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Table for Bears Yellowstone Slidefile Asahel Curtis postcard

Setting the Table for Bears.

By the 1890s, grand hotels had been built throughout Yellowstone Park and kitchen managers dumped their refuse in nearby woods. Bears soon began treating the arrival of garbage carts as invitations to dinner and watching them at the dump became a “must-do ” experience on par with viewing geysers, canyons and falls.

In 1900, John Samuel Dearling visited Yellowstone Park “The Wylie Way,” that is, on a carriage tour operated by the Wylie Permanent Camping Company. Both black bears and grizzlies or “silvertips” frequented the Wylie camps just like they did the grand hotels. Here’s how Dearling described the bear antics he encountered in his book published in 1913

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Near a hotel, where the refuse was dumped from the kitchen, I saw thirteen bears at one sight. They came there every evening about six o’clock to get their dinner. They must have had watches or clocks of their own, for they did not wait for the hotel bell to ring; they were surely beauties, nearly all silvertips, and of good size—too big for me to play with.

They watched us pretty closely while they ate their meals and once in a while one would get suspicious and walk off, but he would come back in a few minutes; he could not stand to see the other boys getting all the hash. They did not use very good manners at the festal-board, as they snarled and growled at each other a good deal. It reminded me of the scenes at some of our American breakfast tables.

There was one poor fellow in the lot that I was sorry for. I would like to have been a Good Samaritan, but my nerve failed me. His lordship had by some means gotten a tin can mashed on his right fore foot; he must have been supping out of a can and some other bear stepped on the can and pressed it into the flesh; at any rate I was told that it had been on there for several weeks. This trouble all came about by his being a right-handed bear; if it had been mashed on his left hand, he could have pulled it off with his right hand.

There was a family of bears near the Yellowstone Lake that gave the Wylie Company outfit considerable trouble, and some fun; the family consisted of old Betsey and her two boys. While the boys were under her control they behaved fairly well, but had no respect for their neighbors, and old Betsey like all other mothers, could not see the faults of her own children.

The Wylie people had tents for their kitchens as well as for their sleeping apartments; now old Betsy’s boys thought it great fun to creep under the tents of the kitchen, like an American boy goes under the tent at a circus.

One night about eight o’clock, Joe, the youngest one (the youngest is always the worst of the lot, that is what my brothers used to say) stole under the tent and proceeded to help himself to a pot of pork and beans; he did not look for a spoon, but in his haste rammed his hand to the bottom of the kettle.

The beans were pretty hot at the bottom and Joe howled with pain. This attracted the white folks and they rushed into the kitchen and captured the free lunch find; he hallooed for his mamma, and Betsy was not slow in responding, but before she could arrive with reinforcements, the victors had their captive in jail, under a box.

This so smothered his voice that Betsy could not say for sure that it was her boy that was in the toils of the law. So, after making some big bluffs and parading around the tent with her artillery cocked and pinned, she at last decided not to storm the fortress. Joe was kept for a week or two, then released under parole pending good behavior.

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—   From John Samuel Dearling, “Yellowstone National Park,” Pages 319-433 in A Drummer’s Experience, Colorado Spring, Colorado: Pikes Peak Publishing Company, 1913.

—   Asahel Curtis Postcard from the Yellowstone Digital Slide File.

—   For more stories about hunting, watching and photographing bears, click “Bears” under the categories button to the left.

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