Harveys Lake History

Red Rock Game Farm

Red Rock Game Farm Poster
FCP Collection

Clearing Land for Game Farm - April 1957
Vonderheid Family Collection

Imagine a time when an old-fashioned wooden fort tucked in a corner of rural northwestern Luzerne County was once home to some of the world's most wild and exotic animals, reptiles and birds. Here, children and families could view and feed the wildlife, enjoy specialty animal acts with the owner, and spy the outdoor home of circus animals when not under the "Big Tent." This was Henry Vonderheid's Red Rock Game Farm from 1957 to 1967 - just one-half mile east of Ricketts Glen State Park on Route 118 in Fairmount Township, in Luzerne County.

Building Game Farm - April 1957
Vonderheid Family Collection

The Game Farm was often described as 10 acres in size. Actually, it was an 8.8- acre wooded site Vonderheid purchased in early April 1956 from Brian and Edna Laycock. A brother, Fred Vonderheid, was instrumental in building the Game Farm site including clearance of the trees for a large parking area.

On May 30, 1957, the Red Rock Game Farm was opened to the public. Its creator, Henry L. Vonderheid (1919-1967), also owned the Von Bros. Circus, Wyoming Valley's only locally owned full circus. The Red Rock Game Farm was enclosed by a rough timber stockade with a 400- foot front wall and a block house at each end. There was a 30 by 100- foot concession building at the main entrance, and two barns on the site which accommodated the animal stock during the colder months. Inside the concession building was an adult mounted deer. When the Game Farm was open to the public, the deer, named Rudolph, was taken outside to the front of the entrance where a generation of children sat on Randolph and parents took photos. There was also a small structure at the Game Farm for the summer caretaker. The Vonderheid family had their ranch-style home next to the site.

Red Rock Game Farm
Credit: Grit 6-23-57

The Red Rock Game Farm was described by the Wilkes-Barre Times Leader on May 18, 1957, prior to Vonderheid's opening on Memorial Day 1957:

The jungles of Africa and South America and the forests of this country and Europe are coming to life on a 10-acre plot near Ricketts Glen State Park.

Henry L. Vonderheid
Vonderheid Family Collection

There in the woods in a setting which duplicates as closely as possible their natural environment, some 250 animals will be on display for area residents to see. Included in the animal farm will be 64 varieties of wild animals. Official opening date will be Memorial Day, May 30. It will be known as Red Rock Animal Farm.
This whole idea, an animal farm where people, particularly children, can come, see and actually feed most of the animals was planned and created by Henry Vonderheid, a native of Wapwallopen. Vonderheid, although raised in Lee Park, actually spent most of his adult life on the road with a circus. Only 39 years-of-age, he has been with one circus or another for 23 years. For the past six years he had had his own circus travelling throughout the nation.
Vonderheid decided after watching circus crowds for years, that people are more interested in wild animals than interested in other circus acts. This started him on his plan for the animal farm, which began to take shape during the past winter. At the present time much of the fencing and ground work has been completed and 75 to 100 animals are already located at the farm.

Red Rock Entrance
Vonderheid Family Collection

Opening Day 5-30-57
Vonderheid Family Collection

Opening Day 5-30-57
Vonderheid Family Collection

Rudolph - Opening Day 5-30-57
Vonderheid Family Collection

Location of Farm
The animal farm is located about 25 miles from Wilkes-Barre and about one-half mile from Ricketts Glen State Park on Route 115. Entrance to the animal area will be through a huge replica of an old -time fort.
Inside the "fort," the woods and jungles will literally come to life before your eyes. In one corner is an alligator pit with five of the huge reptiles, the largest being over seven feet long. Nearby will be the bear-pit with five hungry bears just waiting to have some child feed them ice-cream on a long stick. The bears will be in a six-foot deep hole which will be topped by a three-foot high wall making nine feet to the bottom, so there will be no danger.
Wide Variety of Animals
Near the bears will be several large cages of monkeys of every type and descriptions. As an added attraction, children and adults will be able to feed the monkeys.
Some of the other animals to be seen at the Ricketts Glen location will be two young male lions, four grown lions, two chimpanzees, an alpaca, an emu, six peacocks, two young buffalos, a midget horse and cow, 25 ponies, dozens of rabbits, ducks and other domestic animals, a beautiful Palomino horse, two buzzards, an elk, a king vulture, at least six big snakes in a glass covered pit, two baboons, two native bobcats and other animals too numerous to mention here.

The following month the Red Rock Game Farm was also covered by Williamsport's Grit newspaper on June 23, 1957, with additional details:

Game Farm - Fawn Deer
Vonderheid Family Collection

Immediately joining heavily-forested Rickett Glen State Park, slightly more than 40 miles from Williamsport, a most unusual farm has been established.
Llama, alpaca, and guanaco from Peru gaze placidly on surroundings which until recently had nothing more unusual than native deer; exotic birds make raucous calls; monkeys from all those parts of the world where these interesting animals thrive chatter and cling to the bars of cages.
Native deer, numerous at Ricketts Glen because the state prohibits hunting there, can almost rub noses with cousins from the forests of Germany, England, and other countries of the world, and native black bear can growl back at roaring lions in cages just outside their pit.
It is the Red Rock Game Farm, an extensive animal compound being established by Henry Vonderheid, a native of Wapwallopen, Pa., who until recently had a traveling circus on the road.
Creates Zoo
The former Luzerne County farm boy, who answered the lure of the circus when he was a mere youth, purchased ten acres of woodland next to green and cool Ricketts Glen and cleared away the trees on his frontage along Route 118.
Back of the spacious parking area thus created he had built a stockade through which adults and children pass to visit the heavily populated animal compound beyond.
Every week, Vonderheid, a veteran of the circus world at only 38 and with forearms scarred by the teeth and claws of many savage beasts, adds to his menagerie through wild animal importers with whom he is well acquainted.

Game Farm - Kangaroo
Vonderheid Family Collection

On the day on which newspapermen visited the Red Rock Game Farm, the former circus proprietor, whose wagons stand in front of the stockade, returned with an ant-eater, a South American wildcat, and other rare beasts he had just gotten from a ship which docked at Baltimore.
In the yard with the llama, alpaca, and guanaco, and in adjoining enclosures are [African-Asian wild cats], sheep, zebras, elk, bison. Cages contain young lions, wildcats, foxes, racoons, baboons, chimpanzees, a king vulture, an emu, pheasants, peacocks, a boa constrictor, and native wild animals and birds.
Performing Monkeys
A pair of baboons which must have come from a wild animal act are perhaps the most interesting of the extensive monkey family in the compound. At Vonderheid's command they salute, cross their legs, turn back somersaults, fold their hands as though in prayer, and do other tricks to earn food pellets especially prepared for wild animals.
Near them a powerful chimpanzee, jealous at the attention shown the intelligent baboons, makes a resounding thud with his fists on the wooden sides of his cage and grasps the bars to shake his place of confinement until it literally jumps on the ground.
In the monkey family, too, are strange human-like creatures whose muscular tails are like fifth arms. All screech and tear from one side of their cages to the other in the effort to have food pellets thrown to them.
A few of the monkeys bear tattooed numbers on their chests, for they have served mankind in medical centers where operative experiments scarred their bodies until their vital organs can no longer serve to prove the merits of medication and surgery.
If people in sufficient numbers visit his private zoo, now open to the public, Vonderheid will not resume his traveling circus life but will continue to increase his menagerie and make it a permanent stand.

Judy - Circus Elephant
Vonderheid Family Collection

Attractions for the Game Farm and the circus were imported from South American, Africa, and India. The larger animals generally arrived at a Wilmington, NC, or Florida port. In some instances, Vonderheid also sold, traded or purchased animals from the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. Vonderheid sold Dixie, a 19-month-old female Indian elephant, to the National Zoo for $2,275.00. He also received some surplus animals from the zoo for the Game Farm.

Vonderheid had a natural talent for training animals. He could command a baboon to do somersaults, cross legs, or fold hands in prayer. But the natural antics of the animals would also delight visitors. Large wire enclosures for the llama, alpaca, guanaco, and emu, for example, displayed exotic animals, and large birds in a natural setting were easily viewed and fed by children and their parents. A guanaco is a South American relative of the llama.

The prize of the Game Farm would have been "Judy," a highly-trained elephant Vonderheid featured in his circus. Vonderheid purchased the 28- year-old Indian elephant in January 1955 for $3000.00 from the Fort Weare Game Farm, Pigeon Forge, TN. During the 1956-57 winter, before the Game Farm opened, Judy was housed at a Hanover site near Wilkes-Barre. She unfortunately poisoned herself by licking at road salt and she died. Her carcass was sent to a rendering plant which had difficulty with breaking the large-boned animal. With the loss of Judy, Vonderheid in mid-1957 acquired an unnamed elephant from the National Zoo but after trucking the animal from the Zoo to the Game Farm it was discovered that the animal had died during the trip. No cause was clear. A power-shovel dug a nine -foot- deep grave and the elephant was buried at the Game Farm. Over the years, Vonderheid would acquire a number of other elephants for his circus and other ventures.

Traffic in the opening years of the Game Farm was hampered by road issues. In 1957-1958 Route 487 from Ricketts Glen State Park to Lopez was under reconstruction. The present-day Route 118 from Dallas to Hughesville, in Lycoming County, was once Route 115. In 1959, Route 115 was under reconstruction from Pikes Creek to Red Rock, disrupting traffic to the Game Farm. In April 1961 after the road project was completed, the State renumbered Route 115 from Dallas to Hughesville as Route 118.

 

Henry L. Vonderheid

Henry Luther Vonderheid was born on June 24, 1919, in Hot Springs, Arkansas. His parents were Herman and Anastasia Vonderheid, who relocated to the Hobbie-Wapwallopen area when Henry was a boy. The family was attracted to the Wyoming Valley because Herman Vonderheid's father, Henry Vonderheid (1862-1953), who immigrated to the U.S. from Germany in 1880, had settled in the Valley at age 18 and raised a large family here.

Vonderheid Family Farm 1951
FCP Collection

Fascinated by animals, a youthful Henry borrowed thirty-five dollars and purchased a pony to offer pony-rides at Fey's Grove, Dorrance Corners. Vonderheid soon acquired a small stable and ponies at the Hobbie Farm. On July 10, 1936, Vonderheid had posed with a pony for a photograph when lightning narrowly missed the high-schooler and struck the family barn. This pony, along with two other ponies, a mule team and three cows were killed when the barn was destroyed in the ensuing fire.

Vonderheid graduated from Nescopeck High School in 1938. A year after his graduation, Henry was known as "Captain" Henry Vonderheid, animal trainer and showman. He had a large truck which carried his traveling animal show of 18 trained monkeys, snakes, and a bear, which he exhibited at fairs and carnivals. He dressed in a khaki suit and pith-styled sun-helmet.

By the age of 19 Henry Vonderheid had created a "jungle farm" at Hobbie with his monkeys, snakes, a Chinese dragon, armadillo, and other rare animals. In June 1938, one of the monkeys suddenly bit the young man twice in one arm and six stitches were needed to close the wound. In July 1940 at Waverly, NY, one of the monkeys escaped and was reported in a tree of a Waverly woman. Vonderheid was able to entice it into a cage with the aid of another monkey and a dog. He trained "Chimp," a chimpanzee, to smoke cigarettes, only too well as Chimp smoked two to three packs a day. The "Smoking Chimp" also toured with Vonderheid on the carnival tour. In November 1943 a Hobbie hunter sighted a monkey in a tree. Vonderheid captured the monkey. It was one of two monkeys which had escaped from Vonderheid's menagerie.

Vonderheid extended his animal acts from carnivals to circuses, and where he would accept any available work, including selling cotton candy and popcorn, to learn the circus trade, dreaming he could own his own circus.

A young Vonderheid was climbing the carnival and circus world and received guidence from stars of this unique entertainment industry. For a time, he worked for Prof. George Keller (1897-1960), a former Bloomsburg College art professor who became a famed animal trainer after WWII, and who made circus life his full-time profession in 1950. Keller was one of the earliest circus acts at Disneyland. In October 1960 Keller suffered a fatal heart attack while completing a lion act with the Shrine Circus in Corpus Christi, TX. Vonderheid also worked at various fairs with a monkey act for W. C. Kaus Shows. He also had a stint with Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey as night watchman for Gargantua (1929-1949), a large, scarred Belgian Congo gorilla. This fierce 550-pound attraction drew large crowds and saved Ringling Bros. from bankruptcy in the post-Depression years. After Gargantua's death, his skeleton was gifted to the Peabody Museum at Yale University.

Henry Vonderheid - Merchant Marine
Vonderheid Family Collection

During World War II Vonderheid served in the Merchant Marine and sought out valued contacts in foreign ports for post-War imports of exotic animals. During his Merchant Marine service, he helped with shipments of monkeys from Africa needed at New York research facilities for developing treatments for polio and for military personnel who contracted jungle diseases. In the Orient he could trade cigarettes for monkeys which he shipped to Staten Island for sale for up to fifty dollars each. Between voyages Vonderheid worked at candy concessions at various fairs for A. Hymes, a firm based in Jamaica, Long Island.

Immediately after his Merchant Marine service, Vonderheid found concession work with a circus formed by James M. Cole in Penn Yan, NY. Cole principally operated in New York and Pennsylvania and became a legendary figure in the circus business, retiring in 1958.

In the summer of 1946, the entire Vonderheid family, Herman and Anastasia Vonderheid, along with Henry and his three siblings, Herman, Jr, Albert and Fred, joined to work the mid-Atlantic carnival circuit. Henry's successful tour with the James M. Cole circus gave the family confidence that Henry could also sustain a career with managing concessions and his animal acts. Vonderheid was associated with other shows which included the Hunt and Franklin and Hunt Bros. circuses.

In May 1951, Henry, with family encouragement, purchased the Burling Brothers Circus based in West Virginia. This circus had 9 trucks, 7 trailers, a "big top" and 60 personnel. Anastasia Vonderheid would supervise its food operations as they traveled in Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York. Additional trucks, equipment and acts were added over time, and Anastasia would become the general office manager for her son's circus. He soon purchased another small circus, the Barr Bros. Circus, which in earlier years had most of its engagements in Michigan, Minnesota, and Iowa, and had occasionally appeared in Ohio in 1951. Vonderheid's earliest circus shows continued to appear under the Burling Bros. Circus name. Then, for a short time, too, Vonderheid performed under the name Bailey Brothers Circus, although there was also a long established but unrelated substantial Bailey Brothers Circus already touring in the eastern United States including northeastern Pennsylvania.

Fred Vonderheid
Vonderheid Family Collection

In mid-June 1951 the Burling Bros. Circus was in Medina County, Ohio, when a circus trailer carrying "Georgie," a Himalayan black bear, became unhitched from its truck and plunged into a ditch along an area highway. Georgie was loose from the shattered cage. Dozens of spectators crowded the accident site and the Ohio State Police with high-powered rifles were summoned to the scene to shoot the animal. Vonderheid pled with the State Police not to shoot Georgie, a rarity with unique coloring. Circus workers were unsuccessful in numerous tricks to lure the bear into another cage. Finally, a circus mechanic was able to lasso a rope around a forepaw of the bear and six workers were able to haul Georgie into a cage.

At this time, Henry's younger brother, Fred Vonderheid, age 13, began performing a netless solo trapeze act with Henry's circus. A Berwick newspaper noted that Fred "is becoming an accomplished man on the flying trapeze. A wholesale disregard for his personal safety, a natural agility and a powerful pair of hands are among the youth's qualifications and he promises to become an outstanding aerialist."

Fred Vonderheid
Vonderheid Family Collection

In early December 1951, Henry Vonderheid married Mary E. Bennetto, a GAR high school graduate and a secretary with the Duplan Corporation, Kingston. She became a partner with her husband in the management of his enterprises. In later years, when the circus was on the summer road, Mary Vonderheid managed the Game Farm at Red Rock.

 

Von Bros. Circus

For the 1953 season Vonderheid recast the Burling Bros. Circus as the Von Bros. Circus. He purchased a new flameproof 60 by 160-foot white canvass tent with red and white trim with a capacity of 2,000 patrons. The season opened on April 25 with a performance at the Vonderheid farm in Hobbie sponsored by the Hobbie Fire Department. The traveling circus was always connected to a local sponsor who engaged Von Bros. as a fund-raising event. The circus travelled with a 20-truck convoy to northeastern Pennsylvania cities for the next two months, including West Hazleton where a monkey escaped and bit two children. In June and July, the circus was in New York State and New Jersey before returning to Pennsylvania to close the season at the end of May at Walnutport near Allentown.

In 1953 the Von Bros. Circus's key acts were the Hart Family, a troupe of hand balancers, jugglers, and wire-rope walkers; Capt. Roy Hawze, with his horses and ponies; Henry's, with dogs and ponies; an "Army of Clowns"; and "Frederick Von", the 15-year-old "netless trapeze sensationalist." The circus did not as yet have an elephant. Admission was 60 cents for children and 90 cents for adults.

Wintering at Hanover Site
Vonderheid Family Collection

In the early 1950s Vonderheid wintered his animal stock at the family's Hobbie farm. In March 1956, he sought another location for his new elephant Judy who required warmer winter housing. He would house her at the end of Nanticoke Street in the Breslau section of Hanover Township, a site owned by an uncle, William Vonderheid, owner of the Wilkes-Barre Burial Vault Company. Here, Vonderheid also quartered a Brahman bull and a few ponies as company for Judy. His other animals remained at Hobbie, and Vonderheid stayed in a trailer at the Breslau site for the winter. Area children would visit the site in warmer months and Vonderheid allowed them to carry water and feed for the animals in exchange for pony rides. Soon the weekends were filled with children and their parents in cars, and Vonderheid would display Judy to the crowds. The elephant would walk up to little children and stop or walk around them, but would never push one. In later years, Vonderheid would winter his animals at the Red Rock Game Farm.

The following video of the set-up of the Von Bros. Circus at Walnutport in Northampton County, PA, on Wednesday, September 7, 1955, features a scene of Henry Vonderheid displaying Judy to area children before a circus performance. The circus was sponsored by the Walnutport Playground Association.

 

During the Eisenhower-Nixon presidential re-election campaign in 1956, Nixon appeared at a rally in Berwick on November 1. The Columbia County GOP retained Vonderheid to appear at the rally with two elephants. A baby Asian elephant, Dixie, wore a sign "I Like Ike." The adult elephant, Judy, had a sign "Me Too." Vonderheid staged a political novelty act at the rally. On presidential election night, November 6, 1956, Henry and Fred Vonderheid had Judy and Dixie at the Sheraton Park Hotel in Washington, DC, to celebrate the election of the Eisenhower-Nixon ticket. It was during this trip that Vonderheid transferred the young Dixie to the National Zoo in Washington, DC., and in her later years Dixie was at the Miami Metro Zoo. In 1976 Dixie died at age 21 of cardiac arrest while under sedation during a second operation to correct an arthritic left foreleg.

Wildlife Exhibit - Gateway Shopping Center - June 1961
Vonderheid Family Collection

In 1958, the year after the opening of the Game Farm, Vonderheid, with the assistance of his brother, Fred, concentrated on developing a "Wild Animal" exhibit at various venues, particularly with the Uley Reithoffer Carnival circuit. The Von Bros. Circus was on a hiatus while Vonderheid tested whether his "Wild Animal" feature was fully sustainable as an alternative to operating a full circus. The circus did not operate in 1958-1962. Vonderheid also exhibited his animals, and at times, an elephant, in local parades. The Vonderheids were also exhibiting animals at area shopping malls and for store openings.

In early June 1957, the Clyde Beatty Circus played in Scranton. In 1954 Warner Bros. had released the motion picture Ring of Fire, a mystery-drama which featured the Clyde Beatty Circus. It starred Clyde Beatty, Pat O'Brien, and mystery writer Mickey Spillane. By June 1957, the circus had reopened with new ownership after a period of closure in 1956 due to management and financial issues. While in Scranton Vonderheid entered into an arrangement to house or lease the elephant Inez from the Clyde Beatty Circus. Inez was an Asian elephant born in the wild in 1928 and acquired by Clyde Beatty in October 1944. She had a troublesome history. In mid-May 1952, when the Clyde Beatty Circus was in Long Beach, CA, Inez knocked down an attendant, 55-year-old Scott Anderson, and squatted on the man's chest. Another attendant was able to distract Inez away from Anderson who was injured but survived, one of the very few men known to survive an incident of this kind. In April 1956, Andrew Grotzky, employed by the circus 10 days earlier, was found dead in the holding pen of Inez in Helmet, CA, near Riverside, CA. The mysterious death was never fully resolved, but the coroner believed Grotzky was fatally kicked by Inez.

Inez at Shickshinny, July 1957

In late July 1957, Vonderheid was slated to take Inez to Shickshinny for a Racusin's clothing store event. Inez refused to enter her trailer for the trip because of the smell from the freshly painted trailer. Vonderheid walked Inez 17 miles through Mossville, Patterson Grove, and Huntington Mills, where they rested and drank along Huntington Creek, before continuing on to Shickshinny. After the day's public event, Inez was tethered to the Lehigh Valley Railroad station overnight. The next morning Vonderheid walked Inez back to the Game Farm.

The elephant Inez [at times reported as "Irene"] escaped from the Kingston Centennial parade on September 7, 1957, as reported in the Times-Leader the following Monday, September 9, 1957:

Centennial Parade Sidelight
Terrified Elephant Turns On Its Owner
Inez, a huge 28-year-old elephant, was back in her pen at the Red Rock Game Farm today while residents of Forty Fort slowly recovered from the shock of seeing the animal amble along borough streets and through yards on Saturday.
The five and one-half ton elephant was brought to Kingston on Saturday to take part in the Kingston Centennial parade but put on a private show of her own which dwarfed anything in the parade for pure excitement.
According to Henry Vonderheid, owner of the huge pachyderm, the incident almost turned into a personal tragedy for him. Vonderheid brought the animal to Kingston about 10 a.m. on Saturday and kept her at a service station near Union Street, until almost parade time. After leading the animal up Wyoming Avenue for several blocks, Vonderheid turned into Eley Street to join the ninth section of the parade. Just as he made the turn, the Marine Corps Drums and Bugle Corps left loose with a fanfare, startling the elephant which had been excited all day by boys on bicycles and other youngsters throwing firecrackers. She turned and ambled off up the avenue and into Virginia Terrace, Forty Fort. Vonderheid hung on to the head ring of the elephant but could not halt the frightened animal.
When the beast swung between the White Trucking Company building on Welles street and a parked car, Vonderheid let loose as he realized he would be squeezed against the building. At the dead end of Rutter Avenue at Susquehanna Avenue and the river, the elephant came to a stop. Vonderheid had meanwhile secured a ride with a young man whose name he didn't get, and caught up with the still excited beast.
When the Red Rock trainer shouted to the elephant, she turned and hit him with her trunk, knocking him to the ground and then proceeding to grind him into the ground with her head and feet. The young man who drove Vonderheid to the site grabbed the trainer's ring hook, which he lost when struck by the elephant, and hit the animal over the head, drawing its attention away from Vonderheid.
Scrambling to his feet although a little dazed and badly bruised, Vonderheid took the ring hook and forced the elephant to lie down until she calmed down. He kept her in the rear yard of Paul Schalm at Susquehanna avenue and Turner street, for about 45 minutes and then attempted to rejoin the parade. When the animal again became excited by low flying aircraft and other bands, Vonderheid decided to load it in his trailer and go back to Red Rock.
Vonderheid said that the quick action of the young man who hit the elephant with the hook, saved him from possible death.

It is believed that Inez was shortly returned to the Clyde Beatty Circus.

In 1960 Vonderheid expanded the "Wild Animal" show to create the Henry Vonderheid Circus Menagerie. He had built six-foot by eight-foot steel cages to haul a lion, Bengal tigers, a black leopard, and chimps, along with 30 smaller cages for other animals. The menagerie was trucked to store openings, fairs and sponsored events. At times the display included one of Vonderheid's elephants. The menagerie could operate as an independent unit or combined with any future Von Bros. Circus.

Von Bros Circus Ticket
Vonderheid Family Collection

Vonderheid's renewed interest in circus life was in part prompted by the July 1956 decision of America's largest and most prestigious circus, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, to end "Big Tent" circus performances. Instead, Ringling Bros. would only perform in indoor arenas, effectively limiting shows to larger cities and abandoning smaller towns. Vonderheid felt there was a new opportunity for smaller circuses to serve middle America. (The famous Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus finally closed with its last performance on May 21, 2017, on Long Island, NY, at the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum.)

Von Bros Circus
Credit: Richard Reynolds

Von Bros Circus
Credit: Richard Reynolds

In late April 1963 Vonderheid resumed operation of the Von Bros. Circus at Berwick's Ber-Vaughn Park, sponsored by the Briar Creek Fire Department. His partner in this year was another seasoned circus man, Buck Steele, who provided considerable resources to the joint venture. Fred Vonderheid, now a veteran of service with the U.S. Army, did not resume performing with the family circus. Instead, he preferred the carnival world which became his life's work. Vonderheid and Steele assembled a fleet of 17 trucks, a 30-foot semi-trailer cook wagon with side-serving windows, and 14 trailers to carry personnel. A new 100 x 200-foot fire resistant tent seated 2,500 patrons. It was raised by elephants and diesel tractors with front-end loaders. Several acts were from Mexico and Europe. Seasoned acts from Von Bros.' earlier years were now engaged with other circus shows.

Von Bros Circus
Credit: Richard Reynolds

From 1963 to 1965 Von Bros. Circus played its traditional venue of Mid-Atlantic-New England States with camels, llamas, three elephants, and an all-female aerial act. In 1964, the circus had a remarkable 111 engagements in PA, DL, MD, NJ, NY, MA, RI, and CT from April 25 to September 7. There were English, Spanish and American clowns, contortionists, perch-pole artists, trained dogs, tumblers, horses, and wire-walkers. His three new elephants, named Dolly, Blanche and Jewell, were purchased from the Hunt Bros. Circus in March 1964 for a total of $7,000.00. Dolly and Blanche joined Von Bros. immediately and Jewell joined at the end of the 1964 circus season. Jewell was booked for the summer in New York City, likely at the NYC World's Fair.

Dolly, Blanche and Jewell
Vonderheid Family Collection

Vonderheid's circus was often alternatively billed as the Von Bros. 3-Ring Circus and as America's "second largest truck circus." Many circuses traveled in truck convoys, known as a "motorized circus." The King Bros. Circus was the largest motorized circus in the late 1940s-early 1950s, particularly after a brief partnership with the Lucio Cristiani circus in 1949. Its 1953 circus had 51 trucks along its national and Canadian route. In 1954 it became the King Bros.-Cole Bros. Circus with 70 trucks until 1956. In the next decade the Cristiani Bros. Circus took title as the largest U.S. motorized circus.

Long-haul circus trucks had risks. In July 1965 outside of Hartford, Connecticut, a Von Bros. van carrying "Jessie," the hippo, flipped on its side. Jessie escaped for a time, closing a major traffic artery, but was eventually captured. Jessie was originally owned by the National Zoo, which formally named the hippo Jessica Laruska Junior.

Jessie
Vonderheid Family Collection

In early May 1966, a tractor-trailer carrying Vonderheid's three elephants ran down an embankment on Route 222, near Reading, Pennsylvania. Jewell dislocated her right front knee. The injured elephant had several vets attend her including surgery in Philadelphia. The three-ton, thirty-five- year- old Indian elephant was trained to do the Twist, a dance craze at the time, and also a form of Viennese waltz. Early in her circus life Jewell acted with the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus. Children throughout the mid-Atlantic region read accounts of Jewell's accident and surgery and sent get-well cards. But when Jewell was returned to the Game Farm, the elephant slipped and re-broke her leg upon exiting the carrier. There was no further possible medical treatment. Vonderheid borrowed M-1 rifles from the Red Rock Air Force Base, once a U.S.A.F. radar base. On June 11, 1966, the State Police and Air Force personnel dispatched the beloved Jewell, who was buried at the Game Farm.

Vonderheid with Jewell - May 7, 1966
FCP Collection

In 1966 the Von Bros. Circus merged with the Cristiani and Wallace Circus managed by Pete Cristiani. Known as "The Royal Family of the Circus," the Cristiani family had circus roots from the eighteenth century and were famed equestrians. Various Cristiani family members had their own circuses and acts. In 1958 the principal Cristiani circus was the second largest circus in North America. Only Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey was larger. But circus economics were in severe decline in the 1960s. With the merger, the Cristiani-Wallace show played in Western Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Virginia. The Von Bros. unit played in the eastern United States supplemented by Cristiani-Wallace acts. Von Bros. opened in Norfolk, VA, before heading to the Mid-Atlantic and later into New Hampshire and Vermont. The partnership with Cristiani fell apart in late July, and Vonderheid continue on with his own circus for the balance of the season. In 1966 his circus band was the Black seven-piece King Charles Weathersby Dixieland Band, which was well-known in the circus world, and praised by one critic for perfect timing for the entire circus program without music sheets. The 1966 program also included "Jelly Roll! Rodgers" on the sousaphone, a celebrated Black sousaphone musician and later comedian. Vonderheid's parents were still with the circus with father Herman working the entrance and mother Anastasis as purchasing agent. Herman E. Vonderheid passed away in early November 1976 at age 80. He was a WWI veteran, who once worked for the Buttonwood Colliery, and served in the Merchant Marine, besides farming in Hobbie and in engaging in circus life.

Weathersby Dixieland Band, 1966
Vonderheid Family Collection

In April 1967 the Von Bros. Circus was in North Carolina with a staff of 250 and 218 animals under Mary Vonderheid's supervision, as Henry Vonderheid was under medical care. In early May 1967 Von Bros. appeared in Rocky Mount, NC. There, a near tragedy occurred when famed lion trainer, Carl "Swede" Johnston, was performing with the circus in a pen of lions when a storm frightened one of the lions, Patsy, who severely slashed Johnson. Johnson finished the act but went directly to a hospital where 48 stitches and blood transfusions were needed. Still, Johnson never missed a performance and continued on to Pennsylvania with the circus. In May the circus performed near Gettysburg, but Henry Vonderheid would pass away this month and the circus was in crisis.

Von Bros Circus
Vonderheid Family Collection

The Von Bros. Circus last performed in North Syracuse, NY, for the Lions Club on June 9-11, 1967. But with the death in May of Henry Vonderheid, the circus collapsed. The circus was also hampered by the chronic problem of retaining dependable temporary support staff at its frequent venues. Von Bros.' next engagements in Bridgeport, CT, and Canasota, NY, were cancelled along with other scheduled performances including shows booked in the Fall in Canada's Maritime Provinces. From North Syracuse the circus decamped for Red Rock. It was also the final year for the Cristiani-Wallace Circus. The Von Bros. acts sought placement with other circuses. By late June, Swede Johnson was performing for a circus developed by the High Point Inn in Mount Pocono.

Von Bros Circus, 1967
Credit: Bill Dykes

For a time in June 1967 the Von Bros.' elephants, Blanche and Dolly, remained in NY until trucking arrangements to the Game Farm were arranged. Later, in June 1967, the circus was transporting the two elephants from Cortland, NY, to the Game Farm when the truck broke down at Lenoxville, north of Scranton, along Tunkhannock Creek. The attendants decided to lead the elephants on chains to the creek to water them. But truck traffic on I-81 alarmed the animals and they broke loose. One was captured in the nearby woods. The second was found taking a bath in the creek.

 

Red Rock Game Farm
Vonderheid Family Collection

The Game Farm Revisited

Operating an outdoor zoo presented opportunities for unusual events. In late September 1958, Vonderheid had two 50-pound black bears at the Bloomsburg Fair. One of the bears refused to be loaded into a truck for the return to the Game Farm and he escaped and quickly climbed a utility pole on the fairgrounds. A crowd gathered to watch the bear as workmen tried to entice the bear to a milk pail. The bear would climb down, lick the milk but climb up again as men appeared. Finally, the repeated trick worked and men poked the bear with the pole to guide the young animal into a truck for a ride home.

Vonderheid with Elk
Vonderheid Family Collection

In February 1959, a four- hundred-pound Elk named "Rusty" escaped from the Game Farm. Rusty had often been fed by children who shared their school-box lunches with the animal. Rusty roamed wild near Ricketts Glen State Park but he was also destroying gardens and farm produce. The Pennsylvania Game Commission briefly roped Rusty but an antler broke and he escaped. In May 1959, after the elk seemingly threatened the safety of a young girl, Betty Stackhouse, at a nearby farm, Vonderheid was called and he shot the animal.

Occasionally, other animals also escaped from the Game Farm. In early November 1964, two albino deer and a regular white-tail deer were frightened by a large black bear roaming outside the farm housing. The deer found an escape route into the near-by woods. The following late August 1965, a rare Oriental goat also escaped and was sighted on Copperhill Road, near Evans Falls, in Wyoming County. There is no news account whether the deer or goat were recovered.

While a circus elephant at the Game Farm held children in awe, the most popular animal was a Rhesus monkey who learned to tug a tin bucket up and down a wire strung from a railing up to a cage. Children placed food, usually popcorn, in the bucket and the monkey pulled up the bucket, fed himself, and lowered the bucket to the children for more.

Vonderheid also offered animal demonstrations and lessons to his visitors. He would hold a ten-foot eighty-five-pound South African boa constrictor for public viewing. He would explain the boa's monthly skin-shedding process and other characteristics of the frightening reptile. Two other boas were at the farm - one fifty-five pounds and the other sixty-five pounds.

Boa Constrictor Demonstration - Henry Vonderheid
Vonderheid Family Collection

Vonderheid had an association with the Nay Aug Park Zoo in Scranton where he could trade, sell or purchase animals. In June 1961 the zoo purchased 16 animals and birds from the Game Farm to stock a new children's addition. These included racoons, pheasants, bantam chickens, fawn deer, lambs and ocelots.

On Christmas 1964, Henry Vonderheid was seriously injured when he was lifted and crushed to the ground, by one of the elephants at the Game Farm. The name of the elephant was not identified in news accounts , but Fred Vonderheid has disclosed it was Jewell. Henry Vonderheid was using the elephant at night to pull a truck that was stuck in mud at the Game Farm. Beth Vonderheid, in her June 2008 Suburban News interview, recalled the Christmas 1964 accident. "My dad got in front of the elephant and the elephant grabbed him with her trunk and pulled him up." The elephant then stepped on her father's back. Rib and spinal injuries required months of recovery and was complicated when Vonderheid was later diagnosed with cancer. But Vonderheid valiantly returned to his circus and animal life. He was ever-present with Jewell after Jewell's trucking accident in May 1966 and during Jewell's extensive medical treatment.

However, on April 20, 1967, Henry Vonderheid, 47, died from cancer at Berwick Hospital. As noted earlier, his widow, Mary Vonderheid, sought to continue the circus but it closed early in the 1967 season. The Game Farm closed after the 1967 season.

The site of the Game Farm was later cleared and is now a quiet private residence. Country Impressions (later Suburban News), the Sweet Valley newspaper, printed an interview with Mary Vonderheid and Beth V. Gleim, respectively widow and daughter of Henry Vonderheid, along with Fred Vonderheid, on June 25, 2008. In part, the account notes:

The Red Rock Game Farm, located half a mile east of Ricketts Glen State Park was the creation of Henry L. Vonderheid, and boasted a hoard of exotic animals including tigers, camels, monkeys, a hippopotamus, and Henry's beloved and well-known elephants. Henry's wife Mary recalled, "The game farm was more like a zoo. It was one big yard, and had different places for all the different animals, and they were all caged. All these animals were on display. We had elephants, we had bears, and we had lions... Certain animals you could pet, like the deer and others that wouldn't come after you."

King Vultures from Columbia, South America
Vonderheid Family Collection

It was the fort-like entrance that caught the attention of passers-by on Route 118, and Mary described, "There was a big wooden fence out front, and you entered into a gift shop. In the gift shop, we sold decorative old items that people would like to have in their homes; it wasn't a junk shop. You got your ticket and you walked through the farm leisurely. You didn't have to be out of there at a certain time. People would come in and ask questions about the animals. Sometimes Henry would go inside and talk to the animals and show different things that they did. My home was on the corner of the lot. The game farm was an attraction, you know, like when you're driving down a country road or when you're in town and you want to go see something, that's what it was!" Beth (Vonderheid) Gleim, daughter of Henry and Mary, spent her early years surrounded by the unusual sights and sounds of the wild animals, and said, "I guess you might call it a roadside amusement. It was quite an attraction in the late '50's and early '60's!"
It was May 30, 1957, when Henry opened the Red Rock Game Farm on a ten-acre lot he had purchased in Red Rock. "I don't know how he acquired the property," said Beth. "He had to cut down a lot of trees and clear the land. It was fashioned after the Pigeon Forge Wild Game Farm in Tennessee." Beth recalled that her father found a large boulder on the property that he painted red and placed at the front of the farm. "And that's how he established the Red Rock Game Farm!" Henry's brother, Fred Vonderheid, was closely involved not only with the preparation, but also with the operating of the game farm. "I was involved with everything," said Fred. "I helped build it. I was there cutting the first trees down." Though he helped with and enjoyed all of the animals that eventually came to reside on the farm, Fred laughed, "What I didn't like were the chimpanzees, because I figure they were smarter than I was!" Fred also noted, "I took some of the animals to the State Fair." Recalling a long-ago incident when the farm's antelope was accidentally shot by deer hunters, Fred remarked, "They ate it, though, so that was good."

Vonderheid with Game Farm Chimp
Vonderheid Family Collection

Beth V. Gleim continued, "He had all kinds of monkeys, from little squirrel monkeys to big chimpanzees. Peacocks just walked around the park free. We had lions and tigers and bears. We had big sacred cows from India, with the long horns. We had dingoes. When the park opened up, we even had flamingos for a while. He had racoons and animals indigenous to the area. He worked pretty closely with the Game Commission. My dad would purchase the little abandoned fawns and the kids could feed them little bottles of milk. He had birds from South America, such as parrots and macaws. There was no giraffe, but other than that, there were all sorts of animals."

Mary and Beth Vonderheid and a Game Farm neighbor, Pat Roman, also explained other aspects of the Red Rock Game Farm:

Mary explained that the game farm ran primarily in the summer, seven days a week. "Then we took care of them in the winter. We had a big barn, and we'd have it heated." Beth said, "My dad went down to the slaughter house in Wilkes-Barre and bought meat for the animals." Henry also purchased bananas and other local produce, and old food products from grocery stores to feed the animals.
Though the farm was open all week long, Beth said, "It was mostly a weekend business, and it was really busy on the weekends. There was a lull...during the week." Pat Roman, a neighbor to the Vonderheid family, grew up across the road from the Red Rock Game Farm, and remembers seeing a constant crowd during the game farm's busy hours. "The parking lot was just jammed full. Cars went down to the state park!" Beth said, "There was no time limit to go through. It didn't cost very much...it was ridiculously low!" On the cages, he would try to educate people about the animals with information cards about where the animal came from and what kind of animal it was. They also played music at the farm. It was educational as well as entertaining. It was simplistic fun, but it was fun amusement for the time."

The article concludes with the end of the game farm:

Game Farm - Royal Bengal Tiger
Vonderheid Family Collection

Though Henry had plans for his business to continue growing, his dream ended all too suddenly. Henry's health began failing in his forties...." He tried to return to both the circus and the game farm, but he died on April 20, 1967." At the age of forty-seven, Henry passed away due to cancer, leaving his wife and young teenage daughter a farm full of animals. Mary said, "He had big plans. He wanted to continue it, but his health got the best of him." Though Henry had others working with him on the farm, Mary explained, "They couldn't go on the way he did before. Everything stopped. I was the last one to take care of the animals. I had a couple of men there that had been watching the animals and stayed until they were gone. I sold the animals, and some of them I gave away to people who were interested. They'd bring their trucks and all, and that's how I got rid of them."
In 1968, the Red Rock Game Farm officially closed, and the lions, monkeys, and camels that were once a part of this area slowly vanished. As the famous menagerie left the area for the last time, the dream of Henry L. Vonderheid faded, and so did a part of local history that once brought smiles to so many faces. Roman remarked, "It's a part of history that's gone here in Fairmount Township."

With the closure of the Von Bros. and Cristiani circuses, one internet source claims the Asian elephant Blanche was transferred to Pete Cristiani. Blanche began her circus life in 1923 with the Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus. She then performed with the Hunt Bros. Circus from 1940 to 1966. She reportedly died of unknown causes in 1969. Dolly, also an Asian elephant, also began with the Ringling Bros. circus in 1923, but was purchased by the Hunt Bros. in 1926 and sold to Von Bros. in 1964. While published sources state Dolly was acquired by other circuses over time, these sources are contradicted and the fate of Dolly cannot be reliably stated.

Mary E. Vonderheid
Vonderheid Family Collection

Mary E. Vonderheid (1920-2013) would later work in an architect's office in the Wyoming Valley, and in later years she had a variety of positions sponsored by the Luzerne County Area Agency for Aging including the Misericordia Senior Center, Swoyersville Borough Building, and Kingston's Hoyt Library. Fortunately, she preserved for her family and history a family archive of business records and photographs of the Von Bros. Circus and the Red Rock Game Farm.

 

Afterword

Working with his brother Henry Vonderheid in his youth was life-altering for Henry's brother, Fred Vonderheid, and influenced his brother Albert Vonderheid.

Albert l. Vonderheid (1931-2016) was not formally associated with the family circus. But he married Anita Conley Vonderheid who was raised in the circus world. Her father, Jim Conley, created the Riding Conleys, a famous horseback riding show very prominent in the 1940s. At age 5 Anita was performing in the family show. Albert met Anita when the Conleys performed with the Von Bros. Circus. Albert, a skilled mechanic, joined Anita in her circus life and spent a lifetime with her in the circus world in a variety of roles with the Cole Bros. Circus, and later with the Carson and Barnes Circus which traveled to 200 cities during an eight- month season in an 80-vehicle convoy. He also exhibited his own menagerie to school children. Jim Conley was the ringmaster for the Von Bros Circus in the early 1965 season. In the 1980s Albert and Anita worked the circus season with the Great American Circus in Sarasota, Fl.

Fred Vonderheid
Vonderheid Family Collection

Fred T. Vonderheid's interest in trapeze artistry began as a child. At times he travelled with his older brother, Henry, during the post-WWII years, in the circus world. He received tutoring in the trapeze art from professional circus performers in these summer ventures. After he graduated from Nescopeck High School and a Philadelphia business school, he formally joined his brother's circus. Fred Vonderheid not only perfected a solo trapeze act but also "roly poly" and juggling acts. He also supervised and performed a variety of other tasks, including tent-boss, to prepare the travelling circus for performances. After Fred Vonderheid left Von Bros., he joined the carnival world, operating his own carnival-ride corporation for a time. He then was associated with Floyd E. Goodling's Million-Dollar Midway, at one time the world's largest outdoor amusement company, which operated in several states. He then operated his rides for the Amusement Corporation of America (ACA), currently the world's largest travelling amusement park, serving the eastern and mid-western United States. He also worked with Rod Link's World of Pleasure carnival circuit. In 2020 Fred Vonderheid was honored by the Showman's League of America for his 50-year membership with the League. He is retired in Florida.

Two other circuses were greatly influenced by Henry Vonderheid. William Hill was the Boss Canvas Man for the Von Bros. Circus in 1954-1957. His pre-school son, Allan C Hill, travelled with the circus along with his trapeze-artist mother Dorothy Hill. Allan caught "circus fever" and in 1983 purchased the Hoxie Bros. Great American Circus. It operated as the Allan C. Hill Great American Circus, largely in Sarasota, FL, until August 1994. Allan C. Hill (1948-2007) is credited as the youngest person in American circus history to own a circus.

Bill Phillips in New Brunswick, NJ, grew up in the Wilkes-Barre area. In the 1950s, his family lived near Vonderheid's early winter quarters in Hanover Township. Later, while in the U.S. Army in Germany, he attended circus shows. After his service, he opened a petting zoo at area shopping centers in New Brunswick. In 1988 Phillips acquired a tent and opened the Phills Bros. Circus (he had no brothers.) This was a family venture with a few friends helping out. It was basically a one-ring 440-700 seat circus. It operated in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. It appeared at the Hunlock Creek Elementary School in early July 1991, and at Lakewood Park, Barnesville, near Hazleton, in mid-July, 1992. The Phills circus closed after a final performance in Mountainside, New Jersey, in September 1995.

 

Photo Credits: Photographs by Richard Reynolds were located at The Balloon Man @ dick-dykes.blogspot.com 2-26-2010. Photographs by Bill Dykes were located at The Balloon Man @ dick-dyke.blogspot.com 8-7-2008. All other photos, not otherwise credited, are Copyright © 1943-2021 Vonderheid Family Archive.

 

This article was only possible because of the support of the late Mary Vonderheid and Beth Vonderheid who met with the writer in 2006 to discuss the Red Rock Game Farm and the Von Bros. Circus. Additional discussions in 2020-2021 with Beth and her uncle, Fred Vonderheid, finally led to the completion of this long-overdue history of the family enterprises. The family was also generous in sharing photographs and the family's business archive. This article is Copyright © 2021 F. Charles Petrillo. The 2006 discussions with Henry Vonderheid's family were initiated by the late John Orlandini, a contract surveyor with the PA Game Commission and a well-known historian and archeologist of our area's Native American history. He is missed.

© Copyright February 2021 F. Charles Petrillo