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Top rifle brought down Hero in 1916. Mysterious carved elephant was later unearthed in a local farm field.
Top rifle brought down Hero in 1916. Mysterious carved elephant was later unearthed in a local farm field.

Hero the Elephant and the Heintz Airship

Field review by the editors.

Elkton, South Dakota

Every town needs a timeless champion; someone to put their metropolis on the map and leave a permanent mark in the ledger of history.

Scrapbook gives details of Hero's life and death.
Scrapbook gives details of Hero's life and death.

Elkton, South Dakota, has had at least two of them: inventor Henry Heintz and an elephant named Hero.

Hero arrived in Elkton in May 1916. He was the star attraction in the traveling Orton Brothers Circus; the "largest creature in animaldom," according to the circus poster -- on display in the Elkton Community Museum -- a "$25,000 mastodonic marvel" with an "intelligence that beggars description."

Hero was perhaps too smart to be happy with circus life, and chose to express his displeasure in Elkton.

One of the few pieces of Hero left in Elkton.
One of the few pieces of Hero left in Elkton.

"He knocked over several train cars; one eyewitness said he tipped over the cage of lions," said Anna Even, the museum director. "He ran east of Elkton out into the country, busting through farmer's fences." Hero stomped around the countryside for hours before finally succumbing to battlefield injuries, his body peppered with hundreds of bullets.

That wasn't the end of Hero. Frank Gerlach, whose rifle fired the final shot (it's displayed in the museum) served some of Hero as "elephant roast" in his Elkton restaurant, and had a piece of the elephant's hide made into an overnight bag (also on display in the museum). Not knowing what to do with the rest of Hero's five-ton carcass -- "It was very smelly," said Anna -- Elkton called the local college, which hauled it away for anatomical study. "The bones got stuck in a storage closet and forgotten for years," said Anna. When they were rediscovered they were sent to a museum in far-away Vermillion, and they've been there ever since. "That museum won't give us even one bone," lamented Anna, although she believes that, eventually, some of Hero's remains will return to Elkton.

Overnight bag was made from Hero's hide.
Overnight bag was made from Hero's hide.

Henry Heintz may have witnessed Hero's frenzy -- he was the town postmaster at the time -- and he knew what it was like to have one's name in the local newspaper. On April 15, 1900, Henry conducted the first and only flight of the "Heintz Airship," more than three years before the Wright Brothers flew the first airplane. Unfortunately for Henry, his theory of powered flight -- using parachutes instead of wings -- did not work, and the huge airship crashed to the ground. "Mr Heintz was so concerned that someone was going to get hurt that I think he destroyed the whole thing," said Anna. No part of the craft survived to be displayed in the Elkton Community Museum, although it does exhibit a copy of Henry's imaginative airship patent drawings.

The Heintz Airship. Tiny
The Heintz Airship. Tiny "pilot house," on right, gives scale to the immense aero-boat.

Henry Heintz had a horror of being buried alive.
Henry Heintz had a horror of being buried alive.

There is one lasting memorial to Henry Heintz in Elkton: his crypt, the only one above-ground in the town cemetery. "He had a horror of being buried alive," said Anna, so when Henry died (two years after Hero) he was interred in his vault in an unlocked casket with a sliding glass panel and an extra crypt door key -- just in case he woke up. "He made arrangements," said Anna, reading from an account written by Henry's granddaughter (who was the mother of a South Dakota governor). "A schoolboy was to come into the burial vault each day after school for a week, slide back the glass panel, look for signs of life, and then for another week he would come every other day." According to the schoolboy, Henry's fear that he would be prematurely buried, like his faith in parachute propulsion, was wrong.

Unlike Hero, Henry's bones at least rest in Elkton, but the Museum does contain another notable Hero relic: a small statue of an elephant, hand-carved out of wood. "The weird thing was, many years later, that statue was dug up in a farm field," said Anna -- one of the fields in which Hero had rampaged in 1916. "It was so strange; we had to put it on display." Anna was at a loss to explain why an elephant statue was buried in a South Dakota field, but we guessed that it was a hocus-pocus totem: If we bury this, no elephant will stomp on our crops ever again. Thus far, it's worked.

Cowboy chaps made of hairy buffalo hide.
Cowboy chaps made of hairy buffalo hide.

Hero the Elephant and the Heintz Airship

Elkton Community Museum

105 N. Elk St., Elkton, SD
Elkton Community Museum. I-29 exit 127. East on Hwy 218 for 8.5 miles, then turn left (east) onto Hwy 13 for five miles. When you arrive at Elkton, turn right (east) onto North Drive for three blocks. Then turn right (south) onto Elk St.
Summer M-F 9-3; off-season Sa 10-2 or by appt. (Call to verify) Local health policies may affect hours and access.
Donations welcome.
RA Rates:
Worth a Detour
Save to My Sights

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In the region:
H.P. Pederson Rock Garden, Arco, MN - 18 mi.

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