As landmarks go, the big elephant atop the White Elephant store at 12614 E. Sprague Avenue in Spokane Valley is pretty distinct. Unique, in fact – and with quite a story.
Made in Germany, the 10-foot-tall pachyderm is the remaining one of a pair that used to be owned by the Armour Meat Packing Plant out on Trent at Mission. Along with its twin, it was taken to various grocery stores as part of Safari Days promotions. There was a basket on top in which children could sit, as if out on safari on a real elephant.
Back in 1973, John Conley, owner of the White Elephant surplus store on North Division Street (which he opened in 1946), bought one of the elephants as a mascot for the store.
“We only had one store at the time,” said Pat Conley, John’s son and now an owner of the White Elephant stores along with his brother Rich and their father. “I sure wish we had gotten the two of those elephants now though. We’ve tried to find the other one, but can’t locate it.”
The papier mâché elephant was gray when they acquired it, and it was quite the mechanical marvel, outfitted with all sorts of gears and motors inside, Conley recalled. The head and trunk were able to move, the ears flapped and the eyelids blinked. The Conleys would put the elephant, which they painted white, into the bed of a truck along with a generator to keep him moving and display him in parades.
And, Conley admitted, the elephant was present at a number of keggers he held in college. But that’s another story.
“We decided we wanted to keep him outside at the store, so we fiber glassed him, which ended all of his ability to move,” he said. “In a way, that was kind of too bad.” When the second store was built in Spokane Valley in 1976, they decided he should have a permanent home on the roof, and the number 2 was painted on his saddle blanket.
A time capsule of Expo ’74 memorabilia, games from the store and family memorabilia was placed inside the elephant, and up he went, serving as a distinctive landmark for decades.
“But a few years ago, we noticed he was kind of leaning to one side, and while we were fixing the roof in the fall of 2008, we took him down for repairs,” Conley said. “His top had collapsed, he was ruined inside, the legs were collapsing, a bird had nested inside him – and there were two crossbows in his side.”
They really weren’t sure how to fix him, but Warren Thomas (“our fix-it man,” Conley said) thought he could do it. Thomas cut into the body, reinforced it where broken, filled it with foam, repainted and put in LED lights behind the amber eyes “that glow a kind of weird red at night,” Conley said. The elephant was put in place again in spring 2009.
“I was so impressed with the response we had from the public during the time he was down,” Conley said. “People were so concerned about what happened to him. Some even thought we must be closing. And we had quite a crowd of relieved people when he went back up again.”
In the refurbishment, Thomas added a ball to the end of the trunk, which spun in the wind. “Unfortunately, it had a bad bearing and jerked off the trunk in one of the wind storms,” Conley said. “When we put the ball back up here pretty soon, we’re going to fiberglass it into place.”
The White Elephant stores have moved beyond the original surplus concept and have four major departments – toys, fishing gear, sporting goods and guns – and an expanding hobby department. The Spokane Valley store is being remodeled for greater efficiency and a new sign will be going up soon, too.
At one time, all 11 of the Conley children were involved with the stores, “but most of the rest of the family went out and got good jobs,” Pat Conley said with a laugh. Father John, 84, now takes care of the accounting.
But they still hold with tradition and have a bit of nostalgia for their surplus origin. Long ago John Conley purchased three of the little elephant kiddie rides from the old Natatorium Park, the ones that cost 10 cents to ride at the time. One is on the roof of the north side store, and the other two sit at the entrances to each of the White Elephant stores – and a ride still costs 10 cents.
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