Timeline of a Turtle Hunt

Reprinted from  the Indianapolis Star,  with the kind permission of author John Gutowski. The bold green print indicates events depicted in some form in Turtle Soup.

1898: Reports of a giant, prehistoric turtle in Oscar Fulk’s lake.

CroniesJuly 27, 1948: While fishing in the lake, Ora Blue and Charley Wilson report seeing a giant turtle.

March 10, 1949: After another sighting by Gale Harris, the first press accounts surface, reporting that Oscar the giant turtle had escaped a net made of chicken wire.

March 11: Harris rigs up a periscope for turtle-spotting, using pipe and a piece of glass. Harris vows: “I’m gonna get this doggone turtle out if I have to drain the lake. I’ve been called a liar long enough.”

March 12: As the news spreads via newspapers and radio around the world, 3,000 people watch attempts to snare the turtle.

March 13: Oscar again escapes a makeshift trap; crowd grows to 5,000.

March 14: Local community club votes to help, provides boats, lumber and pipe. It also vows to provide a home for Oscar; a “Turtle Committee” is established.

divingMarch 16: The Chicago Sun-Times donates Navy-surplus diving gear so Fort Wayne diver Woodrow Rigsby can search for Oscar.

March 18: Rigsby goes under, but the helmet leaks and he abandons the dive; two days later, Rigsby disappears.

March 20: Truck headlights added to the periscope for night surveillance.

March 22: Another diver, Walter Johnson, Chesterton, spends more than two hours underwater but has to be rescued when he sinks into the muck of the lake bottom up to his chest.

floating trapMarch 31: Harris signs a contract with professional turtle hunters from Tennessee, bars all spectators from the lake for at least two weeks.

April 4: Trappers devise a funnel-shaped wire trap, baited with rabbits and fish.

April 14: Trappers abandon their efforts; frustrated Harris vows to catch Oscar if he has to dive in himself.

April 16: Rigsby reappears with Johnson. Both spend 90 minutes underwater but see nothing.

April 20: Harris decides to try a commercial fishing net.

April 24: Harris’ net apparently entangles Oscar at the bottom of the lake.

April 27: Oscar tears through the net to freedom.

May 5: Harris announces he may just drain the lake after all.

May 8: A 225-pound female sea turtle is placed in the lake to attract Oscar.

May 12: Harris decides she does nothing for Oscar and goes back to using nets.

May 19: Abandoning nets, Harris begins to drag the lake with nine long hooks welded onto a 2-foot pipe; meanwhile, the strain of staring through the periscope for hours on end begins to give Harris eye trouble.

May 26: An eye specialist orders Harris to give the periscope a break and says he could go blind.

June: Harris takes a break and begins to farm.

July 9: Armed with a harpoon, Harris hooks Oscar; the turtle proceeds to pull Harris’ boat toward shallow water and breaks the line.

July 12: Another sighting is reported when onlookers see the turtle attack a pen of live ducks, which had been placed over a trap.

pumpingSept. 14: After a summer of frustration and constantly accused of being a liar, Harris begins to drain the lake. With permission from the state, he pumps water into a nearby ditch that flows to White Lake. Crowds return to watch.

Sept. 21: Twenty-four-hour pumping lowers the lake from 65 feet to 25 feet. The droves of people watching all summer have left much of Harris’ crops in a shambles.

Sept. 22: The lakeshore begins to sink: Banks cave in; deep fissures open in the land around the shore; a pickup sinks into the muck. The 7-acre lake is reduced to a 2-acre lake while more than 500 watch.

Sept. 24: A Chicago Tribune reporter barely escapes death when he falls into a 12-foot-deep crevice and is buried in the muck; it takes five farmers to pull him out.

Sept. 29: Harris captures a 52-pound turtle in a trap baited with beef lungs, but it’s no Oscar.

Oct. 2: With Fulk Lake down to 1 acre in size and 20 feet deep, the tractor engine running the pump breaks down.

Oct. 9: Harris once again turns to a harpoon and claims to hook Oscar but loses him, again, when his boat is nearly overturned; with pumping resumed, the lake is barely 5 feet deep.

Oct. 20: As the water drains away, a 17-ton crane is positioned on shore to raise Oscar from the muck, using steel nets. “T-Day” is set for Oct. 23; crowds are estimated in the hundreds during the week and more than 2,000 on weekends.

Oct. 23: Attempts to maneuver the crane fail.

Nov. 3: The operation is halted when bearings on the crane burn out.

Nov. 20: Harris is hospitalized with appendicitis.

Dec. 19: Recovered, Harris resumes his search, looking for a hole in the ice that covers what is left of the lake.

Jan. 5, 1950: A dam used to hold water back from the lake gives way, sending pipes, boats, traps and a tractor rushing back in. Heavy rains and melting ice continue to refill Fulk’s Lake.

Aug. 23, 1950: Harris, deep in debt, must auction off his 120-acre farm and lake; listed on the items to sell: one large turtle net, 200 feet long by 32 feet wide.


Source: Star clippings and John Gutowski

What Legends are Made Of

–Guest blog by playwright Michael Wilhelm

There once was a farmer who found a monster turtle in his lake. The story of Gale Harris and his encounter with the Beast of ‘Busco is such a thing as fairy tales are made of, yet this is not a fable. It is a story of human endurance, determination and tenacity. At best it is a parable of longsuffering, and at its worst it is a hilarious romp of human foibles.  In either case it is a story that must not be lost in the annals of history.

In 1949 the war scare was over. There was a general sense of giddy relief.  People were eager to rally around any possible opportunity to celebrate.  So when a farmer in the small community of Churubusco Indiana claimed to have spotted an enormous turtle in his small lake, and set out to harness the mammoth beast, the word spread like wildfire.  People flocked to the little town which was receiving worldwide notoriety. Gale Harris became a local celebrity. And ‘Oscar the Turtle’ became a banner of celebration for the town to this very day.


Playwright Michael Wilhelm poses with a statue of Oscar in Churubusco, IN.

As the years passed the tale of the great turtle hunt faded into the realm of urban legend. On occasion, random details will pop up to remind us that there is more truth than myth to the story.  Such was my personal introduction to the Beast of ‘Busco.  I was sitting in a coffee shop enjoying my cup of brew, perusing a local tabloid whose cover story happened to be the anniversary of the Turtle Hunt.  As I read through the events I found myself laughing and thinking this would make a remarkable movie.  Someone should write it up.  Then it struck me:  Why don’t I do it? And not a movie, but a stage play–a work of art that could be presented by different generations. This would keep the story of Oscar the Turtle alive.

As I began to dissect the story, I found that the main focus was not the hunt at all, but the relationship between Gale Harris and his wife, Helen.  To my mind, this woman was the unsung hero:  She was faithful to her husband to the end; though she lost a lot, she was never bitter about it; and in later years was often called upon to tell the story over and over again.  This is why I decided to tell the story from her standpoint.  A remarkable woman sharing her phenomenal story makes for some pretty engaging theater.

Plan now to see TURTLE SOUP!

TURTLE SOUP imageIn 1949, Gale Harris and some of his friends claimed to have caught glimpses of an enormous turtle in Fulks Lake, a small body of water on Harris’ farm. What followed defied probability:  Harris’ feverish search to find and capture the turtle caught the attention of the whole nation and Churubusco, Indiana found itself on the map.

Fort Wayne actor, artist and writer Michael Wilhelm saw the potential in this for a stage comedy (see next post for his story behind the script). all for One agreed with him, and we premiered his original play, Turtle Soup, in May 2011. We are thrilled to announce its return to brighten the winter doldrums. Turtle Soup opens February 19th and runs through the 28th.

The cast:

GALE HARRIS:   Michael Wilhelm
HELEN HARRIS:   Lisa Ellis
VAUGHN HARRIS:   Ben Wilder*
CHARLEY WILSON:   Dennis Nichols
ORA BLUE:  Terry Ellis
KENNY LEITCH:   J. Scott Kump
JIM KIRTLEY:   Nate Chen
VICTOR:   Andy Canaveral
MARJORIE:   Esther Mussmann
NUB:   Andrew Scantlin*
WOODY RIGSBY:   Jadon Moore

*indicates afO Home Stage debut