The independent newspaper of the University of Iowa community since 1868

The Daily Iowan

The independent newspaper of the University of Iowa community since 1868

The Daily Iowan

The independent newspaper of the University of Iowa community since 1868

The Daily Iowan

Before the bird, there was a bear

Before Herky was hatched, Burch the bear roamed campus. The live bear cub served as the UI’s very first mascot before meeting an untimely demise.
Photo contributed by the University of Iowa Digital Library archives

Over 110 years ago, Herky didn’t exist. Instead, the University of Iowa’s mascot lumbered around campus on four furry paws and filed down claws.

Burch the Bear was the University of Iowa’s first mascot. A live black bear cub, Burch was purchased in September 1908 to bring “good luck” to the Iowa football team. Although there are conflicting records of the bear’s exact origin, a 1908 edition of The Daily Iowan wrote that former football coach Mark Catlin bought the five-month-old, 50-pound bear cub from the University of Idaho.

Burch was shipped across the country via railroad in a wooden box. Once he arrived, his claws and teeth were reportedly filed down so that he would be of little threat to handlers and football players alike.

Still, Burch was a wild animal. One account from October 1908 recalls how the bear “dug his filed tooth into one daring Iowa College freshman.” He intimidated the football team on a regular basis, including on a trip to Missouri in 1909 when he “drove the entire squad into one small corner of the bus.”

According to callous headlines from March 1910, Burch’s “career” ended after the bear escaped his cage and lived on the lam for a few days, making his way to Coralville before farmers found his body in the cold waters of the Iowa River. Burch’s head was supposedly the only part of his body able to be preserved and was taken to taxidermist Homer Dill to be preserved for an exhibit in the UI’s Museum of Natural History.

Unfortunately, no record of the bear’s head exists at the museum. Dill was “known to not habitually catalog display objects,” according to a 2016 note from Cindy Opitz, the UI collections manager with the Museum of Natural History.

The museum frequently receives requests about Burch, but unfortunately, the trail always leads to a dead end.

“The UI Museum of Natural History has no official record of the bear ever actually reaching them or joining their collections,” wrote Jessica Smith, communications coordinator for the Pentacrest Museums, in an email to the DI.

Although Burch’s life ended prematurely, his legacy lingers on. He is immortalized in name through a craft beer sold by Big Grove Brewery, called “Burch the Bear Brown Ale.”

The bear is also remembered through St. Burch Tavern, which rebranded in 2018, and has several Burch photos and UI memorabilia in its basement bar, affectionately nicknamed “the den.”

One owner of St. Burch, Nate Kaeding, said he decided on the new name after researching Burch’s story at the UI Main Library archives and Johnson County Historical Society. As a history buff born and raised in Iowa City, Kaeding wanted the restaurant’s title to be an ode to local folklore.

“As a nod to Burch and the university, we kind of wanted to deify him in kind of a fun way by giving him sainthood,” Kaeding said.

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About the Contributor
Parker Jones, Managing Editor
Parker Jones is the Managing Editor at The Daily Iowan. She is a senior at the University of Iowa majoring in journalism and cinema with a minor in art. Previously, she was an arts editor, an arts reporter, and a digital producer for the DI.