Ches McCartney, known as the Goat Man, was born in Iowa in 1901. He ran away from his family’s farm when he was 14. In New York, he married a Spanish knife-thrower 10 years his senior and joined her act, serving as her target. Just before dawn one day, the wife snuck away and left him. He married at least two more times. He had one son, Albert Gene, by his third wife, Sadie Smithhart, and possibly two to four other children.
In 1935, McCartney’s life changed forever from an unbelievable experience. While working for WPA cutting timber, a large tree fell across his body. Several hours went by before anyone found him. He was pronounced dead and taken to the morgue. Only when the mortician inserted an embalming needle into his arm did he awake. He said the mortician was so slow that by the time he began working on him, life came back into his body and he regained consciousness. It was as if he had been raised from the dead.
This startling escape from death filled him with religion, which inspired him to hitch up the goats and spread the gospel. He became an itinerant, or traveling, preacher. As a gimmick, he and his son wore goatskin clothes made by his wife, but she became tired of her husband’s crusade and left him. Many accounts say he sold her to a man in town for $1,000 and a divorce. McCartney became known as the Goat Man. It was said that one time he wrestled a bear and won. Also, he almost was lynched in Alabama by the KKK.
There were only two books that he liked. One was the Bible and the other was “Robinson Crusoe.” This book inspired him and validated his independent lifestyle in which he lived off the land, his goats, the sale of postcards and contributions of others.
His old iron-wheeled wagon was large, rickety and decorated with a clutter of objects that he found along the road. Pots and pans hung on the outside and rattled and jangled as the team of around nine goats pulled it an average of five to 10 miles per day. Kids and doe goats rode in the wagon while bucks did the draft-and-push work. McCartney kept and cared for his sick, injured goats. One had no front legs and had learned to hop on its back legs like a kangaroo. Each of his goats had a name, and one of his favorites was Billy Blue Horns, who lived for three decades, supposedly. When one of his goats died, he buried it at the place of death and kept the hide to “remember” his friend. The Goat Man was friendly, chatty and quick to share an inspirational sermon.
Each night, he camped on some tolerant landowner’s property or in a farmer’s field. He built a large campfire to stay warm and cook supper. He always topped off the fire with an old tire; he claimed the smoke kept the bugs away. There always were people in the area that brought him food while he camped. He kept a watchful eye on the weather and talked to the goats when it was cloudy. He’d say, “Looks like it’s gonna rain, goats.” One family heard him say that, and every time it gets cloudy, they still say it. For 57 years, he traveled to every state in the United States and Canada for a total of 100,000 miles of goat tracks.
At one place where he camped, a couple played a rather dirty trick on him. They asked if he really was a minister, and he told them that he was. They planned a big wedding and invited all their friends to it and had a reception with all the trimmings. They asked him if he would do the honors and perform the ceremony for them. He was very humbled and honored that they would ask him. That evening, after the couple had been pronounced man and wife, they hollered out, “April Fool.” The Goat Man was very disappointed, and I am sure it hurt his feelings. That was a cruel joke.
McCartney said the goats had taught him a lot in 30 years. They did not care how he smelled or looked. He said that everybody’s a goat; they just don’t know it!
Donald Bunnell told the following story about McCartney. When McCartney first started, he and another big, husky, bearded man traveled together. They had a team of horses and a pickup cab on four wheels. When it became meal time and they were in a town, Ches would put a chain around his partner’s neck, and they would go down the street with him pulling at the chain, acting like he was wild. People would stop to look, and Ches would tell them he was responsible for this wild man. He would say they were hungry and ask people for some money so they could eat at a restaurant. People would kick in some money and they would head for the restaurant with George still fighting and kicking all the way.
When they got to the restaurant, Ches would tell them the wild man was hungry and liable to tear up the place if he didn’t get some food. As a result, they would feed them for free. The money he collected went to buy horse feed! The two travelled together for about a year, but his partner got sick and later died.
For some unknown reason, the Goat Man settled in Jeffersonville, in Twiggs County, Ga. He established the Free Thinking Christian Mission from which he journeyed out with his goat-pulled wagon to preach his message of impending and eternal damnation for sinners. One could trace his path through the countryside by the distinctive wooden signs he tacked on trees by the roadside. They had harsh messages on them, like “Prepare to meet thy God” with the fires of hell painted underneath.
Ches made an unpublicized run as a politician on the Democratic presidential ticket but backed out before the election when he became impressed with Kennedy and gave him his support.
Occasionally, the Goat Man was attacked and mugged during his trips around the country. In 1969, three young men assaulted him while he slept in his cart. They broke three of his ribs and killed two of his favorite goats. After that, he retired to his Jeffersonville mission and sold his remaining goats. He and his son lived in a wooden shack without running water or electricity. Their home burned down in 1978, and he purchased an old, rusted school bus.
In 1985, during one of his final journeys from Georgia, he set out on foot to California. He wanted to woo and marry the famous actress Morgan Fairchild and bring her back to Georgia to live with them in the old school bus! En route to California, he was again mugged and had to be hospitalized for his injuries. Some Good Samaritan bought him a ticket back to Georgia. He left the road for good in 1987 and spent his final years as a local celebrity in a nursing home in Macon, where he fell in love with a retired nurse who resided there.
He received tragic news in 1998 that his son, Albert Gene, had been shot to death on the Twiggs County property. McCartney requested that his son be buried in the tomb there that supposedly held his parents, but the tomb was in disrepair. The city of Jeffersonville donated a cemetery plot to the McCartneys, and Albert Gene was buried there. Less than six months later, Ches Charly “the Goat Man” McCartney died at the age of 97 and was buried beside his son.
Read Liberty lore next week for the second part of the column, which will include my firsthand knowledge of the Goat Man. Just ask any of the old-timers in this area, and they will remember the special person who made his annual trip through the county going North in the early spring and back again in the late fall going to Florida. He traveled on Highways 17 and 301. He passed through Long County, where I grew up. I will tell you about my meeting with him.