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Oscar the Grouch
The strange, true story of The Beast of ‘Busco
By Michael Summers
Fort Wayne Reader
Sure, ballparks are all well and good, but for civic leaders and city boosters seeking other creative means to draw tourists to our fair city, slow the brain drain, and put Fort Wayne on the proverbial map, I have two words for you: Lake Monster.
For this, you need two things: (1) a sizeable body of water, somewhat remote and fairly deep; and (2) a monster. The first we have in abundance in our section of Indiana. The second is easier to come by than you might believe. In fact, some might say — and I’m not necessarily condoning such cynicism, I’m just repeating what I’ve been told — there doesn’t actually need to be anything in the body of water, just the suggestion of it. Or maybe just a really big specimen of the creatures we have in this part of the state anyway (have you ever seen a really big catfish? Very ugly. If you saw one of those peeking up at you from the mud underneath your boat, you’d be scared).
Look what it’s done for Loch Ness, a Scottish backwater that is famous throughout the world and rakes in an estimated 25 million pounds in tourism annually all due to the beastie lurking in its lake — a beastie that, despite the eyes of thousands of tourists and a small fortune in sonar equipment, has never really been seen.
But Loch Ness is an extreme example. For a more modest example of the Lake Monster effect, one need look no further from home than Churubusco, the tiny town just a few miles Northish of us. Perhaps the annual draw from the community’s Turtle Days festival each summer falls short of $25 million, but, you know, I’m sure it’s something, and they owe it all to “Oscar.”
Who is Oscar? The Beast of ‘Busco, a monstrous turtle that emerged from the depths of a murky lake in Whitley county during the summer of 1948. For nearly two years the hulking creature rampaged across the Churubusco countryside, devouring livestock and terrorizing the local populace until one day, its prehistoric appetites finally sated, it simple vanished, never to be heard from again…
Actually, it didn’t happen like that, though the legend of the Beast of ‘Busco is certainly real — the alleged sighting of a giant turtle in Fulk’s Lake back in 1948 and ’49 received national attention; gave Churubusco a mascot and a summer festival that persists to this day; and made farmer Gale Harris and his wife Helen famous for a short period of time. In its own way, the truth about “Oscar” is as bizarre as some of the more fantastical tales out there.
Stories about Oscar abound, some true, some not so much. The Wikipedia entry on the Beast of ‘Busco is complete b.s. and reads like the treatment of some 50s drive-in b-movie. For a reliable account of what actually happened on Gale Harris’ farm in the late 40s, you should turn to The Hunt For Oscar (1994), a documentary by local film-maker Terry Doran that’s easily one of the most definitive sources on the subject.
I say one of the most definitive sources. Another comes from Dr. John Gutowski, a professor of English and Folklore at Xavier University in Chicago. Gutowski wrote a dissertation on Oscar and helped Doran track down many of the sources for his own project.
The story begins, in the time-honored tradition of lake monster stories, with two guys out on a boat. The place is Fulk’s Lake, a seven acre body of water that in the late 40s belonged to Gale Harris and his wife Helen. On the afternoon of July 27, 1948, Ora Blue and Charley Wilson, brothers-in-law of Gale, were fishing on the lake when they claimed a huge turtle broke the surface of the water just a few yards away. Its shell was larger than the boat, and its head “as big as a child’s.” Back on shore, they told Harris what they had seen, but a quick search turned up no giant turtles. Later on, Harris and a friend of his, a minister, spotted the turtle while they were fixing Harris’ roof.
It wasn’t the first time a giant turtle was spotted in Fulk’s Lake. John Fulk, the original owner of the property claimed to have seen something in the lake 50 years earlier, and Doran says Native Americans in the area had their own giant turtle stories. “One of the stories was that the Indian people said that’s how Chief Little Turtle got his name, by comparison,” says Doran. “Like Oscar is a great beast and the chief is a smaller version.” Doran shrugs. “Again, all this is… just rumors.”
But the story of the turtle didn’t really begin to catch on until March of 1949, when Oscar was spotted again and a few townspeople tried to capture it. Stories began to appear in the local press and in local radio reports. By the middle of the month, The News Sentinel had christened the creature “Oscar,” and The Journal Gazette chimed in with “The Beast of ‘Busco.” But it didn’t stop with the regional press and radio. Doran’s documentary recounts how Laura Etz, the 23-year-old United Press correspondent for the area, was scrambling for an extra item or two to send to her office in Chicago. Right before going home for the night, she tacked on an item about the giant turtle in Churubusco. When she came in the next day, she had a response — give us more on that giant turtle.
The story soon garnered national attention. Reporters from Chicago, Indianapolis, Cleveland, and practically every other city in the Midwest camped out in Fort Wayne hotels, and stories appeared in papers and on radio all over the country. “What really broke the story nationally was Lowell Thomas, who is probably one of the most famous news broadcasters of all time,” says Doran. “He did a lot of stories on it.”
Reptile experts in zoos, aquariums, and museums all over the U.S. were torn away from their research by journalists wanting to know if they had ever come across a snapping turtle as big as a dining room table. The answer: no. “A snapping turtle that size just about defies credibility,” says Doran, who did a little turtle research of his own while making the movie. “There’s something called an alligator snapping turtle. They’re very ugly, and they can get pretty big, but… not that big.”
Credible or not, by the end of March 1949, thousands of people were traveling through the Harris farm, hoping to catch a glimpse of the Brobdingnagian terrapin. “It was like the Superbowl,” Doran says. “All these cars pulling up on Sunday afternoons. Helen Harris told me how she’d just be sitting in her house, doing chores or drinking a cup of coffee, and strangers would just come in and walk right through to the bathroom.”
Gale and Helen Harris didn’t charge the spectators for driving through their property. They sold coffee and hotdogs, but that was about it. “At the time, they did not profit,” says Terry Doran. “I asked Helen about that. She said they could have made money, but they weren’t that kind of people.” They were also approached about other publicity schemes. Someone from Buck Lake Ranch in Angola offered Gale money for Oscar. “They said, ‘but we haven’t captured the turtle,’ and the man said, ‘oh, that don’t matter. We’ll just find a big snapping turtle and put it in a cage…’ But they didn’t think that was right.”
At one point, civic boosters in Syracuse threatened to sue Gale Harris, claiming he had somehow abducted Oscar from Lake Wawasee. Another credibility-defying incident in Doran’s documentary is when the widow of James Kirtley, editor of the Churubusco Truth, claims that someone from the White House called, saying President Truman was interested in the progress of the hunt (they also conveniently told her they would deny they ever called if she mentioned it to anyone).
At the height of the craze, new schemes were being hatched daily to capture Oscar — giant nets, periscopes, divers, a stovepipe viewer with a concealed beam headlight… Kenneth Leitch, owner of the West Side Garage in Churubusco, devised a series of increasingly elaborate traps for Oscar. “Kenny was another character who fascinated me, because he was the guy making all these traps and devices,” laughs Doran. “Can you imagine? Here’s this guy building this stuff in his garage late in to the night… That’s a lot of work and time. I can picture Kenny’s wife saying ‘what is wrong with you?! Go to sleep!’” (actually, the good Mrs. Leitch probably had quite a few choice words for her husband, who when asked by a reporter during the height of Oscar-mania if he was getting any real work done responded “Gosh no!”)
Another of Doran’s favorite “characters,” interviewed in the documentary, is Woodrow “Woody” Rigsby, a professional diver. You can probably guess where this is headed; Rigsby was supposed to face Oscar in the turtle’s natural element. In the documentary, Doran asks Rigsby what he would have done had he actually come face-to-face with Oscar. “He says, ‘well, I would have grabbed him.’ A turtle supposedly as big as a dining room table,” laughs Doran. “Good luck with that. He said, ‘I’d just let the turtle take me wherever he wanted to take me.’ You wouldn’t have a choice!”
Rigsby’s worry wasn’t getting chomped on by a giant turtle; it was the cold. This was March in Indiana, remember, and Fulk’s Lake was pretty darn chilly (of course, why Oscar wasn’t snuggled up in the mud like his smaller cousins is another question). A professional diving suit and helmet were sent for — Rigsby’s dive was being sponsored by the Chicago Sun-Times — and by the time the gear arrived the Beast of ‘Busco was a national concern. “So there they were, practically the whole nation is watching, and what happens?” says Doran. “The guy has a leaky helmet.” The search was called off. Another diver went down, but also called off the search when he sank up to his chest in the muck at the bottom.
On another occasion, they tried to lure Oscar from the Churubusco depths with the promise of a girlfriend. “They brought a sea turtle from Florida on a truck,” Doran says. “They had this leash around its neck, and went out in a row boat with the sea turtle on a leash. But all it did was swim around and make funny noises.” Oscar wasn’t interested (or maybe Oscar was a girl) and the sea turtle went home to Florida.
Not surprisingly, Oscar eluded capture, though allegedly there were several close calls — it shredded a net at one point — and many people, including Ken Leitch, claimed to have caught a glimpse of it during the busiest time in March and April.
But the story died down as the spring came on, and Doran believes it’s no coincidence that the crowds thinned and interest waned as the weather turned warmer. “What attracted me to (the story) first of all was the time period, and the fact that all the news of this tremendous story came over the radio and the newspapers, two things that generally aren’t the sources today that they were then,” says Doran. “I loved the radio aspect, because you have this giant turtle that few people have seen. No one really knows if it’s real or not real. You hear it over the radio and it becomes part of your imagination.”
Indeed, The Hunt For Oscar is as much a homage to a specific era and place as it is a story about a giant turtle, a time before the ubiquity of television when radio in general, and Fort Wayne radio in particular, was king. The film begins with a shot of an old-fashioned radio in the living room of a country home, with the voice of famed announcer Bob Sievers reading a news bulletin about the giant turtle spotted in Churubusco. Doran interviewed Sievers for the documentary, and asked him to read the piece at the end of their talk. “What a thrill to have Bob Sievers sitting in my living room doing that opening,” Doran says. “That’s probably one of my favorite things I’ve ever done.” Sievers also told him that the Beast of ‘Busco was one of his favorite stories.
The documentary also captures the bleakness of an Indiana winter, the stark trees and grey skies. Besides basketball, nothing much is going on in Indiana in March, the perfect time for a story about a giant turtle to capture the imaginations of people sitting inside, gathered around a radio. “Today, everything is so literal,” says Doran. “There’s a lot to be said for when your mind has to do the work, rather than just sitting there watching somebody else show you 20 replays. That’s what really fascinated me about the story, and fascinated Gutowski.”
“Of course, the single most common question I get asked is, ‘is that turtle real?’” adds Doran. “I don’t know any more than anybody else. I decided early on that if it’s a hoax, I’m not going to be the one to show the movie in Churubusco and say ‘here’s the proof.’
In doing all this obsessive research, if I had come across the smoking gun, I suppose I would have used it, but I didn’t come across anything.”
Whether Oscar existed or not, Doran is sure it was no hoax. He interviewed Harris’ widow Helen for the film, who took him to Fulk’s Lake and pointed to the spot where she saw the turtle. “She must have been around 90 when I interviewed her,” says Doran. “Why would a lady that age stand there with a video camera and point and say ‘that’s where I saw it.’ At that point, wouldn’t you just say ‘well, we had a lot of fun with it, but…’ You could have easily gotten out of it.”
More telling, though, is the lengths to which Gale Harris went to find Oscar. Harris called off the search for the turtle at some point in the spring or summer of 1949, tired of the circus surrounding Oscar and the cars and visitors trampling through his land. He was also having serious problems with his eyes, brought on by the hours he spent peering through the periscope, looking for the turtle.
But after a vacation with Helen in the late summer, Harris started making plans to follow-through on a scheme he had suggested months earlier — he was going to drain the lake. As you might guess, this was a massive project. “That’s the strongest argument for saying it was real to Gale Harris, that he drained his lake,” says Doran. “I mean, you put yourself in his position. You’re a farmer, you claim to see this big turtle in your lake, and the next thing you know, you’re getting calls from all over the country. But the lengths he went to… (Harris) had cranes, an elaborate draining system… That’s expensive. It’s a lot of work. That’s the strongest argument in my mind for it not being a hoax. Whether or not there was something in there, he believed there was.”
Once again spectators crowded the banks of Fulk’s Lake as it was drained. A pump was hooked up to Harris’ tractor, and over the course of seven weeks during the fall of 1949, over 70 million gallons of water were pumped out of the lake in to a ditch and diverted to White Lake about five miles away. The banks of Fulk’s Lake began to crumble, a road bordering the property slid in to the muck. The water level dropped to five feet and the 60 foot shore line receded about a foot per day. Harris began charging spectators a quarter to defray the cost of the operation — the tractor was kept running constantly, burning up over 2,000 gallons of gas. Images in The Hunt for Oscar show the seven-acre pond reduced to a single acre, looking like nothing so much as a puddle in a crater of mud.
Spectators weren’t disappointed; 200 people supposedly saw Oscar make one more appearance in late October, when he attempted to snack on a flock of ducks near one of the banks (he went hungry).
Not long after that, Gale Harris suffered an attack of appendicitis. While recovering in Methodist Hospital in Fort Wayne, heavy rains undid a great deal of the draining effort. “It’s like fate did just not want that lake drained,” Doran says. Though Harris attempted to start the project up again once he got out, the revival didn’t last long. He was tired from his illness, low on money, the weather was turning, and probably more to the point, Helen Harris had had enough.
A year later, the Harris farm was up for auction. Gale Harris had bought the farm in 1947, after he and his wife had moved back to Indiana after a time in New Jersey. Both natives of the Fort Wayne area, Gale had worked at General Electric before they had moved; Helen had grown up on a farm, so the Fulk property could be seen as a “thank you” to Helen after many years spent in an urban area of New Jersey. Gale claimed he had never enjoyed farming, but still, losing everything and having to move in to a trailer for a while must have been tough on the Harris family. “They lost their farm, but did not file bankruptcy,” Doran says. “When I interviewed Helen, she was very clear about that.” Doran adds that one of the items listed at the auction was a giant turtle trap.
The new owner claimed he saw Oscar in 1957, but kept it quiet.
Harris went back to work for General Electric, and then as part of the maintenance staff at IPFW. That’s where Gutowski tracked him down and interviewed him for his book; the voice of Harris in Doran’s films comes from Gutowski’s interviews. Gale and Helen retired to Florida. Gale died in 1987. Helen remarried, and died in 1993.
“I identified with Gale Harris,” Doran says. “To me, Gale is Everyman. There’s nothing special about him. I don’t mean that in any derogatory way. He was just a normal guy, and he became famous in this really bizarre way. Then, he loses everything. It has a lot of meaning today. He never gave up. He stayed with it right to the end.”
And Doran, who first heard the story as a young adult, says he’s still surprised by how Oscar can capture the imagination of people in this “literal” age. “A few years ago, I was talking to my daughter’s class about writing,” he says. “These kids were all sort of ‘yeah, okay,’ but when I mentioned The Hunt for Oscar, their eyes just lit up. They all wanted to know about that turtle.”