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Norma Jean Elephant

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

Whoever made that silk purse out of a sow's ear has nothing on the citizens of Oquawka, Illinois, just downstream from Rock Island. Several years back, they made a summer festival out of a dead elephant.

It's 1972. July 17. 7:30 a.m. The Clark and Walter Circus has come to Oquawka with their prize 30-year-old elephant, Norma Jean, named after Marilyn Monroe. She has just helped erect the Big Top for the evening show, and her owner, Larry "Possom Red" Harsh has tied her to a tree in the city park. One of those sudden prairie squalls comes out of nowhere; a bolt of lightning hits the tree. Possom Red is thrown 30 feet. Norma Jean Elephant is dead.

There is no equipment within miles large enough to move 6,500 pounds of elephant, so Charlie Carlson goes to get his backhoe out and dig a hole 12 feet deep, and Norma Jean is rolled into her resting place with a heavy chain and tractor at four that afternoon. A plywood board is placed on her grave.

The Clark and Walker Circus did not recover from the loss of their main act. "Our way of life died with her," they explained. The circus closed.

This might have been the end of the saga had it not been for retired dentist, Wade Meloan, who drove by the square on the way home, and thought that even an animal deserved a proper grave. Wade planted grass, erected a picket fence, and began a fundraiser for a monument. Eventually, people from all over the United States contributed until the fund reached $550. Locals donated time and labor to build the monument: a concrete slab eight feet high and twelve feet wide with two tons of ornate stonework and a three-foot concrete elephant on top.

The monument was dedicated on Memorial weekend in 1977. Several hundred people came to watch a Franzen Brothers Circus elephant, Ohka, lay a large wreath of white daisies on the grave.

Now, every summer, Oquawka celebrates Norma Jean Days, a ritual some future team of anthropologists may have trouble explaining in the middle of the Illinois prairies.

Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by Augustana College, Rock Island, Illinois.

Beginning 1995, historian and folklorist Dr. Roald Tweet spun his stories of the Mississippi Valley to a devoted audience on WVIK. Dr. Tweet published three books as well as numerous literary articles and recorded segments of "Rock Island Lines." His inspiration was that "kidney-shaped limestone island plunked down in the middle of the Mississippi River," a logical site for a storyteller like Dr. Tweet.