All this must have happened in 1955 or maybe 1956, I don’t now remember exactly when, but in the summer because we weren’t in school.
It started as vague rumors, unsubstantiated hints that something strange was going on, which Dad and Mom discussed at the dinner table each evening for a couple of weeks. Some electric fences on farms in Ogle County north of Rochelle had been pulled up and some cows had wandered loose. The farmers were sure that some large animal had destroyed the fences, but no one had seen it and no one knew what it might have been. Then some farmers began reporting that they had seen a “very large deer” in their fields. Now the farmers believed that this “deer”, or whatever it was, had uprooted the fence wires with its antlers. In town some people decided that the farmers were imagining the whole thing; others were sure there was something running wild but didn’t have any idea what. Someone suggested that the “deer” might be an elk, but elk hadn’t been seen in the wild in Illinois for over 100 years. I think no one took the suggestion seriously.
And then, one day, the “very large deer” wandered into town. It was seen by several people as it passed the post office, more saw it as it walked calmly down the main business street (which in Rochelle is perversely not the street named “Main” but rather the street named “Lincoln Highway”). It then proceeded out of town, heading south. At some point a group of men had decided to capture this animal before it did more damage to farmers’ fields and herds and before someone did damage to it. They had been searching for it for some time, following from farm report to farm report. But when it passed through town more men joined the hunt and set off after the now very warm track. Businesses in town came to a halt, at least some businesses, and a posse cruised into the countryside in chase, cars and pickup trucks filled with men, including my father, armed with ropes.
Eventually, late in the afternoon or early evening, my mother said Dad had called to tell her to come get him in Steward, about 9 miles south of Rochelle. We kids loaded into the car — we weren’t about to miss this excitement — and Mom drove off toward Steward. When we got there the event was mostly over. The “very large deer”, which had been definitively identified as an elk, was standing at the south end of Steward Cemetery, lassoed and tied to the wrought iron fence, surrounded by men, including Dad, who were getting ready to load it into a truck. One piece of the fence was bent outward, marking the place where the elk had tried to kick Dad as he stood holding its antlers. Fortunately for us the kick missed.
It’s probably true that the majority of the men involved in the capture were members of the Rochelle Sportsman’s Club, and that is probably part of the reason the club took control of the elk. The club petitioned the agency responsible, I think it was the Illinois Department of Agriculture, for permission to keep him. And after it was confirmed that no captive elk had been reported strayed, the club became his owner. They built an enclosure, with a very tall fence, at Sportsman’s Park, and someone named the elk Rudy. Later, maybe the next year, the club acquired an elk cow, who received the name Rochella, and began to build a small elk herd at the park. Unfortunately the experiment ended badly several years later when some unknown person poisoned the animals.
As far as I know no one ever found out where Rudy came from. Elk became extinct in Illinois around the middle of the 1800s — in fact, around the time Rochelle was founded. The nearest elk herds in the 1950s were hundreds of miles from Rochelle, and no one between those herds and Rochelle ever reported seeing an elk moving in our direction. The most likely explanation is that he had escaped from someone’s private herd, possibly an illegal menagerie, or perhaps what would now be called a “game farm”. It is sad that his life, and the lives of the others in his little herd, ended so abruptly, but I am glad that for a little while during my lifetime Rochelle held a tiny piece of the old, wild Illinois, even if we did keep it caged.