FARGO, N.D. (KXNET) — The deeper one digs into the urban legends of North Dakota, the more likely they are to come across some that shift from the interesting to the frightening and eventually to the downright bizarre. This is the case with the elephant rumored to be buried under Horace Mann Elementary School: A tale going back over 100 years that theoretically could be answered, but never has been.

An old postcard from Fargo, featuring Horace Mann Elementary. (Image Credit: NDSU Library)

To this day, variations on the tale have been whispered around Fargo, but nobody is quite sure about the exact circumstances that led to the creature supposedly ending up buried below the grounds that have now become home to Horace Mann Elementary. If the rumors are true then where did it come from? And why hasn’t anyone bothered to figure out if it is, to begin with?

Profiling a pachyderm

The original story of the elephant buried under Horace Mann begins in the early 1900s, before the elementary school was actually built. Before it’s construction in 1915, the land was actually known as Hector’s Addition, another part of the county fairgrounds. As such, many groups of traveling performers, including circus folk, passed through the area, bringing their unique acts and animals with them. One of these groups who visited Hector’s Addition brought with them an elephant, who died of a heart attack while on the property.

Refusing to pay the extremely high price to transport the expired elephant, they instead opted to bury the animal in the dead of night before skipping town. Their scheme went unnoticed, and Horace Mann Elementary School was eventually built on the site where the elephant was supposedly buried. Since then, the event has been viewed as a common folk tale in the nearby community.

With the school covering the area and preventing a proper dig, how do we have any indication that the event even happened? Well, there are some pieces of history and evidence from the Pachyderm Recovery Project (originally spearheaded by former Fargo city planning department member Dan Mahli in 2001), as well as more evidence brought to light by the High Plains Reader in 2014, that may point to the possibility of the rumor being a reality.

Addressing the Elephant in the School

Work from both the Reader and the Pachyderm Recovery Project has uncovered plenty of information about the history of the ground that Horace Mann now stands on, and though we still can’t confirm whether or not the elephant tale is true, Hector’s Addition’s history of fairground follies goes back even further than the rumor would imply.

According to the High Plains Reader’s findings, approximately 80 traveling circuses passed through Fargo, with at least ten directly camping on Hector’s Addition, almost all carrying elephants in tow. They’ve even managed to estimate a date range in which the elephant may have been entombed — between 1892 and 1905 (between the time the land was purchased by Martin Hector and when circuses were forced to move their setups to Ninth Street South). At the time that the PRP once again attempted to comb through the archives, there were around 30 circuses remaining that had not been entirely looked through in the Fargo forums, and without full information and a physical investigation, the story remains an urban legend.

Even if the elephant rumor is false, though, this research has indicated that there is one animal that the rumor may have spun from. Archive searches have shown that a dead camel has been confirmed to be buried by Fargo North High School — courtesy of Barnum and Bailey — who died of a currently unidentified disease in the summer of 1907. There is a chance that the original rumor started due to the camel and school connection, and spiraled from there.

Despite all the work that groups like the Pachyderm Recovery Project have done, the evidence remains inconclusive: if there is an elephant underneath Horace Mann Elementary, then it’s one whose death hasn’t been recorded and somehow slipped through the cracks of history. Discovering the truth about the elephant under Horace Mann is a slow process, but still an intriguing one nonetheless.

If you have any information about the history of Horace Mann Elementary School’s grounds or circuses in Fargo, please reach out to us at ndfirst@kxnet.com.