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Can We Credit P.T. Barnum for White Squirrels?
P.T. Barnum is known for saying: “the noblest art is that of making others happy.” If it’s true that Barnum should be credited for our region’s white squirrels, then he sure was good at his trade. Few things lend more identity to Brevard and Transylvania County than its endearing population of white squirrels (OK—you’ve got me with waterfalls, but bear with me). These curious-looking critters have been beloved by locals for decades. And a sighting never fails to make unaware visitors do a double-take. Nowadays, white squirrels are calling our entire region home—having spread into Henderson County and beyond.
But where did our white squirrels come from? It’s a question that has been asked many times over the years and met with many answers. The most common explanation that I’ve heard credits their origin to the crash of a circus truck. But that story doesn’t involve P.T. Barnum; we’ll get there soon enough.
The most widely accepted story comes from Barbara Mull, of Mobile, AL, who grew up in Brevard and claimed that her uncle, Harry Mull, gave her two white squirrels during her childhood in the 1940s. Her uncle obtained them from a friend who alleged they escaped from a circus train wreck in Florida. Barbara kept the squirrels caged as pets for several years until they successfully made another clever escape from captivity.
Others claim that the original white squirrels were fugitives from a carnival traveling in Brevard itself, not Florida. But all of the stories of their beginning share one consistency: the circus. And that’s where Camp Rockbrook lends its own legend to the white squirrels’ lore.
Rockbrook Camp for Girls, a rustic summer camp located southwest of Brevard in the Dunns Rock Township, will welcome wilderness-seeking children for its 90th season next month. Founded in 1921, it was established by Nancy Carrier who is well known in Transylvania County for establishing the Brevard Music Center and the county hospital. But Carrier is known for something else, too--her great-grandfather was P.T. Barnum of Barnum and Bailey Circus fame.
In 1888, P.T. Barnum gifted Julia Hurd Clarke—his granddaughter and Nancy‘s mother—money to purchase a large plantation in South Carolina. Around the same time, Nancy’s mother also bought several hundred acres in western North Carolina—land on which Nancy would grow up and that would ultimately become Camp Rockbrook.
Apparently that wasn’t the only gift that P.T. Barnum gave to Nancy’s mother and her family. An array of strange oddities and bizarre items—gifts sent from Barnum—once filled a large home standing in the center of Rockbrook. The house was affectionately known as the “circus house” among generations of campers. Among its collection of peculiar circus memorabilia were an elephant’s footstool and Tom Thumb’s chair.
Jeff and Sarah Carter, Rockbrook Camp’s directors, believe that P.T. Barnum might be responsible for another curiosity: the region’s white squirrels. “We claim they came from Rockbrook,” says Jeff. Rumors suggest that the squirrels may have been a wedding present given to Nancy Carrier from the Barnum family, or a present to an infant Nancy prior to P.T. Barnum’s death. “What a terrible wedding gift,” said Sarah. But with white squirrels now embraced by the community, she admits, “I guess it’s a gift that keeps on giving.”
Charlotte Page became a third generation camper at Rockbrook when she first attended in 1980. Her grandmother came to Rockbrook in the 1930s, and she remembers hearing her tales of the “circus house” and its peculiar objects. Charlotte is now Associate Camp Director and enjoys researching Rockbrook’s interesting history, including the white squirrels. Regarding Rockbrook’s claim to the white squirrels, Page says, “We think our story is much more believable.” Considering the plethora of oddities sent to Rockbrook by P.T. Barnum, it is hardly a stretch to imagine that he sent white squirrels there, too.
Regardless where the white squirrels came from, no one questions the region’s pride in them. May’s White Squirrel Festival in Brevard emphatically celebrates our resident white rodents. Over the years, the festival has become one of the region’s largest. A Squirrel Box Derby, White Squirrel Music Festival, and the White Squirrel 5K are among the events at which you can celebrate our white squirrel heritage. This year, Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy’s booth debuted its new Hiking Challenge—featuring an iron-on white squirrel patch for challenge completers—and hosted games of white squirrel bean bag toss.
Perhaps we’ll never know for certain how our region became home to these alabaster curiosities, but we sure are excited they’re here. In fact, Brevard appreciates them so much that they placed a protective ordinance on white squirrels in 1986—making it unlawful to hunt, trap, or kill them within city limits.
White squirrels aren’t the only natural resource that is protected in our region. In 2010, Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy placed a conservation easement on more than 115 acres of mountain slopes surrounding Camp Rockbrook. Permanently protected from development, its picturesque waterfalls, scenic cliffs, and perhaps the original stomping grounds of the white squirrel, will forever remain preserved for generations more to cherish.
by Peter Barr, CMLC Trails & Outreach Coordinator
Read more stories of CMLC’s conserved lands at www.carolinamountain.org/stories.