«Reproduced from Material Gathered for a Book on the Folklore of the State Issued Irregularly, at Least Once Each Month by the FEDERAL WRITERS' ...»
NEBRASKA FOLKLORE PAMPHLETS
Reproduced from Material Gathered for a Book on the Folklore of the State Issued Irregularly, at
Least Once Each Month by the FEDERAL WRITERS' PROJECT IN NEBRASKA Prepared in
Cooperation With the State Superintendent of Public Instruction
These tales have been collected from old newspapers, other publications, and pioneer
contributions. They have been titled, edited, and reconstructed as occasion seemed to demand.
The stories taken from The Prairie Schooner and The Nebraska Farmer are offered by permission of these publications.
THE MYSTERIOUS LAKE MONSTERSince long before the time of Old Jules, a monster sea-serpent has inhabited Alkali (Walgren) Lake a few miles southeast of Hay Springs. He is one of the few inland sea serpents in the world.
Sometime down through the years, possibly to distinguish him from other sea serpents known for their phenomenal performances, he acquired the name of Giganticus Brutervious.
So formidable is Giganticus that when he comes to the surface of the water, the earth trembles, and the skies cloud over. Those who have been brave enough and strong enough to endure a glance at him say that his flashing green eyes spit fire, that with a head like a huge oil barrel, he looks like something one sees in a very bad dream, and that the least movement of his big pointed ears causes a tempest on the lake.
As he rears and flips his powerful tail, the farmers become seasick for miles around. When he comes ashore to devour his daily ration of a dozen calves, a mist arises so thick that travelers cannot make their way through it, and his flashing eyes color the mist a murky green. The gnashing of his teeth sounds like clap after clap of thunder.
Unbelievers sometimes shake their heads at these tales told of Giganticus, but there is scarcely a fisherman of northwestern Nebraska who will not vouch for the truth of Giganticus' existence.
Once an Omaha skeptic decided to learn the truth. He went out alone to spend a night at Walgren Lake. Next morning he staggered into Hay Springs haggard and worn. His hair had turned white. Not until three days later, when he had regained his voice, was he able to tell what he saw. He said that the monster was 300 feet long, and that when it yawned, the opening of its mouth was large enough to hold the Woodmen of the World Building.
Others estimate the monster's length at 100 feet though a Grand Island paper said: "No one who has seen it estimates its length at over 20 feet." However this may be, all agreed that he swallowed a small island that used to be in the lake.
1 Many efforts to capture him have been made without avail; bullets from high-powered rifles bounce from his hide. At one time, a concerted action was considered to catch the monster. The townspeople estimated the cost of dragging the lake at approximately $1,000. The landowners however asked $4000 for a three month's lease of the lake and adjacent land, and the Investigation Association would not agree to this price.
Giganticus has not been seen lately. Some say that bored with life, he has gone through the bottom of the lake into hibernation in some underground retreat.
Some think this amphibious monster resembling a prehistoric dinosaur has turned into a mermaid because a mermaid was found frozen in the ice. The inhabitants of the lake shores are glad the mermaid was captured for as everyone knows, fish will not thrive or propagate in water infested with mermaids.
Since the time of the first settlements around Alkali Lake, stories have been extant concerning a monster which inhabited the lake. The stories spread far, reaching foreign countries in both picture and tale. The following is a quotation from The London Times. "By far the most vivid picture of the actions and features of a medieval monster which for three years has been terrifying the natives of the vicinity of Alkali Lake near the small town of Hay Springs, Nebraska, U.S.A., was received by our Omaha, Nebraska correspondent, today."
Old Jules complained that the New York papers were full of accounts of the monster's depredations and atrocities. He says, "Eastern people don't know better. They may believe them." However, he found the stories entertaining, as may be seen from the following quotation from Old Jules: "Alkali Lake, near Hay Springs, where the early sky pilots dipped their converts, was inhabited by a sea monster--with a head like an oil barrel, shiny black in the moonlight.
Some thought it a survival of the coal age. But Johnny Burrows and other fundamentalists of the Flats knew better. The same devil that scattered the fossil bones over the earth to confound those of little faith could plant a sea monster among the sinners.
"'Real estate must be moving slow on the Flats,' Jules laughed. When Andy came in, he asked if he had seen anything of the monster. The little grub-line rider took the jew's harp from between his leathery lips. 'No, cain't say's I has, but I seen lots o' the stuff them fellahs as sees 'im drinks.'" The correspondent mentioned in the London Times is a doubtless John G. Maher of Lincoln who
explains this and other yarns, such as the Petrified man and The Minnick-Fit Springs, as follows:
"The East felt a great interest in the far West with its Indian fighters, its unexplored territory, its bad lands, and wonders of nature. There was a great demand for stories and a few things to write about so, for an inventive mind there was nothing to do but make up the stories."
The local people believed in the actual existence of the monster, though the Hay Springs investigation Association was possibly organized chiefly as a money-making venture. The dragging of the lake, which was the Association's purpose, would have attracted many thousand sightseers to the spot, and admission could be charged. The owners of land, aware of this, asked
2 so high a figure for leasing the ground that the enterprise was abandoned.
Mr. J.E. Gilmore of Hay Springs says that "letters were received from all parts of the world regarding the sea monster. One expert fisher from California wanted to make a trip to try to capture the animal, and some of the people here were ready to put on the show; the conservatives, however, did not want the thing carried too far."
THE PETRIFIED MAN
One day in the year 1892, Ed Rossiter and his brother were digging for fossils in the bad lands where students from the University of Nebraska had previously dug. In the course of his digging, Ed encountered something hard, and found it to be the hand of a man. He called his brother, Clyde, to guard the discovery, while he himself set off to Chadron for help. A party returning from Chadron dug up the body and loaded it on a wagon and took it to town. That night, after partially washing the clay from the body, they placed it on exhibition at the Rossiter Hotel.
The body weighed almost 700 pounds. It was in perfect condition except for two fingers on the right hand, the right ear, the point of the nose, and a portion of the abdomen. The eyes were closed, and a look of pain distorted the countenance. Parted lips exposed two teeth. The body lay on the right side, legs drawn up slightly in a natural sleeping position, the arms folded across the breast. Finger nails and toe nails were perfect, as were the wrinkles and pores of the skin.
The face resembled that of a Negro, although the arch of the foot and the shapely heel appeared Caucasian.
No human skeleton has ever been found in so early a geologic formation. It lay solidly imbedded in a green stratum of Miocene clay. The body must originally have been 200 feet below the surface. Above the green stratum, the face of the cliff showed twenty-four strata of sedimentary deposits, indicating the immense antiquity of the find. There were also three layers of rock above this stratum; one of agate, the others of sandstone. Local geologists thought this stratum was deposited at least a million years before. In all probability, the man was buried while the deposit was yet soft. There were no signs of volcanic disturbance in the area, nor had a landslide in modern geologic times buried the victim. Such a landslide would have disturbed the stratum where the body lay.
Doubtless the search for fossils near Chadron inspired the story of The Petrified Man. To satisfy the imaginations of visiting Easterners, this hoax was perpetrated, surprising not only the Easterners but native Nebraskans as well.
We quote Mr. John G. Maher: "I brought in a huge negro private from Fort Robinson as a model, and a very clever craftsman from Chadron made a cement body of a man, filling in the arches of the feet to make them flat like a pre-historic specimen and making the figure so exact that even the hairs showed on his shins. He lay in a position of repose, arms crossed over the chest. We hauled him out in a dray wagon and buried him in the bad lands not far from where Professor Hatcher of the Smithsonian Institute was conducting some explorations. We so planted him that 3 rain would wash enough away from his position to incite interest, and then after a spell of 'favorable' weather, one Sunday afternoon the archaeologists found him. It was a marvelous discovery, and after much investigation, Professor Hatcher pronounced him a petrified man. He was exhibited all over the country in the street fairs and carnivals and was finally sold for $4,500.
Mr. Daniel Webster Sperling of Chadron took him 'on tour,' and finally laid him to rest after he had paid his way on this earth in a vault in an Illinois town and from where we hoped to move him to Nebraska again, but found upon inquiry, that Illinois people wanted to charge a dollar a year for his 'keep' and that plus the freight charges would be more than he was worth. That story provided me with columns for weeks."
So freakish are cyclones, as every westerner knows, that it takes a real storyteller to make a tall tale out of a cyclone story. We offer the following tales with their introduction, but with our own titles, by permission of The Prairie Schooner in which publication these yearns appeared several years ago.
CYCLONE YARNS (George L. Jackson)
People of the effete east, do not, as a rule, understand the tornadoes of the "States of the Plains."
When New Englanders or New Yorkers read newspaper accounts of a western tornado in which straws are alleged to have been driven through trees, or the feathers plucked from a flock of chickens, they are inclined to raise their doubts as to the reporter's veracity.
Natives of the prairie states are numerous indeed who can vouch for the truthfulness of all the reported "freaks of the storm." Scientists have painstakingly investigated much meteorological data that tend to show conclusively that the "fishy" sounding newspaper stories are not the figments of disordered minds but rather are true incidents and of fairly common occurrence.
Although this article is entitled "Cyclone Yarns," the title is misleading. The events mentioned here are not "yarns" but are "gospel truths," each one being supported by authentic and scientific investigations. And although the term "cyclone" is used, this being the common terminology of the midwesterner, the true technical name for such an atmospheric phenomenon is "tornado."
A WHIRLWIND WITH A PERSONALITY
On April 30, 1888, a cyclone passed over Howard County, Nebraska. This cyclone was not of the mass of windstorms but was a whirlwind with a personality. The idiosyncrasy of the twister was its avidity for water. Every well, stream, and watering trough that happened to be in its path was sucked dry of its moisture and left as parched as if on the Sahara. Some wells were dry for weeks; the water in the creeks flowed into the dusty sands never to be seen again; even the cows for several days gave never a drop of milk.
On July 12, 1900, a cyclone with distinct uprooting proclivities passed near Onawa, Iowa. Trees, grass, corn, alfalfa, every form of vegetation in its path was uprooted and left, for the most part, in tangled heaps and windrows. Striking exceptions were noted. One old oak had been uprooted without a leaf or twig being injured, carried through the air, and balanced upright on the roof of a barn over two miles away. Twenty bird's nests were counted in the tree but not an egg or a fledgling had been disturbed.
RIDING IN THE SKY
On the evening of May 7, 1903, a cyclone passed near the town of Valley Falls, Kansas. A farm woman of the community was just on the point of mounting her horse to go after the cows in a pasture a mile and a half away. As she raised her foot to the stirrup, the storm struck, and the good woman was hurled hundreds of feet into the air. For a moment, she soared about in the skies as gracefully as a dove on the wing. Soon her horse appeared at her side. She grasped the saddle horn and climbed on. A few moments later, horse and rider were set down, unhurt, among the cows in the pasture.
AN EXCELLENT BRUSH
Near the end of a sultry afternoon on August 16, 1910, a tornado passed near Hartwell, Nebraska.
An agent for a patented scrub brush was demonstrating a sample of his wares at the door of a farm home when the storm struck, whirling him in the air, and removing, with the exception of the house, every stock and straw from the premises. The last gust of the storm dropped the agent once more at the farm house door. "As I was saying," he began, "This brush is a regular cyclone.
It sweeps clean and does a thorough job."
On June 6, 1912, a cyclone passed over Stillwell, Oklahoma. One of the early settlers in the community had dug a wide deep well and had curbed the walls with pieces of native rock.