I doubt a more colorful character ever blessed the county with his presence. His old iron-wheeled wagon hauled a teetering pile of garbage, lanterns, bedding, hay bales, clothes, potbelly stove, and scrap metal. The big handmade wagon, which clanked and rattled along with car tags from various states adorning its sides, looked like something the Darling family of “The Andy Griffith Show” might commandeer.
He traveled through the county in that rickety old wagon led by goats. An itinerant preacher, he was the legendary Goat Man. He rarely bathed, and you could smell him long before you got close to him. “The goats have taught me a lot in the past 30 years,” someone heard Charles “Ches” McCartney say, “They don’t, for example, care how I smell or how I look.” Goats were his passion. Sick and injured goats got to ride in his wagon. He was fond of saying “Everybody’s a goat; they just don’t know it.”

It was in the early ’60s, Spring I believe, when he came through Lincoln County. We all piled into the car and headed out to Highway 378 where he had camped out. I remember being a bit uneasy around this bizarre character, his goats, and outlandish wagon. He was gathering wild onions and greens for a salad. He explained to my mom how he knew which plants to eat, and then milked a goat. That was my one Goat Man sighting.

“Ches” McCartney, the Goat Man, wandered the South for four decades. No writer could conjure up such a character. (As Dave Barry says, I am not making any of this up.) It’s not surprising that this eccentric vagabond inspired writers Flannery O’Connor and Cormac McCarthy to base characters on him. Darryl Patton wrote a book about him, America’s Goat Man and Duane Branam wrote a song about him, “The Legend.”

McCartney’s legend began July 6, 1901, in Sigourney, Iowa, though some disagreement attends 1901 as his birth year. At the age of 14, he ran away from his family’s farm. He married a Spanish knife thrower ten years his senior in New York and joined her act, serving as her nervous, quaking target. When she became pregnant they decided to farm for a living, but the Great Depression wiped them out. One day just before dawn, his knife-throwing, farming wife vamoosed. McCartney would marry at least two more times.

In 1935, an unbelievable experience changed McCartney’s life. He was working for the WPA cutting timber when a tree fell across his body. Several hours elapsed before he was found. Pronounced dead, he was taken to a morgue. Only when the mortician inserted an embalming needle in his arm did he awake. Of the experience McCartney said, “the undertaker was slow and by the time he got around to working on me, the life came back into my body and I regained consciousness. It was as if I had been raised from the dead.”

This startling escape from death infused him with religion and his spiritual awakening inspired him to hitch up the goats and spread the gospel. His wife made goatskin clothes for him to wear but quickly tired of her husband’s crusade and left him. (One account claims McCartney sold his wife to another farmer for $1,000.)

McCartney traveled the land with just two books: Robinson Crusoe, which inspired his wanderlust, and the Bible. While spreading the Word, he lived off the land, handouts, and his goats. He sold postcards with his image on them for spending money.

This nomad roamed the South for four decades, making his way into Lincoln County at least once. Children of the ’60s far and wide remember this folk legend who provoked fear and awe and sadly invited violence. He was mugged more than once and in one instance the muggers killed two of his beloved goats.

For reasons unknown, this wayfaring minister settled in Twiggs County where he established the Free Thinking Christian Mission. From his mission base, he journeyed out with his goat-drawn wagon to preach his message of eternal damnation for sinners.

You could trace his route through the countryside by the wooden signs he nailed to trees—“Prepare to Meet Thy God,” beneath which the fires of Hell burned. A man of the cloth (he claimed to be ordained), he nonetheless had his foibles. In 1985, McCartney set out for California, hoping to meet the actress Morgan Fairchild whom he intended to woo and marry. Soon after he arrived in Los Angeles, muggers got him yet again and he had to be hospitalized.

He returned to Georgia and left the road for good in 1987, leaving a legend behind him. After retiring from the road, McCartney and his son, Albert Gene, lived in a wooden shack without running water or electricity. When it burned, he and his son moved into a rusted old school bus.

In 1987, he entered a nursing home in Macon where he lived out his final years as a local celebrity, often wearing a Georgia Bulldog cap. In June 1998, someone shot his son to death in Twiggs County, a murder that remains unsolved. Less than six months after his son’s death, the Goat Man died in the Eastview Nursing Home on November 15, 1998. He claimed to be 106. While that may not be true, he led a life the likes of which we’ll never see again. There’s no disputing that.

The Goat Man was something to behold. Seeing him rattling down the road was as iconic as seeing “See Rock City” atop a barn’s roof. He was a roadside attraction like no other, compelling people to get out of their cars and gawk.

Old timers say it was way too easy spotting experienced Goat Man observers in a big crowd. They were the ones standing upwind.

Columbia, South Carolina writer Tom Poland (www.tompoland.net) is an adjunct professor of Mass Communications at the University of South Carolina. In March 2007, AuthorHouse published his novel, “Forbidden Island—An Island Called Sapelo.” He’s currently working on a book for the USC Press that delves into the blues and the history of “the Shag.”

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