Tuesday, March 21, 2023

The Goat Man was Everyone's Folk Hero

My most popular story, written in 2011, was about Charles "Ches" McCartney, aka the Goat Man, who traveled the countryside with a wagon pulled by goats. Over the years, I have had countless numbers of emails, well over a hundred, from people wanting to tell me about their experience in meeting him. Every single one has mentioned how bad he smelled.

One man in South Carolina wrote, "It was around 1970 when the Goat Man passed through my community. I remember daddy taking him to McCarty's Store, with me riding in the middle of our '66 Ford pickup. My God, I still remember the stink! It was like something out of a fairytale or a movie. As a 5- or 6-year-old boy, I was amazed by his herd of goats and the shaky wagon they towed. Daddy was a good man. It took a week of keeping both windows down to air out the pickup."

Before I tell you about his background, I must first offer up a disclaimer of sorts. The story of the Goat Man's beginnings seemed to change occasionally from one telling to the next. He claimed to have left his home in Sigourney, Iowa when he was 14. He claimed his first wife, Sadie, was a knife thrower in a sideshow in upstate New York and he was the target in her act. He claimed to have experienced a religious awakening in 1935, during the Great Depression, whereby he hitched up a team of goats to a wagon and took to the open road to preach the gospel. His wife and son, Albert Gene, accompanied him, but she quickly grew tired of the road, and him, and returned to Iowa, taking their son with her. He married at least twice more. The last one ended when, according to the New York Times, he sold his goat-weary wife for $1,000 to a farmer she'd grown sweet on, he claimed.

McCartney chose to live in Jeffersonville, Georgia, eventually in an old bus. When the son got older, he reunited with his dad, and for decades they traveled the backroads of the Southeast, sometimes with as many as 30 goats. His path was easily traceable from the wooden signs he tacked on trees by the roadside, signs bearing messages like “Prepare to Meet Thy God.” "People are goats, they just don't know it," he would often say. Maybe McCartney said that because he, himself, looked like a goat. He smelled like one, too, because he never took a bath or washed his clothes. You take a fellow who looks like a goat, travels around with goats, eats with goats, lies down among goats and smells like a goat and it won't be long before people will be calling him the Goat Man, and that is exactly how he got his name.

Someone would spot McCartney and his cavalcade of goats clamoring down the highway with the old iron-wheeled wagon piled high with garbage, lanterns, bedding, clothes, an old pot belly stove, and plenty of scrap metal that he gathered and sold. Word would get around and pretty soon the curious townsfolk would come out to meet him. He would preach the Gospel to them and sell picture postcards of himself.

In 1985, during one of his final journeys away from his home, McCartney set out on foot to California, hoping to meet actress Morgan Fairchild, whom he wanted to marry. Along the way, he was mugged and hospitalized with injuries. He had been beat up before, most notably in 1968 at Signal Mountain near Chattanooga, when he was severely beaten by men who also slit the throats of some of his goats, but this time he left the road for good. His final years were spent at a nursing home in Macon, where he died on Nov. 15, 1998 at the age of ninety-seven, a decade or so younger than he had claimed to be. Five months earlier, back in Jeffersonville, Albert Gene had been found murdered behind the old bus they had called home. Both are buried at Jeffersonville Cemetery.

It has been said that Charles McCartney was the essence of freedom, wandering around the rural highways of America at a goat's pace, unfettered to schedules, clocks or calendars, and surviving by selling scrap metal he would find on the road, postcards of himself and the goats, and of course, free goat milk. He was a simple man and a folk hero.

McCartney told people he was a preacher at the Free Thinking Christian Mission he had built near the old school bus in Jeffersonville. While the New York Times wrote that he had admitted his preaching was a gimmick, he insisted it was sincere.

The Goat Man passing through Albany, Kentucky in the 1950's.

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