BACK HOME IN INDIANA

by John Gutowski

How did I spend my summer? I sold books in Churubusco Indiana. That's my adopted home-town. It's about fifteen miles northwest of Fort Wayne, has a population of 2,000 that resists post-modern, post-real experiments in cosmic emptiness. Churubusco keeps its identity of a small, rural, Middle American, Main Street, U.S.A. I wrote a scholarly monograph about that identity and its connection to folklore. That's the book I was selling on Main Street this summer. Its title is The Beast of `Busco: An American Tradition. Its focus is the story of the community festival, Turtle Days.

So there I was on June 18 and 19 at Turtle Days 1999 selling my wares first in the town library, then in the Merchant's tent at the festival. I had been invited to do this by the Churubusco News, which carried the monograph's first ever review on June 9. I was also invited to be a judge at the Turtle Day Parade. And I made an appearance as "guest color commentator" at the Turtle Days' Turtle Races. In between I managed to start a few arguments in some of the local taverns about my favorite subject: Oscar the turtle, the Beast of `Busco, was he or wasn't he?

The first Turtle Day occurred throughout1949 when a local farmer and his neighborly friends captured the nation's attention through their persistent though futile quest for the biggest snapping turtle ever believed to be seen by human eyesAmerica's Loch Ness Monster, the Beast of `Busco. The ensuing publicity and pandemonium resemble what we are seeing today in Burkittsville, Maryland following thr relese of "The Blair Witch Project." In 1949 Churubusco seized the initiative and captured a lasting turtle-community metaphor. From 1950 to the present, Churubusco has commemorated its distinction as "Turtletown U.S.A." through an annual "Turtle Days" festival. In other smaller scaled but ubiquitous ways the turtle has become a metaphor for community in speech, story, song, poetry, drama, pageant, legend, ballad, joke, art, craft, costume, cookery, contest, and other forms of expressive traditional communication.

All you ever wanted to know about this turtle based folklore complex can be found in The Beast of `Busco: An American Tradition. Chapter 1 "Community and Tradition" is about demographics and imagination. It introduces the community through a survey of its symbolic folklore and shows why traditions that Churubuscoans both share and contest with other communities could not become the theme of their festival. What did were the events of 1949, "The Great Turtle Hunt" and the protofestive "Town Folklore" chronicled in detail in the second and third chapters. The next two chapters deal with folklore developments from a wide range of emergent folklore in Chapter 4 to a detailed history of the Turtle Days festival in Chapter 5. Much of the preceding information was based on my own field research in Churubusco in 1970 and 1971. In 1992 I returned to town to see what had changed and what had remained constant. This is the theme of Chapter 6. The following conclusion argues that the communal life history told through the Churubusco folklore complex is an American story in a distinct folk idiom, expressing a vitalizing local knowledge. It is the story of the integrity, creativity, richness, and vibrancy of a town's folk tradition. The beast of `Busco is much more than a giant turtle.

 

 

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