The old lion statues on Riverview along the Mississippi have guarded the town and welcomed visitors for well-over a century in Bellevue.
Children play on them, visitors stop to look while others take photos with them. They seem to fit right in sitting on their concrete pedestals by the river. It even looks as though they are smiling.
But most people have no idea where the lions came from, or how long they’ve been there.
In fact, in recent weeks, members of the Bellevue Arts Council launched an effort to repaint the lions, as the gold paint on them has worn and weathered over the years. The city approved of the plan and the first steps were taken last Thursday morning when the lions were sand-blasted and are now ready to be primed and re-painted.
As this process was taking place, Earl and Sue Sawvel of the Bellevue Arts Council, who are leading the effort to repaint the lions, started asking around about the origin of the statues, but no one seemed to know anything about them.
There were theories and tall tales floating around about the old river lions, but this week the mystery has finally been solved – thanks to the memory of retired Bellevue Parks Department Superintendent Warren Crouch, who recalled reading something about them in the Bellevue Herald-Leader about three decades ago.
A look in the archives starting in 1989 soon led to the article Crouch referred to, and it turns out that history is repeating itself.
Then editor Lowell Carlson put a call out to readers 31 years ago about the lions, as no one three decades ago seemed to know where they came from either.
It was just a short mention in what was called ‘Carslon’s Column,’ printed on page 5 on June 15, 1989.
Turns out the lions were donated to the City of Bellevue in 1909 by Frank Weinschenk of Mont Rest, (which has a rich and somewhat bizarre early history itself).
“Folks told us they (the lions) indeed came from Mont Rest, now bed and breakfast owned by Chris and Bob Gelms on Spring Street,” said Carlson in his 1989 column. “But when?”
Carlson’s question was answered when Allan Schirmer, a Bellevue news correspondent came to the Herald-Leader office with a photo copy of the Mardie Ullrich’s weekly history column (equivalent to the Herald-Leader’s Years Ago page) from the Maquoketa Sentinel-Press which stated that the statues were donated by Weinschenk to the city of Bellevue in June, 1909.
The article was printed in the 1909 Jackson County Sentinel (which would later combine with the Maquoketa Press newspaper to form what is now the Sentinel-Press).
“The lions spent their early years in Bellevue, apparently guarding the south facing steps heading up to Mont Rest,” wrote Carlson. “An early postcard picture of Mont Rest shows the lions on either side if the walkway long since removed.
The editor of the Jackson County Sentinel in 1909 stated that the lions “will be a valuable addition to the park.” It was a sage prediction as the lions have become synonymous with Bellevue’s front yard for tens of thousands of visitors who have visited Bellevue over the past century. No information about why the statues were donated was included in the short news item.
The Herald-Leader staff went back to both the June 1909 Bellevue Herald and the Bellevue Leader (these were two separate newspaper prior to Tom Bates buying out the Herald and combining them in 1960), and no mention of the lions was found in June or July of 1909. However, there were items that had been cut out of several of the original pages, so it is possible the lions were mentioned.
In 1909, W. F. Schirmer was listed as editor and publisher of the local newspaper, and staff will keep looking for more information on the lions in the future and will tell of any good finds.
A search of old photos on file reveals several old photos of Mont Rest, but they most certainly were taken after 1909, as no lions were in the old images.