Bigfoot in Richland County

When I was a kid I worked at the Scout Camp, and I made friends with an old scoutmaster who was once acquainted with Cy Gatton.  As a young man my friend had camped with his own troop at Gatton Rocks back in the 1930s.

He knew all Cy’s famous stories, loved all his outrageous lies, and was able to approximate Cy’s unique droll performance in a thoroughly entertaining way.  One night it happened that all the scouts were off somewhere and he and I were sitting together by the fireside talking quietly about events in our lives that we would never forget.

He told me that once long ago he had the identical experience with Cy Gatton, that the two of them had a quiet hour when they exchanged meaningful experiences in the light of a campfire.  It was something he would never forget because he felt privileged to have a man so famous as Cy Gatton take him into his confidence and trust him with his secrets.

That night he heard a story that Cy would never dare to tell in front of a crowd.  Though Cy was famous for being a rather fabulous liar, he was taking a quiet offhand moment of truth to tell of something that happened to him that no one would ever believe.

Cyrus Miller Gatton (1863-1938)

He was a comic genius whose gift for storytelling in the age-old American frontier tradition involved convoluted tales with improbable twists of plot told in outrageous exaggeration.

Cy’s Credentials

This fireside conversation took place in 1933, and the encounter that Cy spoke about happened to him when he was a man of about 36—which placed the incident around 1899.

Cy was a well-known naturalist—he was recognized by early conservationists and by life-long professional botanists, horticulturalists and scientists as a man who knew the outdoors very well.  He had seen and could identify nearly every plant, bird, tree, or moth.  He had been fishing his entire life and knew every fish and salamander and insect there was to find in Richland County.  He had been hunting in the woods and fields of Jefferson Township since he was a boy, and knew every track in the woods, every pawprint and spoor and nest and animal den there was to be found.

As a woodsman, as a tracker he was without peers in the woods surrounding the Forks of the Mohican.  He had seen it all, done it all.

That’s why he was so totally dumbfounded and freaked out.  He lowered his voice when he told the story, and he said he only repeated it to a handful of men in his lifetime.

The Telling

It was late summer and the sun was slipping away the day it happened, and Cy was way out on the back of the farm picking himself a bucket full of huckleberries in a small sunny glade tucked in the middle of the forest—a glen that only he knew about.  He was alone at the time because he didn’t want anyone else to know about his secret berry patch, so he always snuck out there when no one was looking.

It was odd, he said, because somehow he had gotten turned around that day on the forest trails he knew so well, and had thought he was lost for a few minutes until he stumbled onto his glen in the woods somehow from a different direction that he thought would even be possible.

He said he should have known right then that it was a day he’d never forget.

The berries were ripe that evening and the bushes were full and Cy bent over and went right to work filling up his bucket, and got so focused in the work he lost track of the evening sun, so it became a race to get the huckleberries picked while there was still enough light to see.

When it came right to the exact moment of twilight he knew his harvest was complete and he stood up tall to orient himself among the shrub brush to find his way for the walk back home.

As he turned and scanned the treeline he caught sight of a man standing about a dozen yards away among the berry bushes.  The man was turning around the same as Cy—scanning the trees—and they both locked eyes at the same moment.

You know how it is—a thousand thoughts run through your mind when you’re startled, and Cy’s overriding emotion at first was a sort of righteous indignation and sense of betrayal because he assumed it was someone from the farm who had followed him out to discover the secret berry patch.

He was about to speak when suddenly it dawned on him that these eyes he was staring at—while they looked so human—were not those of a man.  This big guy he was looking at was covered with hair!  Not like a hermit or a hobo, but furry hair that covered his whole body.

You know how it is that in a moment of crisis a thousand possible escape routes rush through your head all at the same time, and Cy was quickly calculating whether he should bolt toward the river or climb a tree.  He figured somehow he had run into a bear—even though there hadn’t been a bear sighted in Richland County for over 50 years.

And about the moment he had decided he would slowly and purposefully stalk off the field—as he knew was proper when dealing with a bear—that’s exactly what the big hairy creature did.  The creature was easily 9 feet tall.  His eyes were oddly like a man’s, and when he turned to walk away it wasn’t on all fours like a bear, but strolling with arms swinging just like a human…with only a casual glance back at Cy over his shoulder.

Though there are several kinds of wild blueberries that people commonly refer to as huckleberries, there is an actual Black Huckleberry (gaylusaccia baccata) that is native to Richland County found in out-of-the-way places. This unfrequented, wild habitat is also attractive to certain uncommon mammalian species like the Homo sapiens hirsutii (Bigfoot.)

The Long Silence

So Cy Gatton, the man who made himself famous by telling monstrous fibs, couldn’t tell anyone the truth about that day because he knew no one would believe him.

He honestly didn’t know what to think.  He wondered if he had slipped a cog somehow in the crankshaft of his mind.  He had utterly no context in which to file this report, and as time went by he wondered if somehow in the twilight he had tripped off the bonds of sanity into a dream.  That’s what it felt like—a weird dream that wakes you up in the night and has you shaking your head in the dark.

It was about 25 years later when he was in Philadelphia—where he was invited to attend a national convention of the famous Tall Stories Club—that he began to find a fabric of mythology that he could wrap around his experience to make it almost fit into reality.

The event was a convocation of American storytellers, and he had occasion to sit in on a session with an old Oneida medicine man who was telling ancient tales from his tribal lore.  The old Shaman told the legend of an Iroquoian warrior who had thoughtlessly killed a sacred bear, and was thereafter condemned by the Guardians to spend half of his life clothed in the body of a bear.

He was a sort of shape-shifter—half man, half bear.

While everyone in the room assumed the old Shaman was spinning a myth, only Cy Gatton was feeling like he suddenly at long last had a clue to the puzzle he had been silently pondering for years.

In the 1930s a popular and nationally syndicated radio personality, Lowell Thomas, collected American tall tales to recite on the air and publish in an anthology. He created The Tall Story Club whose members were those ranconteurs he recognized as great liars in the grand old tradition.

Cy Gatton, seen here with a string of whoppers, considered his member’s certificate in The Tall Story Club one of his most prized accomplishments.

The Line of Provenance

Cy told this to my friend in confidence in 1933, and it was 40 years later when the tale was relayed to me.  Those 40 years of evolving US popular culture made a difference in uncoding the relevance of Cy’s adventure, however, because both the Scoutmaster and myself had, in the intervening years, lived through the early 1960s when a new concept had evolved in the American language by the addition of two names not heard in 1933: Bigfoot and Sasquatch.

Since I heard Cy’s tale in the 1970s a whole subculture of paranormal investigation has developed on the American continent, and not only is the idea of Bigfoot not uncommon any more, it is now quantified and charted and documented as science, and largely acknowledged by anyone except those paid to be scientists by universities.

I happened onto a website recently set up by an organization called the Bigfoot Field Research Organization, and discovered that—amazingly enough—Ohio is an actual hotbed of Bigfoot sightings, and that—astonishingly—the database includes 4 sightings in Richland County.

I wish old Cy Gatton could see the charts and maps today, hear the descriptions and see the research done by naturalists like himself.  Maybe he’d sleep a little better knowing he wasn’t the only crazy one.

The hominid species of Bigfoot has been playing hide and seek with American woodsmen and naturalists since the first reports of monsters in the woods began more than 200 years ago.

The introduction of internet database technology in the last generation has spawned a whole new system of information compilation that now demonstrates just how widespread the phenomenon of Bigfoot sighting has grown.
Clearly Bigfoot is a popular, albeit elusive, boogie man in Ohio, and has gained an enthusiastic fanclub.

After Cy Gatton encountered a large hairy man-like being in the woods, he came to speculate it may have been related to Native American myths about a half-man, half-bear creature.

This prehistoric carving dating back to the Hopewell culture (100 BC-500 AD) found only 50 miles from here at Newark OH, certainly suggests exactly that: a shamanic metamorphosis representing a shape-shifting between humankind and bearkind.

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