The Goat Man was quite the character
STORY BY KEVIN MCKINNLEY | ALL THINGS SOUTHERN
The Deep South has given rise to many eccentric and unusual characters in the last 400 or so years that colonists, settlers, Native Americans and Southerners have collectively called the region home.
Eccentric preachers such as Robert Sims led a war against authorities in the late 1890s. In Texas, outlaws who might have benefited from a diagnosis as sociopaths, like John Wesley Hardin shot hotel guests for snoring too loud.
Indeed the list is endless and perhaps the South has more color and flare than any other region of the country.
Ranking high on the list of eccentric characters in our modern times is a strange man who traveled the back roads of the South for more than four decades, from 1930 to 1968, with little more than a wagon and a herd of goats. The Goat Man was a character who lived on the fringes of society and who was accountable to few in his travels across the region.
Most Southerners knew this individual as the Goat Man but some knew him by his Christian name, “Ches McCartney.”
McCartney is believed to have been born in Iowa around 1901 to a farm family. Thousands of acres of corn and a countryside bearing the consistency of constant toil was more than McCartney could stand as he threw his trappings over his shoulder and left home around 1915 to seek his fortune in the world.
McCartney emerged in New York, where he met and later married a Spanish knife thrower ten years his senior. Soon he became part of her act. Eventually the couple decided to settle down and have children. McCartney and his bride moved to the Mid-West and settled on a farm.
Yet fortune was not on McCartney’s side and the coming of the Great Depression swept his farm away from him and his wife, not being satisfied with the new arrangement, he soon left.
Ches McCartney next found work felling trees with the WPA. A huge limb fell from a mighty pine, twisting the young man’s left arm as if he were a rag doll. McCartney passed out from the pain and the bleeding and his co-workers, checking his vital signs, gave him up for dead.
McCartney was transported to an undertaker’s establishment where he was scheduled to be embalmed. Yet as the embalming needle was inserted into his arm, McCartney arose from the table and bounded from the mortuary, where even though he was still suffering from his injuries, at least he avoided a pine box which was waiting just outside the building.
His brush with death brought about a religious awakening for McCartney and soon he would join the ranks of those seeking answers during those days of woe and want.
The days of the Great Depression were a time of wandering in the South. Desperate, hungry men took to the roads in great numbers seeking a better life. Some would hop aboard freight trains as they slowed in travel up a hill.
The men would ride beneath boxcars on metal pipes that extended the length of the car. Some would fall asleep and thereafter fall from the train only to be cut to pieces in the middle of the night as the train rolled on unabated.
McCartney remarried during the height of the Depression. He eventually developed the idea of using a goat pulled wagon to travel and work as an itinerant preacher. His new wife did not like the idea and soon left. Yet one account says McCartney sold his second wife to a farmer for $1,000. Soon McCartney was on the road and would forever more be known as “The Goat Man.”
The Goat Man’s wagon was large, rickety, and gothic decorated cart with a clutter of metal and wooden objects he accumulated from along the roadside during his ongoing journey. The wagon is said to have contained a bed, a potbellied stove, lanterns, and was pulled by a team of nine goats, with a few trailing behind to push and to serve as brakes. It has been said that his herd sometimes numbered as many as thirty goats. He managed to make five to ten miles a day in his rig. Of all his goats, Billy Blue Horns was his favorite and supposedly lived three decades.
The Goat Man attracted attention everywhere he went and visitors often stopped to hear his quick inspirational sermons. By most accounts he smelled very bad and his goats only smelled somewhat better.
To many, the Goat Man was a strangely eccentric mix of the rolling vagabond of the 1930s and a source of prophetic curiosity yet he conjured respect from many who saw him because of his religious vigor and his fiery message of hell and damnation of sinners. The Goat Man marked his strange path through the South’s countryside by leaving distinctive wooden signs tacked on trees along the roadside, which displayed messages such as “Prepare to Meet Thy God” with fire painted underneath.
For those coming up in the Southwest Alabama region during the 1950s and early 1960s, the Goat Man was a transfixing site to be behold. It is said he made several trips through the area during his travels.
Henry McKinley remembers seeing him somewhere along the road to Atmore, in the Robinsonville community around 1959. “He would camp along the roadside and it appeared as if he treated his goats as friends rather than beasts of burden,” recounted McKinley
By the 1960s, the Goat Man was one of many strange characters roaming the countryside. The political turmoil of the 1960s, the protests over the Vietnam War and the hippies which traveled the country like gypsies made the Goat Man, at best no stranger than the new breed of travelers.
The nation itself was changing as well. The days were now forever gone when people could go to bed at night without locking their doors.
During these later days of the Goat Man’s journey he was attacked and mugged several times. During one attack in 1969, three men attacked him while he slept in his wagon. The result was three broken ribs and two of his favorite goats were killed. Following the attack, McCartney retired to Jeffersonville, Ga., where he sold his remaining goats. In 1978 his home burned. The now homeless Goat Man, aka McCartney, purchased a bus in which he and his son lived. It appeared his days of travel had ended.
Yet in 1985, like some old movie star or musician struggling for a comeback, McCartney hit the road once again. This final trip would be made without goats, and on foot. McCartney decided he would walk to California to propose marriage to Morgan Fairchild.
While en route to California, he was again mugged and hospitalized. After returning to Georgia, he entered a nursing home in 1987. He spent his final years as a local celebrity in Macon, Ga. It was on a crisp, fall day in Nov. 1998 when the Goat Man- Ches McCartney made his final journey as he died at the age of 97.
Today, even with the homogeny of our towns and cities, which blend endlessly into a steady stream of fast food restaurants, interstates and focus group inspired products, it isn’t hard to imagine a bearded, smelly man traveling the back roads of Alabama with a team of goats and a message to tell the world.
Southerners, even those of the transplanted variety, are much like the nonconformist Henry David Thoreau wrote about at Walden Pond, “If a man does not keep pace with his companions perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer.”
I had mistakenly given credit for some of the Falco research to Jerry Simmons in the last couple of stories on Falco. While Jerry Simmons is a true history aficionado of the first order; Mr. Jerry Fisher was the source for the written research on the articles.
Mr. Jerry Fisher has made meticulous and diligent efforts to preserve the history of our small towns and communities in this area and I want to extend sincere thanks for all the help he provided in the Falco series.