Oscar the turtle made big news more than 60 years ago in the little town of Churubusco, Indiana.
Many locals claimed they saw, or know someone who saw, a giant turtle weighing as much as 500 pounds in a farmer's pond. No one can say for sure what happened to Oscar, or if he even existed, but Oscar's murky mystery remains a local legend and inspiration for Churubusco's identity as Turtle Town USA.
The towns of Franklin and Union bordered each other along railroad tracks in this area about 15 miles from Fort Wayne. Both towns grew large enough to qualify for a post office in 1840s, but the Postmaster General insisted they apply for a joint post office under another name, and there was already another Franklin in Indiana.
Residents chose the name Churubusco, for a Mexican town and site of an American victory during the Mexican-American War, as the perfect patriotic option in 1847.
Oscar the turtle made his first reported appearance in 1898 when a farmer said he saw "a prehistoric turtle" living in a seven-acre lake on his property just north of Churubusco.
Farmer Oscar Fulk apparently told his story and left it at that, leaving the big turtle to peacefully enjoy the lake.
The next turtle spotters were not nearly so laissez-faire in their attitude, sparking a circus-like atmosphere in town as the search for the turtle made headlines.
In 1948, Ora Blue and Charlie Wilson went fishing on the lake, then owned by Blue's brother-in-law Gale Harris. I don't know if they caught any fish that day, but they came back and told Harris one whopper of a fish tale, claiming they saw a turtle as big as their rowboat.
Harris soon claimed that he also saw the turtle, which was as "big as a dining room table".
Maybe it was a slow news day because the tale of the turtle went through the wire services, making headlines around the world and drawing crowds to Harris' farm.
Some people scoffed at the story, despite Harris' sterling reputation as a church-going man who did not smoke, drink or lie.
With his reputation at stake, Harris became determined to find and trap the creature, by now nicknamed "Oscar" after the farmer who first spotted it 50 years earlier.
Crowds arrived to watch the search, clogging area roads and trampling Harris' crops. Police directed traffic and closed off part of a nearby road for fear it might collapse.
Newspapers reported that Harris caught the creature in a chicken-wire trap, but it escaped. Other failed attempts to catch Oscar included using harpoons, sending divers to search the lake, setting off dynamite to shock Oscar to the lake's surface and sending a sexy sea turtle out as a lure.
When all else failed, Harris started draining the lake.
The search eventually left Harris with no cash after his pump failed and a dam gave way to let the water back into the lake while he was in the hospital with appendicitis.
Harris lost the farm and moved to Fort Wayne to work as a maintenance supervisor. He eventually retired to Florida, but he maintained until his dying day that Oscar existed and he saw the turtle with his own two eyes.
So, what happened to Oscar?
Some say he never existed.
Some, like Harris, felt Oscar rode an underground current to another lake during the search commotion.
A local snapper turtle expert, Rusty Reed, expresses doubt that Oscar existed but offers at least one interesting theory about the turtle and its possible fate.
Reed said many traveling salesmen from southern Indiana in the late 1800s and early 1900s took live baby snappers with them as a source of fresh meat on the road. Some turtles became turtle soup, and salesmen gave others away, sold them or released them in a local lake.
Reed adds that it is probably more likely that, if Oscar did exist, he was too large to support his own weight on land and more likely suffocated under the mud when Harris drained the lake.
Churubusco has an annual festival in Oscar's honor featuring turtle races, a parade and fireworks. Turtle Days is one of Indiana's longest-running community festivals and draws thousands of people. We just missed the 63rd annual Turtle fest when we visited earlier this summer.
Churubusco embraces its turtle-related heritage by displaying a turtle on its municipal office building sign and on the town government's official letterhead.
Subsequent owners of the farm Oscar allegedly called home refused to comment on the subject or let anyone search the lake.
We did see a very large turtle in town, and while he gave me a happy smile when I stopped to interview him, he wasn't talking either.
Want to learn more about other towns along Indiana's Lincoln Highway? Check out The Lincoln Highway Across Indiana (Images of America) by Jan Shupert Arick and the Indiana Lincoln Highway Association or The Lincoln Highway: Coast to Coast from Times Square to the Golden Gate by Michael Wallis.
© Dominique King 2012 All rights reserved