Tales From Iowa City: Burch the Bear

By Mike Jones on March 5, 2018 at 2:22 pm
Burch on a Chair
Hi I'm Burch I stand on chairs.

The year is 1908 and the most interesting thing in the Western Hemisphere is probably the building of the Panama Canal. But we’re not talking canals. We’re talking bears. American black bears, to be more specific. The American black bear is native to the Rocky Mountains, a majority of Canada and even parts of Mexico. Males, called boars, weigh around 400 lbs when fully grown and are around 3 feet tall when they aren’t standing upright. Of note: bears can easily stand upright and double their height when doing so.

Now, common sense would dictate that you shouldn’t have a bear as a pet, especially out in public, but hey we’re talking about the early 20th Century here. There weren’t a lot of animal safety rules. With that complete lack of regulation in mind: Enter Burch the Bear.

Hi I'm Burch

Burch was an American black bear imported from Idaho to serve as the mascot for the Iowa Hawkeyes football team in 1908. It isn’t clear who came up with the idea of having a live bear as a mascot for a football team named after a bird but that’s wholly irrelevant. Burch was just a bear cub when he first arrived on campus and the earliest mention I can find of him was in the October 20th, 1908 edition of The Daily Iowan. Burch was first shown off to the public in Grinnell…where he immediately bit someone. His teeth were filed down so it wasn’t a big deal but let’s just say that was an ominous start.

The weekend preceding October 20th, Iowa traveled to Columbia to play the Missouri Tigers. Burch tagged along. In Centralia (just north of Columbia) the following incident occurred:

At Centralia, Mo, “Fat” Johnson substitute tackle, had arisen before the rest of the men was out of the platform acting as “Burch’s” escort when a curious individual poked the bear in the back. Quick as a flash “Burch” wheeled and harmlessly wrapped himself around the victim’s leg. A howl and the city marshal aypeared [sic] on the scene. “I’ll arrest you if you do not put a muzzle on that bear [r]ight away,” he yelled at Johnson, who was retreating a little nearer to the car. He was later quieted and no legal procedure was started against the mascot.

Thank heavens.

Later in the season (which turned out to be a disaster), Iowa was playing Drake when the Hawkeyes rolled Burch out in the second half. The Bulldog players unsurprisingly objected to there being a live black bear on the football field “and so poor “Burch” was pulled off the gridiron.” In the final game of the season against Kansas, Burch “viewed the game from the limb of a tree back of the bleachers.” Nothing to see here behind the stands. Just a live black bear hanging from a tree. Move along.

By the next season, Burch was apparently forgotten. I know this because he’s labeled “alone and forgotten” in the October 10th, 1909 edition of The Daily Iowan:

Alone and forgotten, Burch, the bear mascot climbed frantically up the wires of his cage in the rear of the cement bleachers during the game. Bruin is much too large and strong to run loose and the team’s luck is apparently all right anyway.

Yes, in a completely shocking turn of events, the black bear cub that was brought to an urban setting is turning out to be problematic as it has grown into a full-size bear. Sadly, this was the only mention I could find of Burch in 1909 in my limited search. 

And then, in 1910, he makes a break for it.


The mystery of Burch, erstwhile mascot of the Hawkeye athletic teams, deepened rapidly yesterday when "Jimmy" having opened the gates of Iowa field after earnest solicitation, a crowd of students and newspaper men rushed to the bear's cage where, according to Jimmy, he was supposed to be taking his winter siesta. Here, however, they found the bars twisted and the netting torn in one corner of the cage, with no bear visible. Bits of fur were still clinging to the sides of the opening made in the den, and there seems no reason to doubt, that Burch has escaped and is now roaming at large somewhere in the vicinity.

Question: Why would you even be waking up a hibernating bear?

Later in the article:

The problem now is to locate bruin before he can do any damage. During his incarceration, Burch had grown to full size, and, moreover, had developed a somewhat dangerous disposition. The prospect of a full-grown black bear roaming about through the country is not a particularly inviting one for the farmers, and many protests are expected if the beast is not immediately recaptured.


Already reports are coming in which seem to indicate that Burch is following the Iowa River and timber skirting it. It is well remembered here that he was afraid of the river, and there seems little probability he would try to cross it (NOTE: cc this line to @OldTakesExposed), but would follow the trees along the bank either north or south. In direct line with this theory are reports from near Coralville, concerning various farmers whose hen-roosts have been invaded by some marauding animal and one man reports the loss of a sheep which had been left in a lot, and which he supposed to have been killed by dogs or wolves.

And then, on March 11th, 1910, we get the news that ever bear lover dreads: Burch has died. From the front page of The Daily Iowan:


The last chapter in the history of Burch, Iowa's ill-fated mascot, has been written. Wednesday afternoon men who had been blasting ice some distance above Coralville noticed a dark and almost submerged object floating slowly down with the masses of dislodged ice. Its peculiar appearance caused them to mount upon the bridge and push it into the shallow water, where it could be reached from the shore. Here it was at once discovered that the object was a full-grown black bear, without doubt Burch.

Just how the bear came to be in the water is still a mystery. In the days of his cubhood, Burch was afraid of the river. But now it seems probable that he ventured upon the rotten ice in order to get a drink and that some sudden break-up caught him and drew him under, where he had no chance of escape.

The last reports which had come from the animal reported him somewhere between Coralville and Swisher; but the latest of those came almost a week ago and the owners of the bear here had almost given up hope of ever hearing of him again.

Burch's two year career in the university world has been marked by many vicissitudes. Few of his kind ever attract so much attention or arouse so much comment as has centered about him since he left his Idaho home to attract the favors of the God of Chance to Hawkeye athletes and athletics. At the beginning of the 1908 football season he was heralded as the good omen which would bring success to Iowa upon the football field. He was taken upon the first trip, and Iowa was beaten by a supposedly inferior team. Then followed the most disastrous season of recent years, and Burch's popularity waned. The players still continued to wrestle with the bear for amusement, but at the close of the season he was shut up in his cage, and by last spring had grown too large and savage to be played with. So he has been kept pretty much is his den ever since, remaining there in spite of frantic efforts to escape while the big games were played on Iowa field in 1909. The unlucky animal's final end has just been told, and the discussion which the various reports which gained circulation have caused is still fresh in the minds of all.

The men who found the body took it at once to Coralville and telephoned the owners of the bear as to what disposition to make of it. Acting upon their orders, the bear was sent to Iowa City via the interurban, and taken at once to Taxidermist Dill. After an inspection, Mr. Dill announced that the water had so affected the body that in all probability it would be impossible to preserve it, with the exception of the head which was in fair condition and would be mounted and placed in the museum. "Jimmy," Burch's erstwhile guardian, refused to express any great regret when told of his former charge's fate. "Well, he was no kind o' use anyhow" is the way he puts it. The venerable mower of grass on Iowa field also admitted that he had some slight fear that Burch's ghost, like those of all who die violent deaths, would return to haunt the scenes of his bearhood days. In such event, says Jimmy, a new caretaker will be needed at ence [sic].

And so ends the tale of Burch. He was brought to Iowa City as a cub for the amusement of the people and was shunned by those same people when he developed into a fully grown American black bear. The world is a fickle place and Burch has almost been forgotten entirely by the University.

Fortunately, there are a few among us who will not let Burch’s name die out of existence. One is Big Grove Brewery, located in Iowa City and Solon, who named a beer after Burch. The others are the owners and operators of Atlas Restaurant and Bar (Nate Kaeding is among them), located in downtown Iowa City. The restaurant will be rebranded in March as the Saint Burch Tavern, obviously named after our beloved former mascot. Thanks to them for keeping his memory alive.

And as always, #RIPBURCH.

PS: As a commenter brought up...WHERE IS BURCH'S HEAD?!

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