November 16, 1996
Strolling through our verdant courthouse park on one of those recent fine fall days, I noticed a number of squirrels frisking through the fallen leaves and scampering up the graceful trees that so distinguish that five-acre tract. The sight took me back several years to a time when children and adults enjoyed the antics of a family of squirrels living in a spacious cage located several yards west of the courthouse driveway.
The central feature of that cage, which I suppose was about 5'x 8' in size, was a rotating drum, open on both sides and mounted vertically on a metal shaft that served as an axle. The outer edges were enclosed by a wire mesh. The whole thing was perhaps 3' in diameter, big enough for a squirrel to climb into. It was a sort of exercise wheel for the playful little bushy tailed, red-furred rodents that were housed in that cage.
The structure had a slightly pitched green roof with a small overhang to shield the occasional rain and other elements from the open mesh wire that enclosed each side of the sturdily framed cage. The floor was bare ground. A locked door on hinges was used by the park caretaker to clean up once in a while and to provide water, grain and nuts for the tiny residents, supplementing various goodies offered by visitors. The cage was about 8' in height.
As I recall, the enclosure had a shelf about 10" wide on both of the long sides. The squirrels would squat or stand upright on the shelf, flipping their tails as they waited expectantly for their fans to proffer something to eat. Children were warned not to poke their fingers through the wire or otherwise run the risk of incurring painful injuries from the incredibly sharp squirrel teeth on the other side.
Nesting places were provided for the residents. The tiny spaces were secluded enough that the little animals could hide there in the straw so that sometimes their disappointed fans would depart without seeing a performance on the wheel. (The squirrels evidently enjoyed spinning the drum, but they knew the limits of their endurance and showed off only when they were in the mood.)
Many legends developed around the squirrel cage. Some said you could tell from the animals' behavior when a change in the weather was imminent, or by the way they disposed of nuts passed to them through the wire mesh. Far as I know, the squirrels were kept in the cage year around and their fur coats, along with the straw in their nesting places, kept them as snug as if they were in the hibernation place of their own choosing.
They delighted generations of children, but in time they became a problem. The cage needed constant repairs, or the wire mesh was damaged, or the lock on the door was inoperative -- or for other reasons the caged squirrels were requiring more time than the county commissioners felt they justified.
A few yards east of the squirrel cage was a large circular pond containing goldfish and lily pads. The water was aerated with a spray in the center of the concrete lined pool but inevitably this, too, became a problem to maintain. Scraps of paper, empty soda cans, bottles, cigarettes and other debris wound up in the pond, necessitating a lot of cleanup time. The fish also were affected by the trash and other foreign matter tossed into the water by careless and unthinking passersby. Just keeping the fish alive was not simple. The pond had to be drained in the winter, then scoured, cleaned and restocked when warm weather returned. After several possible solutions were tried unsuccessfully, it was finally agreed that the fish pond also had to go.
Concern had been expressed for the welfare of the squirrels and the fish, so when all these negative factors were examined it became clear that two of the park's most interesting features would have to be eliminated. Both were removed perhaps 30 years ago. The pond has been replaced by an outdoor seating area just west of the courthouse and the squirrel cage area is now covered by lush green grass. The squirrels were set free but I don't think any gold fish survived.
The park is still restful and beautiful with other features to admire, but they are mostly inanimate and not a real match for the entertainment provided by our squirrels and goldfish in days of yore. Perhaps someday we can think of some way to replace them.