By T.W. Burger
Charles “Ches” McCartney, aka The Goat Man, had been a personal hero of mine ever since I was a boy growing up in Athens in the early 1960s.
He was small and wiry, dressed in a long-sleeved shirt and faded bib overalls, and sported a huge, grizzled beard, not a common sight back then.
For 50 years, he traveled the country in a rickety old wagon pulled by a whole mess of goats, living off the sale of goat milk, donations and from the sale of postcards featuring photos of himself and his animals. He was also sometimes a fire-and-brimstone preacher, though I never saw that side of him.
I’m sure he smelled splendidly bad, but I don’t remember. In a North Carolina history website, I found a note from somebody who asked him if he ever bathed. McCartney replied that when young, he used to bathe in creeks. As he got older, he gave it up, in part because the goats weren’t bothered.
The Goat Man and his clanking, bleating caravan camped out a few times at the abandoned Prince Avenue Drive-in theater near where I lived. (Now the home of the Homewood shopping center.)
The wagon, as I remember, was maybe 20 feet long and about six feet wide. Pots and pans, assorted cooking utensils and vehicle license plates hung from hooks or were nailed on every flat surface. All this gave the wagon a festive, jangling sound as the wagon moved.
It had an open space filled with old quilts. They had been shaped by long use into a nest. He said that was where he slept on cold nights, with one or two goats to keep him warm.
My parents were wonderfully appalled. I had never seen my mother’s nose so wrinkled. My dad did not really react at all. He had served in the Pacific in WWII, so I think he was used to bad smells.
The entourage looked right at home parked at the entrance to the theater, with its speaker posts leaning like a regiment of drunks and the shattered screen showing a long feature about sky.
According to some new on-line friends, the theater opened in 1954 by the Georgia Theater Company.
Their timing was awkward: The theater opened right about the time drive-in theaters were failing.
The Prince Avenue operation closed about three years after opening. With room for about 300 cars, it was a great place to play. The one caveat was that one had to keep moving lest the kudzu get hold of you.
By the time McCartney and I intersected there, the site sat nearly obscured with kudzu vines. It was spooky after dark.
McCartney was reportedly born on an Iowa farm in 1901. At 14, he made his was to New York City and was said to have married a Spanish knife-thrower 10 years his senior. The couple had a son.
Apparently, he worked as her knife-throwing target in an act.
OK, so strategic planning was not his strong suit.
The McCartney family reportedly left the city and farmed, until the Great Depression forced him to seek work cutting timber with the Works Progress Administration. He was seriously injured when a tree fell on him, the story goes, and only regained consciousness when on the embalming table.
That’s how the story goes, anyway.
In his half-century on the road, he posted hand-made signs warning “Prepare to Meet Thy God,” enhanced by the fires of hell painted at the bottom.
In another interview, McCartney said Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe and the Bible were his inspiration, and he carried copies with him.
His first wife left him somewhere along the way, and he may have married two more times and fathered a few more kids, so to speak.
His first son, Albert Gene, joined him on the road for a time.
From his base in Twiggs County, where he founded his Free-Thinking Christian Mission, he claimed to have traveled to all the lower 48 states as well as Alaska and Canada.
In a citation from the Special Collections & Archives, Georgia State University Library it was said that McCartney was seriously injured by muggers in 1985. He was on one of his final journeys from Georgia. He had sold his goats and assorted gear and set out on foot to California, hoping to meet the actress Morgan Fairchild, whom he wanted to marry.
He left the road for good in 1987 and went into the nursing home. He died on November 15, 1998.
Aside from the visit where I was escorted by my parents, I sometimes rode my bike the mile or so
from Valleywood Drive to visit him on my own.
There was always a crowd around, so it was safe. Not that I told my mom where I was going. Must have slipped my mind.
The Goat Man would milk his goats, then drink right out of whatever can or jar he’d just squeezed the milk into. I’m sure he offered me some. If he did, I doubt I accepted. I was maybe 12, and the method of delivery seemed a little dodgy to me. Everybody knows that milk came from clean glass bottles.
On one of my visits, one of his bucks slammed me in the butt with his head, just like in cartoons. I thought it was neat. The old man and I shared a laugh over it. I made friends with most of his 12 or so goats. Except for the aggressive buck. We achieved détente, that’s about it.
I thought McCartney looked like one of the Old Testament prophets from the illustrations in the family Bible, with his beard and fierce eyes.
The wagon I thought the very best thing that had ever been, and I made up my mind that I would someday venture out into the world in just such a rig.
Well, I didn’t. Some of the cars I’ve had come close, though.
I have a good life, with a house, and a car that does not turn heads or jangle much. I managed to earn a living without having to poke around in the nether regions of goats, or sleep with one to keep warm.
And I smell OK, mostly.
These are all good things.
And yet, I confess a love for wandering sans destination, new people and places. I have a soft spot in my heart for people who travel their own road in their own way.
And for goats.
Some years ago, I tracked The Goat Man down to a nursing home near Macon. I got hold of him by phone.
His conversation tended to wander, but I suppose that was proper, all things considered.
“I still get around pretty good, praise the Lord,” he said. He missed traveling, but he had a girlfriend at the home, so he was happy.
He liked to say that he was well over 100 years old, though it wasn’t true.
He owed his longevity to his simple life and to drinking goat milk, which might be true.
He had died in mid-November, about 100 miles from where I had visited him and his goats.
The town where he died is in flat country, and November in Georgia is typically cool, if a little rainy. Good traveling weather.
T.W. Burger was raised in Athens. He graduated from Athens High School in 1967. He worked as a driver of everything from fork trucks to garbage trucks and concrete mixers, has been an apprentice mortician and ambulance attendant.
Semi-retired and residing in Pennsylvania, Burger is still working as a contributing writer for Classic City News and various other publications, and lives on the banks of Marsh Creek, just outside of Gettysburg.