Vol. IV, No. 3, Winter 1991



Improving the Facts

Lore, legend, and tall tales

By Robert Gilmore



Ozarks hunters don't lie. Granted, some of them might enhance the truth from ti me to time in order to communicate more graphically their own hunting skills or perhaps to demonstrate the intelligence of their coon dogs or fox hounds. It's possible that, occasionally, hunters might ornament their observations so as to make a point about the abundance or size or cleverness or ferocity of the game they pursue. But I'm afraid folklorist Vance Randolph may have slandered Ozarkers when he gave one of his books the unfortunate title, We Always Lie to Strangers.

Lies, I believe, exist mainly in the perceptions of small-minded people whose creative vision is so limited that they can't appreciate the artistic beauty and communicative value of an occasional embellishment of verity. Let me illustrate.

The Ozark Headliner of December 27, 1990, carried a story and a picture about Clell Harding and a deer which he had bagged. This Christian County, Missouri weekly was following an Ozarks newspaper tradition of running pictures of successful hunters and their trophies. (One issue of the Branson Beacon Taney County, Missouri, devoted 4 pages to printing 147 such photographs).

Clell had been hunting deer for many years, it seems, but had never shot one. On the second day of the 1990 deer season, however, he was enjoying a cup of coffee under a tree in Douglas County, when a 10-point buck stumbled out of the brush and stopped about fifteen feet from him. Clell calmly put his coffee cup down, picked up his gun, got a bead on the deer and fired, but, according to the Headliner, "missed as usual."

The story continues, "The shot startled the deer and it ran straight toward Clell, seemingly unaware of the direction the shot had been fired from.

"The deer crashed head-long into the tree Clell was leaning against--breaking its neck instantly."

Agents at the Conservation Department check point determined that the buck was 15 years old and had been blind since birth.

Not a bad story, but it would get better. Clell went on to improve the facts just a bit by insisting that when he first saw the blind deer, it was wearing dark glasses and carrying a white sapling in its mouth, presumably to assist it around the forest. And sure enough, the picture of Clell and the deer in the back of his pickup truck shows the deer wearing dark glasses.

Now who, but a shallow-minded, unimaginative skeptic, would dare suggest that Clell had lied?

Dogs were very important in the early Ozarks. Gottfried Duden, writing about the northern Ozarks in the 1820s, said "One cannot live here without dogs," and a frontier woman writing to her sister in Kentucky allowed that "The men and dogs have a fine time, but we poor women have to suffer." Schoolcraft wrote that "A very high value is set upon a good dog by the hunter, and they are sought with the greatest avidity."
Hunters still place a high value upon a good dog, and the smarter a dog is, the more useful he is to the hunter. One dog was so smart that when his master got down a shotgun, the dog would go right out and point quail. When the rifle came out of the closet, the dog would run out and tree a squirrel, and if the hunter set out a lantern and started filling it with coal oil, that old dog would set out for a hollow tree to look for a possum. And when that dog saw his owner haul out a fishing pole, he would grab an empty tin can out of the trash pile and head out to dig worms.

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Another fellow had a dog that specialized in coons. The fellow would show the dog a tanning board, the dog would glance at it, then run off and tree a coon whose hide was the exact size of that board. Show him a little bigger board, a little smaller board, that dog always found a coon that would just fit. Fellow's wife, though, one day brought out her ironing board and leaned it up against the wall. The dog studied it for a long time before he took out. Fellow says he hasn't seen the dog since. He figures the dog will come in soon as the finds a coon big enough to fit that ironing board.

I'd tell you some more stories about dogs but I don't want to go too fast for some skeptics, who may not have lived in the Ozarks long enough to understand just how smart a good dog can be.

Something that is difficult to imagine is just how much wild game there was in the Ozarks in earlier days. Schoolcraft in his journey through the Ozarks in 1818 listed elk, deer, wild turkey, grey squirrel, ducks, geese, swans, prairie hen, beaver, racoon, buffalo, bear, and panthers among the wildlife his party observed. Members of the Schoolcraft party were not very good marksmen, however, and their guns "not well adapted to killing deer and bear." Margaret Gilmore Kelso wrote of quail so plentiful that families saved the feathers and made feather beds of them, of passenger pigeons that set on limbs "as close as grapes on the vine, and at times would break the trees almost to the ground," and of wild ducks and prairie chickens by the thousands.
In the northern Ozarks, at about the sametime Schoolcraft was admiring but not shooting much game, Samuel Cole was using his old flintlock with great accuracy. "I killed five bear just below the town where Boonville now stands and killed twenty-two bears in three days. I killed four elks in less than one hour's time."

With this kind of extravagent abundance existing in reality, improving the truth becomes a challenge.

We all know, for example, that ducks used to migrate in huge flocks and they'd fly really high. There were some young men who used to go duck hunting with a rifle, and they'd always take along a shovel and mattock. They'd get up on top of a hill and wait till a flock of ducks flew overhead. There'd be so many ducks, and they'd be flying so close together, that a single rifle bullet fired into the flock would hit five or six of them (not ten or twelve, now that would be lying). They would be flying so high and they'd fall to earth with such force that they would bury themselves in the ground, and would have to be dug up with the shovel and mattock. Sometimes they were so high it was important to impregnate the bullets with salt, to preserve the meat during the long journey down.

Do you see what I mean? It's one thing to say that there were lots of birds and they were flying very high, but this story graphically answers the questions, "How many?" and "How high?"

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Sometimes its hard to improve on the facts, because the facts themselves are so extraordinary, but the Ozarker is up to the challenge. In November, 1943, during a heavy rainstorm, a large flock of geese flying high over Galena in Stone County, Missouri, was struck by lightning, or perhaps stunned by the concussion waves caused by lightning. At any rate a large number of them fell from the sky and were picked up by local people. The number that fell was popularly put at around 300, although the director of the Missouri Conservation Commission doubted that the number exceeded 150, and said that only 77 could be definitely accounted for.

Some contemporary accounts said the air was full of charred feathers for 15 or 20 minutes after the geese fell. It was reported that one woman plucked a goose after she had picked it up and found it was still hot and smoking and roasted to perfection. She took it home and served it at once to her happy family.

There were those who discounted the lightning bolt explanation of the great goose fall. One man claimed that he had killed all 300 of them himself, with his long range goose gun. He fired both barrels at the geese, he said, as they passed over his hilltop farm, but they were flying so high and so fast that their momentum carried them clear on to another farm over in the river bottom before they fell.

Did you ever consider how much a jackrabbit looks like a mule--the long ears, the sharp backbone? Did you ever stop to wonder why? Compared to regular cottontails, jackrabbits really look big. There were some folks in a small community that had never seen a jackrabbit before, and when a boy brought in one that he had killed by chunking a rock at it, they were really astounded. That rabbit stood six hands high at the shoulders, Vance Randolph tells us, and when they hung it up in front of the butcher shop, "everybody that come along just looked at it, with their eyes sticking out like doorknobs."

Pretty soon though, there were other jack rabbits and they kept growing and getting bolder and meaner. They gnawed off fenceposts to get into the corn, and when one man went to call his hogs the rabbits would come arunning and chase the pigs right out of the lot. They got so big they started breeding with mares all over the country, and some of those mares were foaling colts with feet like rabbits. "Lots of them was nothing but undersized mules, and no great harm done, but some of these colts was fertile. They would just breed around promiscuous with jennies and mares and rabbits and whatever come handy. Pretty soon the whole caboodle was all mixed up, till a fellow didn't know what kind of stock he was raising."

Fortunately, all of a sudden the animals took sick (rabbit fever), and many of them died, and after a big snowfall the folks went out and killed the rest of them off with shotguns.

But even so, those big jackrabbits left their genetic imprint. "Everybody knows that Missouri mules are not like other mules. And several of the old-timers still believe that maybe them big rabbits had something to do with it."

Many fish stories, I admit, need to be approached with some scepticism. Some of the tales about the giant catfish, Old Blue, in the Lake of the Ozarks, for instance, do not have the credibility of the other examples cited in this article. I find it difficult to believe the assertion that once when Old Blue was removed from the Lake, the water level dropped 18 feet, leaving docks, marinas, and boats stranded far from shore. Perhaps that is an error in transcription, and the correct figure is 18 inches. I can accept that as an appropriate enhancement of the unadorned assertion that "Old Blue was a very big catfish."

There are big catfish in the James River too, so big they can be saddled and straddled like a broncho and ridden right up on a gravel bar. Bass a foot between the eyes are barely keepers, and sixteen pound crappies are routinely caught on four pound crickets. The fish are so eager that a person has to hide behind a bush while he baits his hook. And while we don't see many of them any more, some of the smaller streams of the Ozarks used to develop "bass jams." There were so many fish they would jam up sometimes, like logs, and the warden would have to walk out once in a while and blast them loose with dynamite.

Many Ozarks fishermen still don't use any tackle--they just row along the shore and string the bass as fast as they jump into the boat. Of course bass jump into the boat. No less an authority than The WPA Guide to 1930s. Missouri contained this information about "jumping" and "bumping" bass when the Guide was published in 1941:

In night "jumping," the boat, with a light in it, is allowed to drift along the edge of the weeds. The feeding bass and "skipjacks," believing themselves trapped between boat and bank may jump into the boat. In "bumping," a boat preferably 20 to 25 feet long is run upstream, the stern against the bank, the bow outward at an angle of about 30 degrees. The boatman slaps the half-muddied water between boat and bank sharply with the flat of his paddle. Often, bass that have taken refuge in the weeds will jump into the boat. Yes, fishing is mighty good in the Ozarks. You just have to be a mite careful though, about believing everything a fisherman tells you.

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There is conventional wisdom in the Ozarks that "the hills ain't so high but the valleys sure are deep." Some of those valleys are pretty narrow, too. Randolph tells of some so close that hounds have to follow a fox in single file and learn to wag their tails up and down instead of sideways. Hunting deer in these hilly places is pretty tough, too. One fellow was chasing a deer and the deer kept going round and round a hill and the fellow could never get close enough to shoot. The fellow got smart and took his gun to a blacksmith and had him bend the barrel to fit the bend of that hill. Next time he saw that deer he banged away at it and the deer went around the hill again but this time the bullet followed it. That deer took out running and circled that hill at least twice with that bullet right after him. Finally the deer got tired and slowed down a little and the bullet caught up with it, and the fellow finally got to take home his deer.

There are some grand stories told about the encounters of mountain men with big mean animals in the Ozarks, often panthers or bears. One such encounter involving a panther and Sam Hudson of Newton County, Arkansas was noted by Earnie Deane. Hudson fought the panther with his bare hands and killed it, although "his right arm was badly torn by the beast's fangs and he carried ugly scars the rest of his life." My favorite hero story was recorded by Vance Randolph, and involves Tobe, "near seven feet tall and weighed three hundred pounds." According to Don Holliday, a Taney County native and SMSU professor, this is an Ozarks version of the Beowulf legend.

A big bear had been getting into the Widow Tarkey's smokehouse and gobbling up everything in sight, so the widow asked Tobe to come over and kill the varmit. Tobe said he would, but he didn't bring a gun. "The bear ain't got no gun, has he? That makes us even, and I aim to fight him fair."

Well Tobe went over and pretty soon the bear came along and broke into the widow's smokehouse, and Tobe ran out there and him and the bear fought something terrible. After while he came back up the path, and the widow asked, "Did you kill the critter? .... I reckon not, ma'am," said Tobe, "but he won't bother your smokehouse no more." And Tobe threw down about fifty pounds of bear meat. He had just pulled one of that bear's legs out by the roots.

Well, they found the bear the next day up in a cave, and he was dead, and he was missing one of his front legs. Some folks thought the whole story was a lie, because they didn't believe any man was stout enough to pull a bear's leg off like that. But the leg was right there, nailed up over the smokehouse door. "That don't prove nothing," said Wes Galbraith, "they got elk horns nailed on the tavern at Pea Ridge, but nobody claims they tore 'em off a live elk bare-handed."

Tobe said folks can believe what they want, it's a free country, he said, but if anybody calls him a liar he will pull their arms and legs off one at a time, right in front of the courthouse. Wes Galbraith didn't have anything more to say after that.

Now maybe you understand why I'm mighty slow to call somebody a liar. Improving the truth is a good old Ozarks custom that is likely to be around for a long time to come.

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