People visiting the Tennessee State Capitol grounds in Nashville can see an abundance of gray squirrels. Visitors to Centennial Park, a couple of miles west of the Capitol, would also be impressed by the health and fertility of the park’s gray squirrel population. Among the most common “wild” animals in Tennessee’s urban environments, squirrels are almost certainly the boldest, most visible and most active.
Modern day visitors might be surprised to learn that a little more than 100 years ago, squirrels were absent from both these public areas. Indeed, the dearth of squirrels in Centennial Park gave rise to one of Tennessee’s oddest charitable endowments: the “Squirrel Fund.”
Contemporary photographs might explain the relative absence of squirrels in both locales. An 1887 photograph of the Capitol (image #3444) shows a Capitol Hill virtually denuded of native trees and shrubbery.
|State Capitol of Tennessee, ca. 1887.|
A 1905 photo (image #4646) reveals a growing stand of trees fit for squirrel inhabitation, but the housing would still – to a squirrel’s eye -- qualify as distinctly low-rise.
|A view of the State Capitol from Charlotte Ave., ca. 1905.|
Photographs of Centennial Park during the 1897 Centennial Exposition reveal an even more inhospitable environment. The daylight view (image #4577) from the west across the giant See-Saw, the Exposition’s answer to the great Ferris Wheel of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, shows an unbroken expanse of roofs, turrets, towers and even a pyramid.
The night view (image #4578), celebrating the intensity of the Exposition’s cutting-edge electric light technology, reveals an even harsher atmosphere. The squirrel that had not already fled the Exposition grounds would surely be afflicted with chronic sleep deprivation.
By the early 1900s, the Exposition grounds were being converted into the park Nashvillians know today (image #13408, THS collection). But it appears that the squirrel population still required some incentives.
|Centennial Park, showing the bridge over Lake Watauga and a gazebo.|
THS Picture Collection
In 1907 private philanthropy intervened. Mrs. Thomas W. Wrenne, wife of one of Nashville’s most successful financiers, donated the sum of $50 to the park commission for use in the care, feeding and housing of immigrant squirrels. (The sum donated was not inconsequential at a time when the weekly wage of a skilled worker averaged about $7.) The newspaper accounts christened the gift as the Squirrel Fund.
At first the repopulation initiative stumbled, as prospective squirrel donors worried about possible legal troubles from capturing and relocating the animals out of season.
Major F. P. McWhirter, head of the park commission, appealed to State Game Warden J. H. Acklen for reassurance. Acklen provided it, saying that providing good homes for squirrels in the park was entirely “laudable… and in nowise a violation of the game law.”
|Excerpt from the Nashville American, May 22, 1907.|
As the Squirrel Fund had already financed the construction of nest boxes in the park, the resettlement effort proceeded without further delay. It appears to have met with prompt success. By July 1909, a Nashville American article on “Some Beauty Spots in Centennial Park” identified one of the park’s principal natural charms as the "chattering squirrels that nimbly leap to safety after watching your approach..."
Lacking the philanthropic endowment created by the Squirrel Fund, a state Capitol squirrel re-population project advanced at a slower pace. A 1901 article in the Nashville American had published an appeal from the Capitol superintendent soliciting donations of tame and orphaned squirrels to repopulate the grounds. In 1908, a new Capitol superintendent was again appealing for squirrel donations to repopulate the newly enhanced grounds.
Tennesseans must have responded favorably to this second appeal. By 1917 squirrels were numerous enough to serve as weather predictors for Capitol Hill employees. In that year an Aug. 17 article headlined “News and Gossip of State Capitol” in The Nashville Tennessean and the Nashville American reported: “As squirrels are hulling walnuts and storing them in their homes in the trees these days, employees of the hill say it is a sure sign winter will soon be along.”
How much the Squirrel Fund contributed to the squirrel resurgence is difficult to determine. Given the reestablishment of adequate food plants and tree cover, squirrels would have certainly repopulated Centennial Park without further human intervention. Anyone with squirrels nesting in the attic or raiding the bird feeder will testify that squirrels are not easily discouraged. Still, the desire to reestablish a population of a native species seems admirable in retrospect. Naïve as it may seem to us today, the Squirrel Fund prefigured efforts to conserve Tennessee game bird and wildlife populations - and these in turn evolved into our contemporary network of state parks, nature reserves and wildlife management areas. This modest and almost forgotten act of philanthropy deserves to be protected in Tennessee’s historical memory.
The Tennessee State Library and Archives is a division of the Tennessee Department of State and Tre Hargett, Secretary of State