The subject of this week’s episode was recommended to me by Jay Wright the President of the Foothills Writers Guild in Anderson, South Carolina. It’s the story of a man who’s become something of a modern tall tale, like Johnny Appleseed, Paul Bunyan or Pecos Bill. It’s the story of Ches McCartney, the Goat Man.
Ches earned his title of Goat Man by spending over four decades on the road traveling in a goat-drawn wagon. From the 1930s to the 1960s, he visited many small towns across the midwest and south. Ches was made to be a legend. His strange way of traveling and larger than life personality made an impression on anyone who saw him.
Before Jay emailed me, I’d never heard of the Goat Man. So the first thing I did was give Jay a call to hear the story. Jay told me he had seen the Goat Man as a child and about 20 years ago I found out more about this strange character.
Jay Wright: See, what happened, about 20 years ago … I got a baby sister that lives in North Georgia and we were just sitting there talking one day and she said, “I got to get home.” She says, “I need to clean up my house. It’s like the Goat Man lives there.” I had not heard that word in years, and I started laughing. I said, “What in the world made you think of that?” because she was absolutely a baby when he used to come through.
Luke Bauserman: So when you were growing up, did you … You saw him come through town then? You were old enough to remember?
Jay Wright: Yeah. It was probably … He might have skipped a year or something or maybe went a different route, I don’t know what, but I can remember either five or six times between when I was maybe five to 15 that he came through. He always came up Highway 27, and it was just the biggest deal going for kids and a lot of adults.
People would hear about him and just literally go get in their car and drive to wherever they heard he was. People would bring him food and sit out there with him. He always … He’d pick up junk on the side of the road and turn right around and sell it to people and make money with it. He was almost like a recycler.
Luke Bauserman: I saw in that piece that you sent me that he would sell postcards for 25 cents each or three for a dollar.
Jay Wright: Yeah, and people just … They looked for reasons to give him money. All of us lived sort of in that neighborhood, but across the street from my grandmother and down about two houses there was nothing. It was just an old field with a railroad track behind it. He would always spend the night there when he would come. He came out there burning a damn old tire … He picked up tires on the side of the road, but he’d bring a tire out there and set that thing on fire and the smoke … You could see the smoke all over the place. People would see that smoke coming and they’d say, “There he is.” He’d draw a crowd with that, because he’d get money from them.If they didn’t … If they hadn’t heard, because not everybody had a phone and people … Everybody had a party line, but not everybody knew that he was there, but they’d see that smoke and they’d say, “Well, either something’s on fire or the Goat Man’s here,” and they’d go get in their car and … You know, there was nothing better to do. Some people didn’t even have television, so they’d go over there and sit out with him, and pretty soon he’d start preaching.
If they hadn’t heard, because not everybody had a phone … Everybody had a party line, but not everybody knew that he was there, but they’d see that smoke and they’d say, “Well, either something’s on fire or the Goat Man’s here,” and they’d go get in their car and … You know, there was nothing better to do. Some people didn’t even have television, so they’d go over there and sit out with him, and pretty soon he’d start preaching.
Now I never heard him preach. He always … Everything he talked about was something about God and going to heaven and everything else, but he didn’t … He wasn’t preaching. He wasn’t actually preaching a sermon. They said that, you know, when things kind of settled down he’d just start preaching, often on a Sunday. I never saw him there on a Sunday, but if you’d sit around and shoot the bull with him … We weren’t allowed to do anything like that, but if you did, they said, you know, he’d sit out there with the menfolks and they’d get out there and get to talking and the next thing you know he’d be preaching and pass the hat and everything else and they’d just have a regular old … Basically almost like a camp meeting kind of a thing.
He didn’t hold back cussing right in the middle of a prayer. He’d get worked up and there were some people who didn’t appreciate his language, that couldn’t get into the religious aspect of his language. He was of an unusual sort, I’m not kidding you.
Luke Bauserman: Now do you remember the smell too? I’ve read about that.
Jay Wright: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. That’s … That’s … That as much as everything, because … I don’t know that he bathed. I think what happened was he just got rained on, and he would just be hot and sweaty.
Luke Bauserman: And all those goats on top of it.
Jay Wright: And he slept with them. He actually slept with them. They would … He kept the little ones up in his wagon and … There was a little place back there. They didn’t just sleep there, they actually birthed little goats there. If he had one pregnant, he’d … They didn’t … You know, I guess if he could he’d put them up there.
But it was just sort of … It was like a barn inside his wagon. He had a lot of junk and stuff, you’ve seen that in the pictures, but really you could be standing there … We always wanted to shake his hand or just say hello or speak to him or stuff like that, but, oh man there was no difference between the way he smelled and the way the goats smelled.
Jay wasn’t the only subscriber to the Weekly Holler who remembers the Goat Man. Linda DeWitt saw him in Morganton, North Carolina when she was 10 years old.
Linda DeWitt: What I remember about him was it was a very dirty situation, you know, because I guess he never had a bath and all of this kind of stuff. What left the impression with me was the goats that he walked until they were walking on … They had no hooves left and they were just walking on the bloody leg, on their bones I guess.
Even as a child, that seemed terribly cruel to me. I grew up on a farm and we treated our animals better than that, you know. There was a lot of fanfare there in town, you know. It didn’t take much to entertain us. My momma had heard it on the radio and so it was a big thing, you know, that he was going to be coming down a certain road on that day, and so people were going out to see him. It was like a circus coming to town or something like that.
There were others who had an altogether different idea about the nature of the Goat Man.
Jim Broome: I remember my dad telling me the Goat Man was coming, and I think that must have been the first time. I don’t remember how old I was, but it was scary, the Goat Man is coming. It liked to have scared me to death.
When Jim Broome first heard of the Goat Man he was convinced that it was a monster, like the Boogeyman. That impression didn’t last very long though.
Jim Broome: He wasn’t bad at all, just smelled bad. I remember seeing him coming down the road and if the goats that were pulling the wagon, it was eight or 10 or whatever, and they were pulling the wagon, and if they were struggling a little bit he would talk to these goats that were in the rear and they were usually the bigger billy goats with bigger horns, and they actually put their head against the back of that wagon and pushed. I said, “Lord have mercy, he’s got pullers and pushers.”
So just who was Ches McCartney? I wanted to know more about the man behind the legend. It turns out that the Goat Man was from Sigourney, Iowa. From an early age, he had a sense of adventure. When he was 14 years old, he ran away to New York City married a Spanish knife thrower 10 years his senior.
During the Depression, Ches lost his farm in Iowa and went to work cutting down trees for the WPA. One day, a tree fell on him breaking many bones on the left side of his body and pinning him to the ground. According to Ches, a search party found him several hours later and, presuming him dead, took his body to the local funeral home. As the undertaker prepared to embalm him, he regained consciousness.
The accident left him with a crippled left arm. Unable to return work and unwilling to go on government assistance, Ches decided to take to the road in a goat-drawn cart. He even had his wife sew some goatskin clothes for him and their son, a fashion statement inspired by his favorite book outside the Bible, Robinson Crusoe.
Traveling at a pace of one mile an hour, news of the Goat Man’s arrival had plenty of time to spread to before he actually made it to the next town on his route. Local newspapers and radio stations ran stories about him.
Ches eventually started up an actual church in Jeffersonville, Georgia, the Free Thinking Christian Mission.
Renown author, Flannery O’Connor saw the Goat Man on multiple occasions and even mentioned him in a letter to a friend:
When we were somewhere above Conyers, [Georgia] we saw up ahead a pile of rubble some eight feet high on the side of the road. When We got about fifty feet from it, we could begin to make out that some of the rubble was distributed around something like a cart and that some of it was alive. Then we began to make out the goats. We stopped in front of it and looked back. About half the goats were asleep, venerable and exhausted, of kind of a heap. I didn’t see Ches. Then my mother located an arm around the neck of one of the goats. We also saw a knee. The old man was lying on the road, asleep amongst them, but we never located his face. Flannery O'Connor to John Hawkes in 1961
Many literary experts have pointed to Ches McCartney and his son as the inspiration behind some of O’Connor’s most famous characters, the backwoods preacher Mason Tarwater and his great-nephew Francis in, The Violent Bear It Away.
Cormac Mcarthy’s novel, Suttree also has a character based on the Goat Man.
But Ches McCartney didn’t inspire Southern Gothic authors alone, one young boy who saw him changed his career plans. The boy’s father owned a store that the Goat Man visited to buy a new pair of overalls. The boy was horrified by the Goat Man’s smell, which lingered in the dressing room for days after he left. But even more than that, the boy was disturbed by the state of the Goat Man’s teeth. He later credited seeing the Goat Man’s teeth with his decision to go to become a dentist instead of running his father’s store.
The Goat Man’s traveling days came to an end due to a tragic incident on Signal Mountain outside of Chattanooga, Tennessee when he was attacked late one night. He was injured and eight of his goats were killed. He retired to Jeffersonville where he and his son lived in an old school bus. He eventually entered a rest home where he passed away in 1998.
Footage by Robert Bonner
Special thanks to Jay Wright, Linda DeWitt, and Jim Broome for providing interviews.
For further reading about the Goat Man, check out America’s Goat Man (Mr. Ches McCartney) by Darryl Patton.