For any of my readers who have an interest in the regional history of the United States, especially if you are from another country, I recommend visiting local museums. Big city or state-sponsored museums tend to go heavy on presentation instead of content. Small town museums have collections gathered from the attics and closets of people who live in the area, and will tell you a whole lot more about the people, their history, their talents, and their point of view. These museums are usually found in the downtown area near the courthouse, post office, library, and/or city hall.
In the Mid-West and Western states, the tall tale is a favorite form of the oral tradition of folklore. Many outrageous stories and strange facts are presented with a straight face, and sometimes the intent really is to deceive the newcomer and make them the butt of the joke.
Charlie Goodnight, a renowned and respected rancher in north Texas in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, tried to save the buffalo from extinction by crossing them with domestic cattle, creating a hybrid he called “cattalo.” Some other people in the area tried this too, but the results were mixed and the strategy was eventually abandoned.
At the Saint’s Roost Museum, in the small town of Clarendon, Texas, are a number of historical artifacts related to Charlie Goodnight, since he lived in the vicinity. This one, although probably a tall tale, leaves me scratching my head a bit, for a couple of reasons.
The letter reads:
My Dear Sir,
Your letter rec’d. I had a litter of pigs from the cross with sheep. The parties to whom I sold my ranch destroyed them. I have made some effort to cross them since but failed but it can be done. My cattalo herd got abortion so bad that I had to ship them. Have only a few young. . .
The letterhead shows the writer to be a Mr. Trimble from Ponca City, Oklahoma, who wrote the letter to Charlie Goodnight on May 18, 1927. Evidently this Mr. Trimble was experimenting with crossing cows and buffalo to create cattalo, and was doing this while in correspondence with Goodnight. The cattalo hybrids were suffering too many miscarriages from the genetic tampering, so he sent them away to be slaughtered. Meanwhile he starts to expand his expertise to create a pig-sheep cross. I’m curious as to what the rest of the letter says but the back side was not on display in the museum.
The letter is tantalizing in its brevity. A man, after experimenting with animal hybrids, claims he successfully bred a litter of pig-sheep hybrids, which should be biologically impossible. But he writes so dryly, so matter-of-factly, to a man he has a business relationship with. It’s not a joking-around-with-a-friend kind of letter. And surely Mr. Trimble wouldn’t try to deceive Goodnight with some sort of absurd tall tale, since I doubt Goodnight would be taken in. Then there’s the creepy detail about other people destroying the litter, presumably in horror at what they saw. Which makes you wonder what they saw. . .
Well, if it isn’t just a tall tale in a fake letter that landed in a museum, then it is a really interesting story told to great cinematic effect in only a few lines.