Working for peanuts

February 18, 1998|By KATE COLEMAN

by Richard T. Meagher / staff photographer

see the enlargement

elephant museumWorking for peanuts

On the wall of Mister Ed's Elephant Museum in Orrtanna, Pa., there's a quote attributed to Lincoln: "When you have got an elephant by the hind legs and he is trying to run away, it is best to let him run."

That's not quite as well-known or historic as other things Lincoln said. But it illustrates in a nutshell - a peanut shell, actually - what happened to Ed Gotwalt - also known as "Mister Ed."

He never planned it, but Gotwalt and his wife, Pat, have a collection of more than 5,000 elephants - figures in wood, ceramic, pottery, plastic, ivory - pictures, posters, banks, old, new, handcrafted and mass-produced - every form of elephant imaginable. Many are on display at the museum and emporium on U.S. 30, about 15 miles west of Gettysburg, Pa., that is open seven days a week from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.


Mister Ed's also sells roasted peanuts, a wide variety of candy and elephant-related everything.

Admission is free, and Gotwalt claims to have 25,000 visitors a year.

Gotwalt's prodigious population of pachyderms started in 1967 with a wedding present of a little pottery elephant from his sister.

The couple picked up eight elephants on the way home from their honeymoon. "Hey, let's start a collection," Gotwalt remembers saying.

He never intended it to turn into the attraction that earned four pages in a book titled "Offbeat Museums, The Collections and Curators of America's Most Unusual Museums" by Saul Rubin. He's right in there with Cockroach Hall of Fame and The Museum of Questionable Medical Devices.

Mister Ed's also has a mention on the Roadside America's Web site at ( Someone marked his spot on a map at the Denver, Colo., airport, and people have come to the museum and mentioned that. "It just evolved," he says.

A native of York, Pa., Gotwalt's family moved to Washington, D.C., when he was about 15. He grew up and worked for a grocery store chain. "Mister Ed" was what his employees called him. He never thought about the television show about a horse of the same name.

A 1975 company course to help people analyze their relationships convinced Gotwalt to make a change. He says he got in touch with himself, where he was, what he was doing and discovered that he wanted his own business. He went to the last class and said he was leaving the company.

He visited friends in Pennsylvania and bought an old general store and 20 acres near Gettysburg. Shortly after he opened, an old man pulled in with a peanut roaster. At the time, he couldn't imagine what he'd do with it, but he bought it and started roasting and selling peanuts. In another case of letting the elephant run, Gotwalt now owns nine roasters and says he sells 30 tons of peanuts a year.

He takes his peanuts and candies to to craft shows, York Fair and a couple of NASCAR races. He sold peanuts at opening parties for the Broadway revival of the musical "Damn Yankees" a few years ago.

This was fun for Gotwalt, who says Broadway shows are his passion. He's a longtime supporter of the neighboring Totem Pole Playhouse - season ticket holder, board member and occasional actor, according to Sue Kocek McMurtray, Totem Pole's managing director. McMurtray has known Gotwalt since 1976 when he was celebrating the Bicentennial by staying awake for 76 hours. "He's a showman. He's a real P.T. Barnum," McMurtray says.

Years ago, Mister Ed was known for his annual arrival in Gettysburg as Santa Claus - one year with a calliope and another with a log cabin on a flatbed truck. And there's the time he flew in a hot air balloon that landed him in a tree instead of in town. There he hung in his Santa suit until rescued by firefighters.

When his store burned in 1984, Gotwalt pulled a card out of his wallet he had been given 10 years before by a man who wanted to sell him some land in Orrtanna - two miles up the road. He doesn't know why he kept the card, but he's glad he did. He bought the land and is still there.

Gotwalt says he's always loved elephants. When he was 9 years old, he rode an elephant when the circus came to town, and his picture was in the York Dispatch newspaper.

Does Mister Ed have a favorite elephant? He displays a gold ring - the head of an elephant with diamonds for eyes and holding one in its trunk. He and his wife had it custom-made in St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands.

Gotwalt says people call him weird or eccentric and say he has a big ego.

He's not the least bit shy about taking advantage of any possible opportunity to promote his business and museum and says he enjoys the people he's met through elephants and peanuts.

Mister Ed has handed out tiny elephant charms in the many countries he's traveled. He tells people - in their own languages - that elephants bring good luck.

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