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Media Article # 310

Saturday, July 13, 2002

Wildman craze of 1895 made things a little hairy

Waterbury Republican American (Connecticut)

BIGFOOT: Legend brought curious N.Y. newshounds here


Remember the Bigfoot craze of the 1970s and ‘80s? You couldn't go anywhere without hearing about a new Bigfoot sighting or seeing a television documentary about the legend of the large, apelike man that lived in the wilderness.

‘The Six Million Dollar Man,' portrayed by actor Lee Majors in the 1970s television series, had a run-in or two with the big fellow. Then, in 1987, Bigfoot made his big-screen debut in ‘Harry and the Hendersons.'

But, long before the hairy, 9-foot tall enigmatic beast ever hit the television screens and long before its image appeared on little boys' tin lunchboxes, a Bigfoot-esque creature was actually spotted right here in Winsted.

"They called him the Winsted Wildman," said Joseph Cadrain, a local historian and writer who has recounted the tale of the local Bigfoot several times. "He was seen in 1895 and the sighting caused quite a stir at the time."

A stir, to say the least.

The initial sighting was made "on a sultry August day" recall newspaper clippings from the time.

A local town official, Selectman Riley Smith, was the first to spot the creature.

Other Winsteders later supposedly saw the creature as well, but it was Smith's sighting that was given the most credibility.

According to Frank Wentworth's 1929 book, ‘The Winsted Wildman and other Tales,' Smith went up to pick berries near the Colebrook town line on Lowsaw Road in an area known then as Indian Meadow.

"While (Smith) was stooped over picking berries, his bulldog (Ned), which is noted for its pluck, ran with a whine to him and stationed itself between his legs," accounts from the Aug. 21, 1895 Winsted Herald reported. #EHEAD#

"A second afterward a large man, stark naked and covered with hair all over his body, ran out of a clump of bushes and, with fearful yells and cries, made for the woods at lightening [sic] speed where he soon disappeared.

"Selectman Smith is a powerful, wiry man and has a reputation for having lots of sand, and his bulldog is also noted for his pluck, but Riley admits that he was badly scared and his dog was fairly paralyzed with fear."

Word of Smith's tale spread throughout the little town quickly and it eventually piqued the interest of newspapers from New York and Boston.

Soon after newsmen converged on Winsted — on what was then a very active rail service — to not only write about the incident, but to try and capture the wildman and bring him back to the city on a return train trip.

According to Wentworth, the gaggle of reporters were unsuccessful and all they went home with were sunburns and hangovers from the local beer.

Townsfolk were scared, however, and a local posse was formed to find the mysterious creature. But like the reporters, the posse also was unsuccessful.

Winsted residents speculated on who, or what, the wildman was, Cadrain said. Some newspaper reports from the time even said the wildman may have been an insane artist named Arthur Beckwith.

Beckwith reportedly escaped from a New York insane asylum in 1894. But prior to that, Beckwith had escaped from a Litchfield asylum. He was found six months later in Cuba, living naked in the tropics and eating raw fruits and vegetables from the jungle.

But Benjamin Thomas, Winsted's municipal historian, said the wildman story over the years took on a life of its own. He said most of the tale may be more fiction than fact.

"Something happened in 1895," Thomas said. "But townspeople talked about it and added to it over the years, that's for sure."

Paul Rego has lived on Lowsaw Road, near Indian Meadow, for about 10 years. He said he's never seen anything in his rural area that even remotely resembles a Bigfoot.

"Nope, never seen nothing like that up here," Rego said recently. "We have some pretty wild-looking people in Winsted, but no wildman."

Although the wildman sighting was talked about for years in Winsted, the event is not listed on the Bigfoot Field Researches Organization Internet site.

In fact, the Web site does mention an official Bigfoot sighting in the area — in Litchfield in November of 1968, 73 years after Winsted's event.

"Maybe that was the Winsted Wildman's grandson," Cadrain said with a chuckle. "Who knows? The identity of the wildman was never determined, so maybe it was a Bigfoot."


BFRO Notes from T. Stein (Denver, CO):

The sighting occured in Winsted, in northwestern Connecticut, which has always been the wildest part of the state. Geologically, the town sits at the southern end of the Taconic Range, prominent line of north-south ridges, linked by low, wet saddles -- the wreckage of a collision with Europe 250 million years ago.

The Taconics (or Taghkanics as they used to be known) were never densely inhabited and have now reverted to forest. Moose have recently recolonized the wetlands on the eastern flank of the range in southern Mass. (just north of Winsted). Mountain lion sightings have come out of this area for 50 years. Not surprisingly, the largest roadless area left in southern New England sits astraddle the NY/CT/Mass juncture.

In the late 19th century, the woods were just starting to reclaim on the hills, which had been cut over at least twice since colonial times. Ridgetop soils were much poorer than valley soils, so they were given over to pastures and in some places orchards. Ridges were also the first to be abandoned by agriculture, and by the end of the 19th century the vegetation along many would have been characterized by old-field succession (berry tangles followed by birch to maple or oak-hickory) interspersed with abandoned orchards. An introduced fungus wiped out the most productive natural food source, chestnut trees, in the early part of the 20th century. But between the berries, nuts, apples and corn down below, any creatures that managed to avoid farmers' guns would have found ample nutrition. Springs, streams and perched ponds still provide fresh water well up the slopes.

The ridges would have also provided a convenient, secluded travel route affording commanding views of the open land below. Some of the slopes were too steep or inaccessible for lumbering, which meant that the roughest terrain remained under the cover of trees. These pockets, which now represent some of the southernmost old growth in New England, might possibly have offered places to hide.

Our Berkshire County, Massachusetts sightings page carries a copy of a New York Times story on a wildman sighting in 1879, some 16 years before the Winsted report.

That story had a Pownal, Vt. dateline, though the writer placed the encounter in the hills south of Williamstown. That would be Williamstown, Mass., just a few miles south of the state line. If you follow the Taconics south from Williamstown, after about 60 miles you end up in Winsted.

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