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Colorful Southerners: The Goat Man
living in the South
I've been living in the South for more than half a century, and it's rarely been boring. As I’ve said before, the South is full of interesting characters. Very few, however, are as fascinating as the “Goat Man.”
I remember seeing the Goat Man when I was just a kid. Every few months or so, he’d come through town, aboard his wagon pulled by a team or goats. Sometimes he’d camp out in a local farmer’s field in order to rest his animals and to let them graze a bit. He might have had as many as fifty goats with him on one of his forays across the country. As evening fell, he’d build a huge fire in a clearing, always topping it old with an old tire to keep mosquitoes and other insects away.
Actually, the Goat Man wasn’t a native Southerner. Charles McCartney was born in Iowa, but the year of his birth is often disputed. He was supposedly strange, even as a child. At the tender age of fourteen, Ches, as he was often called, left Iowa for New York and wound up marrying a Spanish knife thrower who was ten years his senior. He became her willing target in the knife show.
By 1935, Ches had found safer employment with the WPA, or so he thought. Ironically, he was injured on this job, and while recovering, he converted to Christianity and felt a calling to preach to the masses. This, along with his sense of wanderlust and thirst for adventure, prompted him to take to the open road in his goat wagon. His wife made clothing for him from goatskins, and the couple and their young son headed south.
It didn’t take the wife long to grow weary of the gypsy life, and she returned to Iowa with their son. Ches continued his travels. From the early 1930s until 1968, McCartney traveled some 100,000 miles with his goats, surviving largely from goat milk and preaching to anyone who would listen. He claims to have visited every state except for Hawaii, explaining that his goats couldn’t swim that far. Most of his travels, however, centered around the South, and he claimed Jeffersonville, GA as his residence.
I don’t know how often McCartney made the trek through my town. I do know that U.S. 41 was one of his favorite routes, and it runs right through downtown. As a child, I remember being both fascinated and frightened by the sight of the old man. He was grizzled and shabby, with a long gray beard. My dad said he smelled just like an old goat, but I never got close enough to notice. Once his wagon and goatly entourage were spied near town, word spread like wildfire. Parents gathered their offspring and rushed out to see the legend. Mr. McCartney sold postcards of himself and his goats to earn money, and he always had a tall tale to share with his audience.
His wagon was a lackadaisical affair, with iron wheels. It was piled high with bales of hay, a pot-bellied stove, pots, pans, a mattress, baskets, trash, and old car tags. I always wondered why a man without an automobile would need so many car tags. Maybe he sold them, too. He also got donations from followers who considered him to be a modern day prophet or holy man.
The Goat Man’s travels with his animals ended in 1968, when he was attacked in Signal Mountain, Tennessee. Assailants beat the old man severely, and killed several of his goats. After that, Mr. McCartney abandoned the road and settled down in Jeffersonville. He and his son, Albert Gene, took up residence in an old school bus.
A decade or so later, McCartney became infatuated with actress Morgan Fairchild. He made up his mind to seek her hand in marriage and set out for California on foot in 1985. On the way there, he was again mugged and beaten. He returned to Georgia and gave up traveling for good. In 1998, McCartney’s son was found shot behind their school-bus home.
With no relatives, the Goat Man's last few years were spent in a Macon nursing home, where he was a celebrity. He died on November 15, 1998. Some say he was 97 at the time of his death, while others claim he was either 106 or 120. We’ll probably never know for sure.
The Goat Man had an impact on everyone he came in contact with. Georgia author Flannery O’Connor was no exception. Many literary critics believe he served as inspiration for several of her characters, most notably Mason Tarwater in her 1960 novel, The Violent Bear it Away.
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