Churubusco’s got a new giant turtle in town.
And this time, residents won’t have to launch a 2-month hunt to find him.
Crunch, a 4-foot-long, 170-pound, 150-year-old alligator snapping turtle, will be on display at Churubusco’s annual Turtle Days festival, which begins Wednesday and runs through Saturday night. This festival commemorates the 60-year anniversary of the town’s hunt for Oscar, a legendary gigantic snapping turtle that galvanized national attention after he was allegedly spotted in a country pond.
In honor of the historic occasion, the festival, the longest continually running festival in Indiana, has expanded its activities. According to festival marketing director Vivian Sade, the four-day event will feature a parade, turtle races, an entertainment tent, a tractor pull, bands and a fireworks display.
Crunch – whom visitors must pay $1 to see in his 700-gallon aquarium – might not be the festival’s main attraction. But his curator thinks that learning more about Crunch might shed light on Turtle Town’s most perplexing mystery.
By all accounts, the Oscar saga started July 27, 1948, when Ora Blue and Charlie Wilson claimed to see a giant turtle while fishing in a Churubusco pond. The men told Gale Harris, their brother-in-law and owner of the property, that they saw a turtle with a body as big as their rowboat and a head as big as a child’s surface near their boat.
Later, Harris went searching for the turtle and claims to have briefly caught it in a chicken-wire trap before it escaped.
Oscar was spotted again in 1949. Local newspapers and news services got wind of the story, and soon hundreds of people throughout the region flooded to Churubusco, eager to watch the hunt unfold.
The Journal Gazette named the turtle the Beast of Busco, and letters began arriving in Churubusco addressed simply to Turtle Town USA.
Harris, Wilson and Blue are dead, but Jim Guiff, a 97-year-old man with a smooth complexion and blue eyes, remembers the turtle hunt well. Since 1927, he’s lived on property that borders Fulk Lake, the pond where the turtle was allegedly discovered. Oscar was named after Guiff’s uncle, Oscar Fulk, who owned the farm before Harris and told the media that he had seen the turtle in 1900, 50 years earlier.
(Guiff remembers Harris as an honest, humble man. He won’t say much about his uncle, other than that he was a character.)
Guiff, who was in his late 30s during the turtle saga, remembers at least two times when people tried to catch the turtle. He recalls watching a man, perhaps Harris, steer a boat toward a trap one night while about 12 men stood watching. And he remembers someone shining a light into the trap, only to illuminate the murky water.
A few months later, they got a deep-sea diver to come out there, Guiff recalled. But the bottom of the lake is all muck, and his feet would kick up sediment so he couldn’t see.
That deep-sea diver was one of several who came to the pond in the next few months. Professional trappers came, too, as did zoo officials and airplane pilots, trying to spot Oscar from above.
Guiff says automobile traffic outside his house was bumper to bumper. At one point, he says, the state police had to close a portion of the road near the lake out of fear that it would collapse.
Harris got a lot of people excited, Guiff says. It caused a lot of publicity. We had newspapermen out here and radio people. People from Chicago and Indianapolis and all over.
The third and final time Guiff went to the lake was the day Harris attached water pumps to his tractor and started to drain the pond.
Harris had almost completed the project when he suffered appendicitis, which put him in the hospital.
It was a rough year for the Harrises, Guiff said. They also lost their crops that year because onlookers had trampled their fields.
They wouldn’t give up on it, Guiff says. We drove over when they were finished (draining the lake), and there were little puddles here and there. And they didn’t find the turtle.
Guiff wasn’t surprised; he never really expected his neighbors to find Oscar.
I was always suspicious about the turtle being as big as he was, he says. I used to hunt for snapping turtles when I was a kid, and I never saw them that big. I never disputed them, though, because maybe I was wrong.
By the time Harris had drained the lake, Guiff said, he’d lost a great deal of money trying to prove Oscar’s existence. For that reason, Guiff will never discount the possibility that his neighbor was telling the truth.
Rusty Reed, Crunch’s curator, agrees that Harris’ turtle tale will always be a mystery.
Gale Harris lost everything over trying to prove that he saw that turtle, he said. Does a person get so caught up in a lie that he can’t turn back, or did he really see it?
Reed thinks there’s the faintest chance that Harris and others did see a turtle that large. In theory, he says, Harris could have spotted an alligator snapping turtle – like Crunch – that somehow made it 200 miles north of its natural habitat. Alligator snapping turtles are rare in northern Indiana, but technically native to southern Indiana’s rivers, he says. They can live for more than 100 years, which, in theory, could have made Oscar Fulk’s 1900 sighting possible.
Alligator snapping turtles are the largest freshwater turtles in the world and can grow up to 300 pounds – meaning they could be about as big as Wilson and Blue described Oscar.
If Oscar was an alligator snapping turtle, Reed thinks he might know how he got there.
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, he said, traveling salesmen from southern Indiana sometimes took young alligator snapping turtles with them when they went north. If the salesmen needed food, the turtles were a great, quick source of fresh meat.
Sometimes, Reed says, the salesmen would sell, give away or simply release the turtles. At some point, someone could have dropped a turtle off in Harris’ pond.
But even if an alligator snapping turtle was once in the lake, it’s unlikely it’s still there, Reed says.
Male alligator snapping turtles, which grow much larger than females, can’t support their weight out of water. That means if Oscar did exist, he either suffocated under the collapsing mud when Harris drained the pond or survived hidden in a puddle until the lake refilled.
As much as Oscar would have hated Turtle Town, he couldn’t simply walk away.