by Sylvia Blair
In the town of Orrtanna, halfway between Gettysburg and Chambersburg, curious drivers pull over, park their cars and meander into an iconic place that celebrates the allure of elephants. The large, life-sized elephant statue in the front garden attracts about 125,000 visitors a year from around the country to 6019 Chambersburg Road (U.S. 30 East), where the fun begins.
Mister Ed’s Elephant Museum & Candy Emporium delights people of all ages with elephant of many shapes and sizes, collectibles, homemade fudge and candy, fresh-roasted jumbo peanuts and a whimsical garden outdoor experience that completes the adventure. A Pez candy dispenser collection for sale is the largest of its kind on the East Coast. And a private collection is also on display.
In the past five years, business revenue has doubled and the establishment has shown steady growth consecutively each year.
A tourist destination as well as a family-oriented local attraction, Mister Ed’s also has more than 12,000 elephants made of crystal, wood, ceramics and every imaginable texture. All are displayed in the museum. Visitors make a quick turn as they walk into the attached museum, in which glass-encased displays show off the artificial creatures, who sport their long trunks and happy grins.
Founder Ed Gotwalt and his wife, Pat, married in Salisbury, Md., in 1967. For a wedding present, the couple received an elephant statue for good luck. They honeymooned in Williamsburg, Va., and picked up a few more collectible elephants. Once Mr. Ed started the collection, he was hooked.
Mr. Ed’s granddaughter Nicole Bucher said: “He always thought elephants were amazing animals and very family-oriented. He identifies with their nature and with their ability to bond with one another because he loves his family so much.”
As he traveled, he bought more elephants. When the collection got out of hand and overtook the house, Pat asked him to move the little darlings somewhere else, and he added them to a general store he opened in 1975 about three miles down the road from his house. At that time, the collection was 3,000 elephants strong. Many community members, intrigued by the idea, donated elephants of every size and style.
“The fun grew as my grandfather created a character that he personified with a cowboy hat, a vest and a warm, inviting smile,” said Nicole.
In 1983, expensive building repairs forced the business to close. The following year, Mister Ed, Pat, and their son Michael found an abandoned property and opened the Mister Ed’s Elephant Museum in its current location, with jewelry, a hoagie stand, candy and, of course, elephants.
Mister Ed, age 83, and Pat are now officially retired and live next door to the store. Nicole owns the current business with her husband, Isaac Bucher, who is the manager. The couple became the third-generation owners in 2014. Nicole’s mother passed away in 2008.
In 2010, a fire destroyed the building and everything inside except for a side building truck and the museum. About 2,000 elephants were destroyed. It took time, funds, and much grit and determination to rebuild back into today’s shopping and browsing experience. The town’s community members pitched in by contributing countless elephants to build up the inventory once again. They also helped to clean up the damaged elephants, with some folks using toothbrushes to yield an excellent sheen of clean.
Isaac said that the business philosophy is not to say they have already made it to the top. In fact, he emphasizes that they continually grow.
Modernizing has been a hallmark of the couple’s vision, as new ideas blend a love and respect for the historical business with new business opportunities. They now have a catalog with 249 flavors of fudge, with peanut butter as the No. 1 favorite and chocolate as No. 2.
At the store, Isaac started a fudge fundraiser, which has raised $20,000 in 2018 for local organizations. The husband-and-wife team know there is a symbiotic relationship with the community. “We give back money and time and auction donations,” Isaac said.
A kitchen and a wholesale business are located downstairs in the facility, where they make fresh fudge from scratch to sell to retailers and visitors’ centers around the region. The operation manufactured 20 tons of fudge last year.
A Reputation for Community Service
Mister Ed’s holds several free events for children, including an Easter egg hunt and bunny party, S’more Summer Party, Great Pumpkin Party, and Santa Party. Isaac, a former teacher, has also added an educational twist with his “Pachyderm Points.” These bits of educational information about elephants include the lifespans of various species and offer an opportunity to learn more about an animal which most people can only see at a zoo. The couple donates to an elephant sanctuary in Tennessee to help preserve these creatures.
Praise for Mr. Ed’s
Meredith Lawler, a local customer for over 10 years, visits the store with her children. They buy loose candy in bins by the bucket-full.
“We have purchased anything from wasabi peas to fudge, to crazy socks to elephants,” she said. “The newest thing we most recently purchased was homemade peanut butter. We are fortunate to have the business in our community,” she said.