As published by the Daily News Journal, Sunday, October 2, 2011
By Greg Tucker, President Rutherford County Historical Society
These itinerant hucksters, promoters, entertainers and preachers were an odd lot, but they were good at what they did and Rutherford wasprofitable territory. So they came and we made them a part of our lives and memories. One such character, truly an itinerant Southern icon, was known simply as “the Goat Man.”
“This was really a big thing,” remembers Nancy M. Oliver. “We lived on Spring Street in Murfreesboro, and in the 1950s there were very few things more exciting than when my daddy would say ‘the Goat Man is coming!’ We would load in the car and drive a few blocks to the Coke plant (now the Children’s Discovery Center location) where we would stand at the curb and wait for the Goat Man and his caravan of goats and wagons to come over the hill on the Manchester Pike.”
The Goat Man’s itinerary varied from year-to-year, but whether he came through Lebanon, Manchester, Smyrna or Shelbyville, the local media was always able to announce in advance the day and approximate time of his arrival. As a result, it never failed that he was greeted in every town by a crowd of curious adults and excited children.
“I remember that he always had at least two wagons hooked together and pulled by a team of four or six goats in harness,” recalls Oliver. “Behind his second wagon would be a dozen or more young goats on lines or just following along. The Man was a big, rough-looking fellow with a beard and overalls, and it looked like he had everything imaginable on those wagons.”
Arriving in Murfreesboro, the Goat Man would park his caravan on the grass of a vacant lot on Broad (now the United Grocery shopping center) and set up his camp. “I was a shy little girl, and I remember just standing in the grass and staring,” says Oliver. Others would pet and feed the goats, and look at the array of cooking and camping items, and the assortment of curious relics, carried on the wagons. “Many of the local folks would bring him food, maybe a pie or some homemade bread. He was always polite and appreciative. After a few days he would move on.”
The “Goat Man” was the Rev. Charles “Ches” McCartney from Jeffersonville, Ga. Usually accompanied by his son Albert, by 1957 he had been on the road with his goats for 21 years, logging over 100,000 miles. Old license plates and souvenirs from across the United States were hung on his wagons evidencing his travels.
According to the Rutherford Courier, when the Goat Man arrived in Murfreesboro on Aug. 1, 1957, his goat herd totaled 38 head. A crowd gathered along the Shelbyville Road to greet him. The newspaper report noted that on the wagon were postcards and picture folders for sale and “a sign on the front of the wagon asks for donations from everyone taking pictures of the unique caravan.”
“His coming was heralded for days, his arrival was triumphant and he was never without a visitor. At any hour of the day and most of the night, scores were peering over the embankment at his coterie.” It was announced that on Sunday at 4 p.m., “Rev. McCartney will preach there by the highway. On Monday they will continue on their unending journey, heading towards Indiana and Illinois.”
Reporting on his early Monday morning departure, the newspaper said: “Amid the bleating of his goats and the tinkling of bells, he headed out for Lebanon … still with a large following of tourists and traffic.”
During his 1957 visit, McCartney purchased goat feed from a local merchant and offered a personal check for payment. Understandably surprised and skeptical that the itinerant maintained a personal account at a major Atlanta bank, the merchant made a call to the bank. He was informed that McCartney’s check was good at that bank for any amount up to $175,000. The Goat Man died in 1998 at the age of 97.
The “Human Spider” climbed a Rutherford wall in October 1937 while the street below was filled with more than 500 spectators. Johnny Woods from Los Angeles billed himself as the “Human Spider” who had free-hand climbed the landmark Flat Iron and Woolworth buildings in New York and the famous Willard Hotel in Washington, D.C.
His challenge in Murfreesboro was the four-story James K. Polk Hotel on East Main Street. After taking up a collection from the crowd of spectators, Woods explained that he would climb the four stories and then balance on two chairs atop the building’s cornice. (The “Spider” apparently had the cooperation of the hotel management, for his wife was to be on the roof to hand him the chairs and to join in the act.)
Starting from the sidewalk, the performer crept up the brick façade, feeling carefully for each hand and foothold. All appeared to go well until between the second and third floors when he slipped. As the crowd gasped and squealed, Woods fell about two feet (either “accidentally or purposely” wrote one skeptical reporter) before catching himself on a window ledge.
An account of the climb in the Rutherford Courier noted: “Spectators, anticipating the possibilities of the undertaking, recalled that many years ago a man who scaled to the top of the courthouse clock fell and was almost instantly killed.” (C. B. Arnette detailed the 1923 story of the “Human Fly” in From Mink Slide to Main Street (1991), pp. 130-32.)
When Woods reached the top, he was met by his wife who joined him in a series of high wire type acrobatics. Unlike his ill-fated predecessor, the Human Spider concluded his act on the roof and took the hotel elevator back to the street level.
On April 13, 1932, a front page story in The Daily News Journal announced that “Buster Brown and Tige, the most famous boy and dog combination known to the youth of America, will make a personal appearance in the Rutherford County courthouse yard” on the following Friday.
The news report explained that “Buster is a very clever character and will supply the program with plenty of comedy while the dog is known to be one of the most intelligent in the show world.” Through the courtesy of the local shoe store, the visit of Buster and Tige included prizes and souvenirs for all the children who came to meet the famous pair. (Brown Shoes on the east side of the square sold Buster Brown Shoes in 1932. It was locally-owned by Milan and Ivan Brown.)
Founded in 1878 and based in St. Louis, the Brownbilt Shoe Co., maker of Buster Brown and numerous other shoe brands, was one of the world’s largest footwear manufacturers in 1932. The Buster Brown brand name and character were first introduced by the Brownbilt Shoe Co. in 1904 at the St. Louis World’s Fair.
Prior to 1904, the mischievous Buster with his dog Tige and sister Mary were popular newspaper comics characters created by cartoonist Richard F. Outcault. The shoe company purchased the name and character from Outcault and made marketing history when it sent on the road a series of actors dressed as Buster and accompanied by a dog. They toured the entire country promoting Buster Brown shoes for children as they performed. In the early decades of the 20th Century, such a touring show was a major attraction in towns like Murfreesboro.
By 1932 Buster had been on the road for 24 years and had reportedly visited every town in the United States with a population of 5,000 or more. The 1932 Tige was an eight-year veteran (possibly a Boston terrier without pedigree). The pair expected to visit about 200 towns and perform for nearly a million children every year.
The 1932 appearance in Rutherford County was Buster’s second visit to this area, the first being in 1919 when Buster suffered an attack of influenza and had to lay over for nearly a week before being able to travel (many died during the flu epidemic of 1918-19).
Buster’s health was also an issue in 1932 when he developed a bad cold. As a result, his planned performance and children’s reception on the lawn by the courthouse was moved into the shoe store. Buster noted, however, that he actually preferred indoor performances-less chance of a slingshot incident.
Greg Tucker can be reached at email@example.com.