and talking with more than 400 people, she's finally pieced together the saga of the pit and its sad ending.
She might even have found a title for her novel.
“I am going to write a novel that features several modern-day characters whose lives were affected by the events of their senior year of high school in Corvallis in 1968-’69. It was a tumultuous time, as it is today,” said Mason, a retired journalist, college instructor and attorney.
It was during her initial research that the bear pit kept popping up. Most thought it was still active in 1968, but Mason’s research pinpoints its closure in June 1964.
That closure had a sad ending that drew nationwide attention.
More than 100 newspapers carried stories with headlines such as the Gazette-Times’ “Avery Park Bears Are ‘Put To Sleep’,” and “3 Bears Are Shot To Prevent Cruelty,” in the Tallahassee Democrat in Florida.
'Just a different time'
Mason, who grew up in Corvallis, remembers seeing the bears as a small child.
“It was just a different time in how people looked at animals,” she said. “It wasn’t unusual to find bears chained up at gas stations in small communities. Oregon was a logging state and bears were common.”
As early as 1927, residents of Eugene were considering developing a bear pit at Skinner Butte Park. In 1932, tame black bears were on display at the Whiteside Theater in conjunction with a wildlife film being shown there. By the early 1940s, wildlife such as deer were on display at Avery Park.
In April 1946, the Gazette-Times reported that the bear pit under construction was 9 feet deep, 34 feet in diameter and included two dens, a bath and an island with a tree.
The pit opened in August 1947 and Park Superintendent Harry Beck said it would hold any kind of animal when finished.
In November 1947, 10-month-old Coalie was the first bear to call Corvallis home. He came from the Portland Zoo with an injured paw that had been caught in a steel trap. He was 5 feet tall and was termed “extremely gentle.”
On Nov. 17, 1947, Coalie was loaned to Willamette University as a mascot for a football game against Portland. In January 1948, Coalie’s paws were injured when a boy tossed firecrackers into the pit.
That May, Suzy, also from the Portland Zoo, joined Coalie.
Things went well for several months, until Halloween, when someone freed the bears as a prank. Park police had their guns drawn, but the bears were wooed back home without incident.
In June 1954, two cubs — Christy and Patsy — were donated by a Sweet Home logger, but they didn't get along well with their older counterparts.
There is no word on how the city disposed of the older bears, but year-old triplets soon took their places.
In September 1957, a small bomb exploded in the bear pit. The explosion could be heard as far away as Philomath and created a hole 5 inches across and 6 inches deep in the pit’s concrete. The bears were not injured.
'Not a humane way'
By 1962, Corvallis residents began to feel sorry for the bears and started writing letters to the editor and attending Park Board meetings.
Several large trees fell atop the pit during the Columbus Day storm of 1963; again, the bears were not injured.
The issue of finding new homes for the bears became a topic of Park Board meetings, although no relocation solution was identified.
Turning them loose in the wild was considered, but Park Board members believed they would become prey and would not know how to survive in the wild on their own.
On April 28, 1964, the final three bears were tranquilized and then shot to make sure they were dead. The Associated Press sent the story nationwide.
Gazette-Times Publisher Robert Ingalls was not pleased with how the story played out in headlines across the country. He pointed out in an editorial that some people taunted the bears by throwing live cats in the pit or tried to feed them things that weren't good for them.
“Further, the pit was not the best way to keep bears; it could never be cleaned or deodorized satisfactorily and actually was not a humane way to treat animals,” he wrote.
He also pointed out that the tranquilizers were extremely strong and was administered by staff from the State Game Commission.
By 1969, the park’s small zoo, including the bear pit, had fallen on hard times. A proposed $389,000 levy failed and the mini-zoo was soon demolished. The bear pit was filled in.
Over the years, it appears the pit held only seven total bears.
Mason said the “aha moment” in her research came recently when additional volumes of the Gazette-Times were uploaded to the website www.newspapers.com.
It also didn’t help Mason’s effort that she was drawn into the bound volumes she researched so diligently at the Democrat-Herald office. It wasn’t easy to shut the books because their content is so interesting, she said.
“I would like to see the city put a memorial stone where the pit used to be,” she said. “It could have the names of the bears that lived there. It just seems fitting.”
Mason said she was somewhat surprised by how well her project was received by anyone she spoke with.
“They would say, ‘Oh, yeah, I remember the bear pit,’” she said.
Although the pit was no longer in use in 1968, Mason plans to take editorial license and include it in her novel.
“Hey, it’s a novel,” she said with a smile. “In fact, I’m thinking about possibly calling it 'The Bear Pit.'”
Mason said the novel will be a gripping tale laced with humor.
“It’s interesting that although there are different businesses housed in them, most of the buildings that were in downtown Corvallis in 1968 are still there,” she said.
Mason’s refusal to let the bear story be silent comes from the fact that she was a working journalist for several years after she graduated from Oregon State with a journalism degree in 1980 and she comes from a long line of “ink-stained wretches.”
Her mother and father, Sue and Bob Mason, met while working at the Oregon State Barometer. Her grandfather, Earl Mason, taught forestry at the university and her mother taught journalism at OSU for 18 years.
“My grandmother, Gladys Mason, was a stringer for the Democrat-Herald and was the only person who was killed during the December 1964 flood,” Mason said.
She spent several years in California where she taught at the university level and became an attorney. She retired four years ago and moved back to Corvallis, where her mother still lives.
“I am not finished with this. I’d like to talk to anyone who might know more and I’d really like to find some good photos of the bears,” Mason said.
She can be contacted by calling 541-752-0979.