Over the years I have passed the Sugar Valley Church of the Brethren numerous times, but had never stopped. Located in the collection of buildings known as Eastville is a cemetery that is the resting place of many local residents. On a recent trip through Sugar Valley, I noticed a stone I had somehow never realized was there. Located at the edge of the cemetery, just yards off East Winter Road, the stone definitely catches the attention of those passing the cemetery.
I walked over to the stone and studied the marker. The otherwise normal-looking stone was guarded on each side by stone lions. Across the top of the headstone was engraved the name “Prince El Kigordo.” Beneath the title, were the names Jared Reaser and Leota Grimes Reaser with their birth and death dates.
“Did you know The Prince?” a voice startled me. I’m not sure where the older gentleman had come from, but he was walking towards me from the direction of the church.
“No,” I answered.
“He was something,” the gentleman spoke as he stepped up next to me and stared at the memorial. “He was quite a character when he was alive. The Prince was a natural born performer and he had a great sense of humor.”
Prince El Kigordo was born Jared Reaser in Buttonwood, Pennsylvania, a small gathering of homes north of Williamsport on October 31, 1910. Note: There has been some debate on his date of birth. While most state it was in 1910, his birth certificate states he was born October 31, 1916.
At a young age, he was sent to work at a farm in Sugar Valley, just west of the Church of the Brethren. Note: According to some accounts, Jared claimed he was sold by his parents to the farmer and his wife. I’m not sure if he was actually sold or if he was just sent to work on the farm. Whichever the case, he spent his childhood and youth living and working on the farm.
It was while working at this farm that he would meet his future wife, Leota Grimes. Though she was from Carroll, she and her family worshiped at the Church of the Brethren. After their marriage, they remained connected to the region, and especially to the congregation.
“He taught himself everything he knew about training and working with his cats. It was then that he took the name Prince El Kigordo.” According to newspaper accounts, the title Prince was an authentic one, because his father was of Spanish royalty who married his American-born mother. Note: I’m not completely sure when Jared began working with lions. The earliest announcement I could find in newspapers is from the August 7, 1952 edition of the Adams County Free Press (Corning, Iowa). The show was billed as “Prince Ki’ Gordo and his Educated Jungle Beasts.”
Jared spent more than thirty years entertaining people of all ages as he traveled the country with numerous circuses. At one time he held the record for having the most African lions in a cage with him at once with a total of eleven lions in the cage.
However, one article tells of the dangers associated with working with lions. “He (Reaser) has claw-marks, bites and bruises by the score that proves the old adage that wild animals may be trained, but they are never tamed.”
In January 1954, Reaser would chime in on “The Critter of Cogan House Township.” In the opening days of 1954, large cat tracks had been discovered in the area of Bobst Mountain and in late January, an organized hunt was prepared. Between six and seven hundred people had registered to scour the mountain in search of the beast. As the hunt was being prepared, Reaser arrived home from touring. He informed residents that black panthers do not exist and the large tracks were probably from a mountain lion that was passing through.
Note: The “critter” was reported in the regional newspapers as being a black panther, but nowhere did I encounter it actually being seen. All the reports of the “critter” merely mention that large cat tracks had been discovered. I believe the hunt for the “critter” was supposed to be a fund-raising event, because all participants had to pay a registration fee and a three-hundred-dollar prize would be handed out if somebody bagged it. If the hunters were suddenly aware that there was no large black cat to be bagged, I imagine this information affected the turn-out.
In 1959, Jared was mauled twice, both times by the same lion, the three-year-old Caeser, once while performing in Massachusetts and later that year in Vancouver. At this time he was billed as being “African-born, from Williamsport, PA, and by 1966, he was being billed as “an Indian animal trainer.”
In the June 19, 1961 edition of The Casper Star-Tribune (Casper, Wyoming) Reaser states his belief when it comes to working with large cats – “A well-trained lion is one who respects, but does not fear his trainer.” He trained the lions with respect and in turn the lions did respect him. They did not perform due to being afraid of him. Rather than using guns that fired blanks, large whips, and yelling at the cats, Reaser used a short stick, a riding whip and communicated with his cats in a soft voice.
Jared kept his home in Williamsport, keeping the lions in South Williamsport during the circus’ off season. By 1971, Reaser had stopped touring, but he could not give up the lions he loved and worked with all those years. Instead of turning them over to a new trainer or a zoo, he kept the lions near Mountain Beach Park. Jared continued to be a part of the Eastville community, attending services there and visiting his wife’s grave. After his death on January 9, 2000, he was laid to rest next to her.
The elderly man finished his stories and stared across the open fields. “You know the circus used to stop from time to time after he died. Don’t think they’ve stopped in a while now.” He paused for a moment. “I don’t think too many people stop anymore.”
I thanked the gentleman for the stories and information he shared. As he walked back towards the church, I finished paying my respects to “The Prince” before I too left him resting in the silence of the valley.