Presiding over the dedication of Brookfield Zoo and the zoo's governing body, the Chicago Zoological Society, was Chicago Tribune cartoonist, John T. McCutcheon, the organization's first president. McCutcheon was elected to the position in 1921. McCutcheon recalls in his autobiography that he was notified of his nomination via a letter from Art Institute president Charles L. Hutchinson. "This society," writes McCutcheon, stemmed from a typical American combination of civic devotion, philanthropy, high taxes and dull times." When it became necessary to select a president, "somebody remembered my book on Africa." (see The Chicago History Online Library)
The beginning of the park is also a story. According to Doug Deuchler, co-author of Brookfield Zoo and the Chicago Zoological Society:
One aspect of the "founding" of the zoo is that the original tract of land was an abortive suburban "subdivision" that just didn't take off during the post WWI recession. So its owner, Edith Rockefeller McCormick, gave the land to start a zoo. She actually was being magnanimous, in her way, but she also owed a bundle of back taxes and this act would clean her slate. She was the richest woman in America during the '20s. She wanted a "barless" zoo like she'd seen in Germany---moats around the animals, etc. She, alas, died in '32--two years before the zoo was completed. Most of the core buildings were completed by 1928-1929 but the Crash and subsequent hard times put the zoo at a standstill until 1934. The board never spent a penny they didn't have in hand. So that also held things up. This financial practice would continue down through the years. Moneys were never borrowed.
McCutcheon was delighted with his election and wrote, "Here seemed a chance to do something for the city which had done so much for me.”And, give back he did. "I was thrown into frequent association with Chicago’s most public-spirited citizens, and these relationships, I now realize, have been among the most prized perquisites of my position,” he wrote. It didn't hurt that he was also friends with President Theodore Roosevelt.
While McCutcheon left the daily operations of the zoo to its directors, those connections and his natural charm were able to pull the zoo through some tough times. On governing, McCutcheon wrote: "My one valuable quality as president, as I see it, was that I did not try to act like one all the time."
John McCutcheon served as president for 27 years before relinquishing the position to his brother-in-law, Clay Judson, in 1948.
Brookfield Zoo and the Chicago Zoological Society (Images of America)by Douglas Deuchler and Carla W. Owens (filled with archive photos!)
Drawn From Memory: The Autobiography of John T. McCutcheon (out of print but many reasonably priced used copies available)
The Chicago Zoological Society website
Brookfield Zoo (Wikipedia)
Jungles of Eden: The Design of American Zoos (excerpt from Environmentalism in Landscape Architecture)
Brookfield Zoo poster from trialsanderrors on Flickr: Poster by Carken for the Illinois Federal Art Project, Works Progress Administration (WPA), 1936
McCutcheon photo: Google Images
McCutcheon cartoon: Chicago Tribune, June 13, 1935