From circus attraction to protected mascot to art project: How black squirrels took over a small Kansas town

Marysville's "Black Squirrels on Parade" celebrates the town's connection to the bushy-tailed critters with 34 fiberglass statues

Photo: Julie Grace Immink

It all started with a carnival. According to small-town folklore, in 1912, a traveling carnival passing through Marysville, Kansas, had a cage of black squirrels as a sideshow attraction. A young boy, wanting to free the caged critters, released them into a park where they flourished and quickly grew in numbers. 

Today, the town’s population of squirrels is about one-fifth black, while the rest is the standard Eastern gray or red. This rarer and genetically darker squirrel ended up becoming the mascot of Marysville in 1972. The little rodents are so beloved, they even have laws protecting them. City Ordinance 1027 grants black squirrels “the freedom to trespass on all city property, immunity from traffic regulations, and the right of first choice to all black walnuts growing within the city.” And if anyone willingly harms one of these critters, they have to pay a fine.

Marysville, a town of about 3,000 people, celebrates its bushy-tailed mascot with an art installation of 34 fiberglass squirrel sculptures placed throughout the town. These 5-foot-tall “Black Squirrels on Parade” are themed and dressed in various ensembles, based on where they are located. The public art project made its debut in 2016 as a way to increase tourism and celebrate Marysville’s identity as “Black Squirrel City.” The statues were created by artists and students from the area, and sponsored by local businesses.

The black squirrels are one reason to be nuts for Marysville, but there is also historic relevance to this charming Kansas town, which is located along the Oregon Trail. At the town’s Home Station No. 1 museum, visitors can explore Marysville’s history as a transportation hub along the Pony Express route.   

Photo: Julie Grace Immink

A squirrel named Caleb, wearing a vintage salesman uniform with a tail full of soda bubbles, sits in front of the locally-owned Pepsi-Cola bottling company. He is named after the American pharmacist Caleb Bradham who invented Pepsi in 1893. 

Photo: Julie Grace Immink

Safety the Squirrel sits outside the Landoll Corporation on a base of steel, which represents the quality of the farm equipment made by this manufacturer. His glasses and earplugs serve as a reminder to protect ourselves from harm. 

Photo: Julie Grace Immink

Copper sits on the Pony Express Highway in front of the United Bank and Trust. His tail is decorated with pennies, and his acorn with nickels. It proved too expensive to carry packages via horseback along this route, so the Pony Express only lasted between 1860 and 1861.

Photo: Julie Grace Immink

Frida welcomes everyone into the town of Marysville. Named after the Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, she is painted like a sugar skull—a sweet tradition that celebrates the Day of the Dead. 

Photo: Julie Grace Immink

Lily keeps watch over the plants at the Marysville Garden Club. This squirrel combines her green thumb and yellow sun visor with a watering can and a pocket full of flower seeds. She is a tribute to the founding women of the garden club, which was established in 1931.

Photo: Julie Grace Immink

Cyclone is ready to play ball at the Lakeview Sports Complex. He is named after Denton True “Cy” Young, the National Baseball Hall of Famer whose pitches were known for their windstorm-like speed and spiral. After local games, teams often pose for photos with this popular squirrel.

Photo: Julie Grace Immink

Payne peeks onto the Pony Express Highway outside the Marysville Country Club. Wearing a vintage red and green argyle golf sweater, he is named after professional golfer Payne Stewart, who won 11 PGA Tour events.

Photo: Julie Grace Immink

Here is a detail of the mosaic tiles on Eve, a circus-inspired squirrel who lives in Marysville City Park. The traveling circus brought the black squirrels to this area, so Eve pays tribute to the creation of Black Squirrel City. This circus art arrangement was created by Topeka-based artist and public school teacher Patty Kahn.   

Photo: Julie Grace Immink

Sister Teresa sits outside of St. Gregory the Great Catholic Church and School. She wears a habit and carries a rosary with her acorn. This adorable nun was created by Marysville High School art teacher April Spicer.

Photo: Julie Grace Immink

Choo-Choo stands and waits to catch a train outside of the Historic Union Pacific Railroad Depot. He is painted in the colorful Oaxacan folk art style of alebrijes. Local artist and art teacher Kaci Smith’s decorative pattern on the squirrel was influenced by the Spanish Revival style of the depot.

If you go

The Black Squirrels on Parade are located throughout the town of Marysville, Kansas.

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