Today is National Squirrel Appreciation Day. While the clever little rodents are ubiquitous in urban and suburban settings today, that was not always so. According to an April 2014 Style Weekly article by Ned Oliver, until the mid-19th century, the bushy-tailed chatterboxes did not venture far beyond the deep woods of the countryside. So far as can be determined, in Richmond’s Capitol Square there have been squirrels at least since America celebrated its centennial in 1876.
Where did they come from, you ask? It may surprise some to learn that today’s Capitol Square squirrels can trace part of their ancestry to the U. S. West Coast. In Virginia, even fuzzy four-legged creatures warrant a genealogy! An October 1878 article in the Daily Dispatch reports on two California squirrels brought to the square for release. Squirrels from the square went on to help populate many of Richmond’s other city parks.
A search of our Virginia Chronicle digital newspaper archive reveals that Richmond’s newspaper scribes devoted a fair amount of column space to the furry little nut stashers over the decades of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Whether reporting on their injuries, antics, or misbehavior, these articles on Capitol Square’s squirrels must have proven popular with readers.
In the 1950s and 1960s, another mass communication outlet caught on to their popularity. When Richmond’s WRVA radio station was located adjacent to Capitol Square in the old Hotel Richmond (now the Barbara Johns Office Building), it featured an on-air character called Capitol Squirrel, who provided a “provocative thought for the day” about a variety of topics. The Library of Virginia holds recordings (now digitized) of Capitol Squirrel’s segments as part of its WRVA collection.
Anyone who has ever spent time in Capitol Square knows how the feisty little fur balls have become accustomed to humans. They have most certainly learned if they took their eye off their lunch for two seconds. Such orneriness is only partially their fault though, since visitors to the square have been feeding them and their ancestors for more than a century. One of the Library’s long-time staff members, Bob Clay, often lunched in Capitol Square in good weather and was (inevitably) bitten one day while feeding a squirrel. Bob memorialized that experience in a quilt he was sewing during that same year. The quilt included a square depicting a human hand with a wounded finger and a squirrel.
While they do not make headlines like their forbearers and they bedevil our birdfeeders, in their absent-mindedness, squirrels are nature’s fuzzy little tree army. Researchers estimate that squirrels do not dig up 74% of the nuts that they bury, and many of those forgotten snacks grow into trees. So, as a young squirrel scurries up an oak, beech, or walnut today in some sylvan setting, they can credit their great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandparent for probably sowing the seed…unless they forget.