Volume II, No. 2, Winter 1974
A LEGEND IN HIS TIME
One day last spring Dr. Sam Bradford stepped into BITTERSWEET office and looked around approvingly at us so busy at our work. When I saw him at the door, I took time from my work (as others did, also) to talk to him. I have always marvelled at his great knowledge of the Ozark heritage and culture. When we visited with him, he would always tell us something or give us ideas. This time he asked us if we had any plans to do anything on tall tales. We had talked about it some, but had not really decided. His suggestion and enthusiasm was all we needed to spur us on. We set up a visit with him which was everything we had expected--plus some. Aside from his vast knowledge, his wit and charm added just the right touch to his story telling. When we left, Sarah told him that we'd like to come back soon. He replied, "Would you grant me that honor?"
We did not get to go back. He was killed in a tractor accident a few days later while working in his woods. We listened to the news in disbelief. It is not possible for a man like him to die. His retirement to the land that raised him was devoted to keeping alive the stories of the past, telling everyone who would listen--and we kids loved to listen about important and not so important things that happened right here whether they were true or not. Now, Sam Bradford, you are a legend yourself like all those you wrote and told about. The honor is ours to have known you. Now we'd like our readers to know you.
There are all kinds of tall tales when you really get into tall tales. Some of them that are supposed to be tall tales, when you get to asking around, you'll find people that will confirm them, like the cyclone that went through Morgan and cured a bad crick in a man's neck, or when Jesse James helped a farmer pay off a mortgage, then held up the banker on his way to town after collect--ing the money. These things really happened. Now these stories are not like the ones about Jed Hollister, the big man. Of course, nobody expected to believe the things he did. I like to tell the tales about Jed Hollister. He was to the Ozarks what Paul Bunyan was to the Northwoods.
Do you know all those pot holes that they keep trying to fill up here in town? You know, breaks in the pavement? A long, long time ago--no one seemed to know this fellow Jed Hollister, but he must have been quite a character--a long time ago they were having a lifting contest to see which man could lift the most. The strongest men in the country had gathered there to compete in the lifting.
Fourteen men were in the contest. They put lead shot in a sack, and each man would lift it to his shoulders. They'd put some more shot in it. And they'd go around taking turns lifting. As the sack passed half full, men began to drop out or failed to shoulder the sack. Finally there wasn't anybody else left--just one man, Jed Hollister. He said, "Now you get a bed tick."
Now you young folk don't know what a bed tick is? A bed tick, you see--well, it was a mattress cover except for long ago they didn't have mattresses. They'd fill them up with feathers or fill them up with straw. And that was a bed tick. Jed said, "Fill that thing up with shot." They got all their shotguns out and filled that thing up. He spraddled his legs and stooped over to pick it up. His muscles bulged, and his suspenders stretched. The crowd drew closer watch. Then with one big heave he put it on his shoulder and walked around. The dust just smoked up around his ankles and his knees. Everyplace he stepped his feet went right down almost to his knees, just right down through that hard packed earth. They can't even yet heal up those holes he made with his footprints.
Haven't you ever noticed those holes over in the parking lot? And all over town you find those things. Since I've recounted this story a few times I've noticed holes all the way over into western Kansas. He walked all the way over there, and everyplace he went he left his footprints. They just can't keep them covered up.
I remember when I was a boy--I was born and raised about fifteen miles from right where we are, out here on the countryside. I'm an old-timer around here, although I was gone for fifty years. I remember when I was a youngster I loved to listen to stories. We didn't have to television or cars, you see, so I'd get the old folks to talking. They were full of stories about Jed Hollister.
When Jed first came to this country he must have come from Texas because he brought along with him a longhorned steer. And that steer, I suppose his horns must have been twelve feet long and...now one reason the Frisco Railroad came through here was because of those horns. When he came from Texas that longhorned steer had a natural instinct for following grades like a road or railroad had to do. He had a natural instinct. And as he went along, you know how a cow, a steer swings their head while they're grazing, you see, pulling grass up? Well, with those long horns of his, trees, stumps, everything was just cleared out. When he got through, the right-o'-way was cleared and it was on a grade. That's one reason the Frisco came through here. They didn't have to clear a right-o'-way, didn't even have to survey] All they had to do was to follow where that steer had grazed along as far as...clear down to the Arkansas border. Well, if you don't believe it, you just look to see where that railroad is. Isn't it level and cleared? That's evidence enough.
In old times they didn't have any church bells in town. There was a place called Ma's Boarding House, but Pa did most of the work. And it was right across the street from the old courthouse square which is on old Main Street, Main Park, you know? That's where the old courthouse and jail was, and Ma and Pa's boarding house was right across the street from that, cause the well they used was the well that was digged over on the courthouse square. Everybody carried water from that well.
Well, there was a greenhorn from the East that had come out here to get some local color stories and he stopped over there at Ma's Boarding House. And come Sunday, Pa got dressed up in his Sunday clothes, which meant clean overalls and buttoned shoes, and he was ready for church. He was sitting out on the front porch when this greenhorn newspaper writer came out to sit with him. While they were sitting there the church bell began to ring. The greenhorn reporter said, "Pa, what church is that bell ringing from?" And Pa said, "I don't know." He said, "I'm not sure this morning cause sometimes that bell's passed around. Sometimes it's over at the Baptist Church, sometimes over at the Presbyterian Church, sometimes over at the Methodist Church, sometimes over at the Christian Church. You see, over at the Presbyterian Church it's ringing predestination, and over at the Baptist Church it's ringing out safety of the saints, over at the Methodist Church it's ringing out stay out of the water and over at the Christian Church it says push them in." But he said, "I don't know which church it's on now. They pass it around. That church bell doesn't belong to any church in particular. That bell was brought here when Jed Hollister brought his longhorned steer up here from Texas."
He said that the bell was so big and that steer liked to graze at night, you know cattle sometimes do. And he said that it made so much noise that people just couldn't sleep. Of course, Jed Hollister didn't sleep around where the other folk did anyway because he snored so bad. You know, he snored so that sometimes, if he had a cold, the next morning there wouldn't be a leaf on a tree for oh, a quarter mile of where he'd been sleeping. He took a bad cold one time and he snored, and oh, way down toward Marshfield they thought it was a thunderstorm coming for sure.
Finally Jed agreed to take off the bell. Of course, they liked to have Jed Hollister around, cause for example, when he first came it was cold and all of the hills were covered with ice. The people couldn't get out and cut wood. They'd cut down all the trees within easy reach. But the horses couldn't pull on that ice to drag in the trees. The men couldn't walk around for they were just close to freezing. Well, Jed Hollister came in at that time and that steer was so big that he walked and just crumbled the ice under his feet so it didn't bother him. When Jed Hollister came to town, he discovered what was wrong, that they were just about to freeze to death with that ice everywhere. "Well," Jed said, "let's go get wood."
So they went out and he brought his ax. I don't suppose his ax handle was twelve feet long or anything like that, but he went out and with one whack he cut all the trees he wanted. Then he just swung back the other way with the ax and cut off a chunk just long enough for the fireplace. And the tree didn't fall over. The tree just came down, you see. And every time he'd whack it. By the time the tree got down it was all cut in pieces! Well, then they tied ropes and chains around that stuff and he dragged it into town.
The people liked him but they didn't like that steer's bell. So Jed Hollister took the bell off and laid it up against a fence post. Well, it made a good rabbit's nest, but there was no other use for it. Fellows would come around and look it over to see what they could do with it. The fact is a couple fellows had come with chalk and marked it where they could cut it up for plow shares, you know, for moldboards and plow points. But Jed Hollister wouldn't let them do that cause he said, "That's my steer's bell. I might want to make a trip one day and if I make a trip I want to put that bell on him so I'll know where he is when morning comes cause he might drift away a little bit."
Now there was a preacher came to town and there wasn't any bell to ring the people to church. That preacher worried about it. He was laying there one night worrying that the town didn't have a bell to ring the people to church. Every town ought to have a bell to ring the people to church. Jed Hollister's steer was out there grazing. He wasn't bothering anybody cause he didn't have any bell to ring on his neck, but he went along grazing and as he went along one of those rabbits jumped out right behind him and surprised him. He kicked at it and accidentally his foot hit that bell and it rang. That preacher jumped out of bed. He was pulling up his suspenders and buttoning his pants on the way out cause he had heard a bell. Where was that bell? His ear was good, well tuned. He knew the direction, so he raced to where he'd heard the bell and there was that beautiful great big cowbell a-wait-ing.
Well, the community was very glad to have a bell, but where would they put it? Put it on the Baptist building? Well, you couldn't have that ringing Baptist doctrine all the time. No! The Baptist put up a steeple to put it on anyway, but the Presbyterians put up one, too, cause they wanted presestination run, once in a while. The Methodist had wanted to have it rung to keep out of water, and the Christian Church wanted to have something rung to push them in. But they couldn't settle it, until finally they agreed about some sort of a schedule. I never found just what the schedule was. They put that bell up on one church. It'd ring Baptist doctrine for a few Sundays, you see. Then they'd take the bell down and put it on another church. So the first church bell in town was Jed Hollister's cowbell.
You boys like to hunt? Jed Hollister did. Jed was a big hunter. He just loved to hunt. He went out there on one of the ridges just south of town. If you knew just where to look for it, you'd find it yet. There used to be, oh many, many years ago, there used to be a big old post oak stump out there. Now that's where they used to get big post oak trees. That stump was so big that when the tree finally fell down, a fellow plowed up in there and planted a patch of corn inside it. That was where Jed Hollister got chased by a catamount.
You young folk know what a catamount is? A catamount is a mountain cat, just a great big mountain cat. Now this is the biggest one's ever in this country, I guess. Jed Hollister was out hunting, didn't have any gun or anything. He didn't go hunting with a gun very often cause it was more fun to hunt with a stick or something like that. He heard an awful growl and yowl behind him and looked around, and there was that catamount coming right at him. His teeth looked like a picket fence. That was the biggest catamount he'd ever seen in the hills. Jed ran around this tree thinking if he'd get around the tree, the catamount would go on. But he didn't. The catamount came around...came around right after him. And Jed Hollister went around, went around, went around. And pretty soon he was close enough to the catamount's tail that he reached out and got the tail and just as the cat's mouth went past, he stuck his tail in his mouth. Now that catamount went along growling and a-yowling. He was growling, you see, because something was chewing on his tail. And he was howling because it hurt. But he went around and around and around and around and Jed Hollister just sat around and watched it, cause there that cat was chasing himself. You know, it wouldn't turn loose of that thing in front of him that was hurting his tail. So he just went around and around. When he got tired, then he realized what he had done. Well, that catamount was so ashamed that he headed west out across the Kansas prairie. Course going out across that dry country he shrank an awful lot by the time he got to Colorado. There's lots of his kittens out there in Colorado yet though. None of them are as big as he was.
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