By Gordon Hodgin, July 2003
Several Delta citizens have asked, “Did Delta once have a zoo?” The answer is yes-they sure did, and it was one of the best little zoos in the state.
The story begins when the citizens of Delta demanded a city park. The ‘powers that be’ found seven and a half acres between 7th and 9th streets on Howard, just below Garnet Mesa. It really was a swamp full of cattails, sedge grass and ducks. The year was 1922. At the same time a man named Clarence Riley, with his wife and small son, left Ridgway, Illinois on his doctor’s orders. Clarence suffered from asthma and his doctor recommended that he move west. Driving an old Model T. Ford, they arrived in Delta where the car broke down. Short of money, Clarence had to find a temporary job to pay for the car repairs. People were so nice and friendly that Clarence asked his wife, Edna, why not settle down in Delta-after all it was in the west.
Delta’s park committee had noticed the newcomer and his good work habits, so they offered him a job as caretaker of the new park, which in actuality was still very much a swamp. Seventy five dollars a month seemed like a good income to Clarence, so he went to work and built up the best little park around. Citizens donated flowers, bushes and trees, and within four years, it began to look like a park.
Someone brought two golden pheasants and Clarence took them home, however, he told Edna that they ought to be in the park where everyone could enjoy them. The short and long of it all was that Clarence did take them to the Park and built a cage for them. Then a peacock was donated and another cage was added. The peacock was beautiful but every night it would sound an alarm which sounded like “Help…Help…Help!” Before long the neighbors were calling the police, thinking someone needed help.
The collection of wildlife continued to grow. People brought a deer, a bear, a wolf, a mountain lion, and then monkeys. Clarence trained one of the smallest monkeys to sit on his shoulder and entertain the kids.
Food and money for the zoo’s upkeep was needed and the Delta Lion’s Club took on the project. Clarence got all the meat markets and food stores to give him any throwaways and this also helped. During the 1940 and 1950s, Delta had one of the best little zoos in the state. In 1949, Riley was named “Man of the Year” by the Delta Chamber of Commerce. He retired from his caretaker’s job in January, 1967, after serving 47 years and seven months in that position.
Clarence and Edna had two sons and both were lost in WW II. But Clarence always had a smile for all the children that came to the park. At five o’clock when he closed the park, he would gather up children’s sweaters, caps, toys, and take them to their homes. Clarence never met a stranger. He died November 8, 1972. In 1985 AARP named their new pavilion in Cleland Park- The Clarence Riley Pavilion. He truly was a meek and humble man.
Director, Delta County Historical Society and Museum