Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


Called yarns, lies, windies, or bullshit, tall tales are stories of exaggeration that act like verbal practical jokes. Most often, tellers begin their stories as if relating a true incident, but part way through the tale they stretch the facts beyond credulity, thereby "catching" their listeners, who then appear to be gullible fools. Sometimes, tall tales are traded by two or more tellers as a contest to see who can tell the most artful whopper. In all cases, however, the tall tale is a clever mixture of truth and fiction.

Many of these stories have ancient roots and have migrated far and wide. Consider the tall tale of weather that is so cold that speech freezes, so that you have to wait until spring thaw to hear winter conversations. It is a wellknown story in the Plains, but it can be traced back as far as Plutarch (347 B.C.) and has been told throughout Europe and North America. Wherever storytellers have encountered extremes of nature, landscape, or human behavior, they have responded by exaggerating these extremes further through tall tales.

At the same time that the tall tale is an international form of folklore, it is also a marker of regionalism. The explanation for this seeming paradox is that each locality chooses only that part of the great pool of stories which best comments on regional conditions. Thus, people of the seacoast tell tall tales about heavy fog, great fish, and canny mariners. Mountain folk tell of "side-hill gougers"–small animals whose left legs are shorter than their right legs so that they can stand upright in hilly country. And people of the forest lie about trees so big that two gangs of loggers can chop on opposite sides without being aware of each other's existence.

It is no surprise, therefore, that Plains people comment upon their land through a similar selection from the international storehouse of lies. Tales of extreme cold, like the frozen conversation, are common, but the extreme variability of flatland weather generates its own kind of stories. The warm chinook winds that rush down the Rockies into the Plains during wintertime create scenes such as a team of horses struggling through high snow while the driver's cart bogs down in mud, and meanwhile the dog running behind kicks up dust from the dry road. The gumbo mud of springtime causes problems for pigs: the mud builds up on their tails to such an extent that it stretches the skin on their backs so that they can't close their eyes and they often die from lack of sleep. Other tales comment on summer heat and drought ("the day it rained") and the resulting dust storms when gophers are seen ten feet in the air digging down.

If mountain people have side-hill gougers, then Plains folk have "jackalopes"–jackrabbits with antelope prongs on their heads–or their larger cousins, the "elkhares." Prairie grasshoppers grow so big they're mistaken for cattle or airplanes. Venomous snakes strike at wagon tongues, which swell so much they provide enough kindling to last the winter.

In good times, prairie wheat is so thick that it must be swathed twice before it will fall, and cabbages are large enough to shelter pigs from the sun. In bad times, it's so dry that bullfrogs don't know how to swim because they've never had a chance to learn; parents pour water through a screen so that their children will know what rain looks like.

Just as tall tales comment upon the land and the climate, they also describe regional occupations, especially outdoor, primary-resource industries. For this reason, the tall tale is often seen as a preserve of men, the traditional workers in such occupations, although on occasion women have been known to lie. Farmers tell of strong pitchers who could unload a rack of hay in two forkfuls. Ranchers recall riding on the backs of jackrabbits to herd far-ranging cattle. Oil drillers speak of derricks so tall that they are hinged to let the moon pass.

Sometimes the tellers of these tales turn into folk heroes in their own right, becoming Münchhausens of their particular region or occupation. For example, the oil driller Gib Morgan (1842–1909) was a prodigious teller of tall tales, and he soon became the protagonist in oil-patch stories. Instead of oil, he drilled for cream or champagne, used snakeskins for a pipeline, and when he heard a distant thunderstorm, single-handedly capped a gusher in mid-blow.

Other heroes were entirely fanciful, sometimes the work of popular writers. Although Paul Bunyan was best known in the forests of the East and Midwest, he was also a tall-tale figure in the Plains. In fact, he logged the Northern Plains so completely that the Dakotas are almost devoid of trees. The tall-tale cowboy Pecos Bill was the invention of writer Edward O'Reilly, who probably based his character on Paul Bunyan. Pecos Bill rode tornadoes and lit cigarettes with lightning bolts. At the age of one month, he killed a panther; his life ended when he laughed himself to death looking at a Bostonian in a cowboy suit.

Just as authors have used the tall-tale tradition to their advantage, so too have commercial artists. For example, the art of the taxidermist may be seen in Plains saloons, where stuffed and mounted jackalopes are on display. More popular, however, are tall-tale postcards. Since the early twentieth century, postcard manufacturers have used trick photography to show giant ears of corn (three to a wagon), furbearing trout (from especially cold streams), hunters carrying large grasshoppers on poles, and the jackrabbit-riding cowboys mentioned above.

Whether told during roundup or sent as postcards to eastern relatives, the tall tale is a sardonic commentary on the harshness and changeability of life in the Great Plains. Exaggeration allows flatlanders to temper the disappointment of crops that are not abundant, weather that is less than moderate, and occupations that involve more drudgery than heroism. The humor of tall tales resides in a delicate balance of fact and fiction that reflects both the dreams and realities of Plains life.

Michael Taft American Folklife Center Library of Congress

Boatright, Mody C. Gib Morgan: Minstrel of the Oil Fields. Publications of the Texas Folklore Society, no. 20. Dallas: Southern Methodist University Press, 1945.

Halpert, Herbert. "Tall Tales and Other Yarns from Calgary, Alberta." California Folklore Quarterly 4 (1945), 29–49. Reprinted in Folklore of Canada, edited by Edith Fowke. Toronto: Mc- Clelland and Stewart Ltd., 1976: 171–89.

Welsch, Roger L. Shingling the Fog and Other Plains Lies. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1980.

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