If you didn’t know it was there, it would be easy to drive right past the Swetsville Zoo. Only the tippy tops of the castle towers and a wiry sculpture peek above Harmony Road from the sloped driveway next to a Costco. But things were a lot different when owner Bill Swets and his family first began farming here.
“In ‘42 when we came here … Harmony Road was just a dirt path,” Swets said as traffic roared above his head. “We had this farm — and a ranch — just below the south dam, and we’d run our cows back and forth with horses. Yeah, it sounds impossible but that’s the way it was.”
As things changed around his farm, Swets began changing the landscape within it as well. And it all began with a little bird made of scrap metal.
“That’s what started the whole thing,” he said pointing out the strange looking, long-legged bird. “The neighbor had one that he picked up at a garage sale or something. And I saw it and I thought, ‘Now that’s cute.’ So I come home and build it. And thought, shoot, there ain’t no trick to this.”
One sculpture turned into two. Two turned into ten. Now, 35 years later, the Swetsville Zoo is home to more than 180 crazy creations ranging from a life-sized giraffe to a two-headed dragon to a ten-seater bicycle. There are even several spaceships that Swets joked are fueled by “moonbeams.”
When asked how he comes up with all these things, Swets said insomnia helps.
“My mind never quits, and a lot of this stuff shows up at two o’clock in the morning,” he said. “I’ll wake up and I’ll have it all figured out.”
All the sculptures — like the VW bug converted into a real bug and suspended over a picnic table — are made of recycled parts, mostly from cars and farm equipment.
“I’m not saying ‘junk,’” Swets laughed pointing to the dragons that stand guard at the zoo’s entrance. “Like the main body of this was a big truck rear end. And the legs are off of the front suspension off of a pickup truck and the heads are oil pans off an engine.”
An estimated 15,000 people visit the Swetsville Zoo each year. There’s no admission fee, only a box for donations if people are feeling generous. And the gate is open daily - from sunup to sundown.
Swets said he never considered charging admission.
“You know, this is supposed to be a hobby,” he said, chuckling. “This isn’t a business. So it’s always just been that way.”
But now it looks like the sun is setting on the Swetsville Zoo. On the corner of the lot, in the shadow of the neighboring Costco store, sits a “For Sale” sign.
Two years ago, Swets had a heart attack. He said it’s been harder to work on the sculptures since then. And as developments pop up all around the zoo, he sees the writing on the wall.
“We’re intercity now, it’s not home anymore,” he said. “You know it’s just not fun anymore. Well, you can see Costco, Wal-Mart. I mean, I’m getting pushed out. And I’m tired. I’m tired.”
“It’s kind of sad. It’s really sad.”
Shannon Mericle, of Eaton, said it was sad to learn the zoo is going away. After years of driving past it, she finally recently visited it for the first time with her 2-year-old twins Carson and Judi Lynn.
“The kids are at an age where they get amused by stuff like this and they’re thrilled,” she said, watching them play with a giant wind chime.
It’s not just kids that enjoy the zoo.
It’s been awhile since Ken and Jennifer Weigel had been to the zoo. The Eaton couple brought their three grandchildren to see the sculptures.
“I hope it goes to somebody that keeps it,” Jennifer Weigel said. “This has been a landmark for a while, for as long as I can remember so definitely a piece of history. (They) need to find some kind of foundation or something that would preserve it.”
Swets said he hopes to find a good home for his sculptures, too. He’d like to donate them to a park or a museum, somewhere where they can continue to be enjoyed. But he’s also realistic about their future.
“I’d like to see them all together but my gosh, there’s 180 of them suckers, you know?” he said. “So, it might be two or three parks. I don’t know. I don’t know. Time will tell.”
As Swets sees it, the zoo that bears his name has been a wonderful part of his life for 34 years. Now it’s time for a new chapter. And there’s no sense in worrying about what you can’t control.
It’s kind of like one of his sculptures, a take on the traditional wishing well called the “Worry Well.” The sign on it sums up why he created the zoo all those years ago.
“We want your visit here to be uplifting and happy so throw all of your worries, depression, hurtful thoughts, unpleasant moods, negative ideas, unhappiness, etc. etc. in here and enjoy yourself and everyone around you.”