The Journal Gazette
Sunday, March 22, 2020 1:00 am

Beastly burden

Tactics increasingly creative in search for Churubusco's giant turtle

Editor's note: This excerpt on the legendary Beast of 'Busco is from “Midwestern Strange: Hunting Monsters, Martians and the Weird in Flyover Country” by B.J. Hollars, reprinted by permission of the University of Nebraska Press. Hollars, an assistant professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, graduated from Canterbury High School in 2003.


On Tuesday, July 27, 1948, local fishermen Ora Blue and Charlie Wilson encountered the giant turtle while casting their lines in the lake.

“We saw the big wave a-rolling and up came that turtle,” reported Blue. “I saw that big head sticking up and the waves going away like it was a submarine.”

As fish stories go, this was a particularly big one, and property owners Gale and Helen Harris were quick to dismiss the claim. Ora Blue (Gale Harris' brother-in-law) had a reputation for being a prankster, and alleging to have spotted a gargantuan turtle seemed like just the kind of prank he might pull.

Yet Gale Harris' doubts were put to rest the following March, when he and the Reverend Orville Reese spotted the beast themselves while repairing Harris's barn roof.

Curious about the strange shape burbling in the early morning water, Gale and Orville descended from the roof and scurried into the newest rowboat, gripping tight to the oars as they paddled toward the ripples. Within minutes they'd reached their destination, at which point they peered into the water, waiting.

Gale Harris kept watch from one side of the boat, while Orville Reese watched from the other.

“Here it is over here,” Orville called.

“No,” Gale replied, “here it is over here.”

Suddenly, they were struck by a terrible truth: they were staring at opposite sides of the same turtle. ...

Despite his efforts, throughout the spring, summer, and fall of 1949, Gale Harris's turtle-hunting attempts went continually unrewarded. While residents such as local garage worker Kenny Leitch were equally committed to Oscar's capture – concocting a multitude of tools and traps for that purpose – neither Kenny nor any other local turtle tinkerer ever managed to develop a weapon worthy of their adversary.

Gale Harris's team came closest to capturing Oscar on the evening of March 14, 1949, when several men took to the lake armed with floodlights and what they called a “young silo” trap – a drop cover constructed mostly of pipes and wheels. At one point, they allegedly had Oscar trapped (or almost trapped), though given his incredible size and strength, the men struggled to pull that stubborn beast back to shore. As the tug-of-war reached its climax, Oscar broke free, sending the turtle back to his murky home and Gale and Kenny back to their drawing board.

Days later, the turtle hunters took their search beneath the waterline, calling upon a pair of divers who took turns entering Fulk Lake's icy waters. On March 19, Woodrow Rigsby of Fort Wayne suited up in a deep-sea diving suit, though after several attempts, the helmet's sieve-like tendencies prevented him from continuing the search. A reel of silent film footage captured Rigsby's attempt, depicting a hundred or so shivering onlookers gathered along the shore while Gale Harris and an unidentified man fit the metal helmet over Rigsby's wool-hatted head. Camera flashes erupted throughout the silent footage, more closely resembling a red carpet than a turtle hunt – except, of course, for the backdrop. After the leaky helmet incident, a second diver, Walter Johnson, managed slightly better, spending a few hours beneath the water before finding himself chest-deep in mud and in need of assistance.

Spring slipped into summer, and while the crowd diminished, Gale Harris, Kenny Leitch, and the newly recruited Walter Johnson continued their search for the turtle. Kenny Leitch and Walter Johnson spent much of the summer along the shoreline, their hopes buoyed upon learning that turtles rise to the surface at least two times daily – a fact they hoped to capitalize on. Meanwhile, Gale Harris kept his eye to his periscope, plumbing the depths via visual reconnaissance, while the others kept watch on the surface.

Of the turtle hunters' many creative trapping techniques, the most creative of all involved a two-hundred-pound female sea turtle, who they released into Fulk Lake in an effort to entice Oscar out of hiding. This, too, proved a failure, perhaps due to Oscar's monogamy; locals claimed he already had a girlfriend, whom they'd dubbed Myrtle.

None of it worked – not the nets, not the traps, not the divers, not even the girl.

Running low on options, Gale attempted a Hail Mary, one last crack at repairing his reputation.

“I'm gonna get that doggone turtle out of here if I have to drain the lake,” Gale told the press. “I've been called a liar long enough.”

Book facts

"The Gift of Forgiveness: Inspiring Stories from Those Who Have Overcome the Unforgivable" by Katherine Schwarzenegger Pratt (Pamela Dorman Books) 224 pages, $20

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