The Penguin Pool

It’s getting to be like Old MacDonald’s farm around here with goats and chickens springing up in a number of neighbors’ backyards. Creatures a bit more exotic have called Palisades home in the past; among them have been a peacock or two and a pair of penguins.

Thirty-six years ago this September my husband bought our Palisades house. Originally built in 1865, it was added onto in the 1920s and again in the 50s. The place was in a dreadful state in 1975 – doors falling off, paint peeling inside and out, poor insulation and a roof in immediate need of replacing. Outside, the half-acre plot that extended down to a stream was overgrown with weeds, mock orange and a myriad other plants totally out of control.

My husband had purchased the property from the bank two years after its owner, Mrs. Ruth Smith, had died at 82. A young professor at the time with limited funds, he did much of the work himself, spending hours after a full day’s work stripping woodwork, radiators and floors, painting walls and staining floor boards. Finally getting the interior under control he turned to the garden. Mrs. Smith in her prime was reported by neighbors to have been quite a gardener. A variety of wildflowers from spring beauty to trillium and trout lily that bloom along the stream every spring attest to that. But after her death, it took endless cutting and digging to tame the tangled yard.

There was a small shed in back where Mrs. Smith, a potter, had a throwing wheel. Closer to the house, a short distance from a small back room off the kitchen was a hole in the ground about eight feet round that was lined with sealed cinderblock painted a bright turquoise. This had been the penguin pool.

In her later years Mrs. Smith had spent many of her waking hours in front of a TV. One of her favorite shows was Captain Kangaroo, a morning kid’s show that featured puppets, cartoons and visits from zoo animals. One cold November day in 1959 Captain Kangaroo featured two Humboldt penguins. Mrs. Smith promptly got on the phone and called the station inquiring about what they planned to do with the penguins after their 15 minutes of fame. When told they had no plans she volunteered to take them. So the penguins spent the winter in Palisades, feasting on fish and happily swimming around the small pool she had built for them. Neighborhood kids would stop by for a visit.

An article in the April 7, 1960 issue of the Journal News reported, “Mrs. Smith’s penguins arrived in a cardboard box. They soon acclimated themselves to their new home although, when the first ice of winter formed on the pool, they had to be lifted from the ice. Winter itself bothered the penguins not in the least since their ancestors have long been used to fishing in the icy Humboldt current off the coast of Peru. In Palisades food has been no problem except for their owner. They have consumed smelts in astronomical quantities.”

When the weather turned warmer Mrs. Smith gave the penguins to the New York Aquarium. We have heard stories that she went to visit them and that they seemed to recognize her. The pool, with its brightly painted cinderblocks removed, is now filled in and serves as a location for my dahlias, which I duly dig up in the fall and replant each spring. It sits empty during the long winter with memories of its fleeting past glory.