By Dean Jones, Carthage, TX
In memory of Stubby “Bobo” Jones, 07/11/95 – 02/10/10
When I was about 10 years old, I learned what a “dumb bull” was. This learning experience was courtesy of my grandfather. When one hears the words “dumb bull” all kinds of images pass through one’s mind. Images of a crazy cow or a brainless runaway bull passed through mine when I first heard the term.
Actually, a “dumb bull” is not a living creature at all. It is a simple device that works without electricity or electronics. It is a crude “sound effects” generator. The sound a dumb bull creates is almost guaranteed to stampede cattle, cure constipation in youngsters,
increase sales of ammunition in rural areas, as well as cause the switchboard of your local 911 operator to light up on a boring night in a small town! In short, a dumb bull is a practical joker device that will scare the living daylights out of anything that hears it. Dumb bulls were popular in the “good old days” of our grandparents in rural areas. Dumb bulls are also mentioned in The Foxfire Books.
Construction of a dumb bull is simple. A wooden nail keg is the main component. Both ends of the nail keg are knocked out. An animal hide, usually deer, is stretched tight over one end of the keg and secured. A small hole is punched through the middle of the tightly stretched hide. A rather thick piece of cord, leather strip , or string is then threaded through the inside of the keg and exits out through the hole in the animal hide. A knot is tied in the end of the cord to prevent it from being pulled all the way through the hide. About 18” of the cord is now left hanging out of the keg through the hide.
Next, beeswax is rubbed up and down the length of the string. My grandfather said they would also use pine rosin. That is all a dumb bull is comprised of. It’s a simple device but oh is it so effective! To make the dumb bull emit its hideous sound, one simply grabs the cord and pulls his fingers down the length of the cord. The sound that is emitted is like something straight out of a horror movie. A dumb bull will indeed cause cattle to stampede. It will also spook horses and will cause every dog within a mile to start barking.
The first time I heard a dumb bull was in 1965. We lived in the “big city” of Marshall, TX. My grandparents lived 28 miles south of Marshall in Carthage. Each summer, my two brothers and I would come stay with my grandparents for a week or two to give our parents a break from parenting.
One summer evening my brothers and I decided to camp out in our grandparent’s yard. We fashioned a makeshift pup tent out of bed sheets and proceeded to “rough it” about 200 feet from our grandparent’s home. There was a large horse pasture that bordered their yard in the back. We were camped near the pasture. About 9:00 that evening, my brothers and I were bedded down in the pup tent, ready for a night of serious camping. We thought we were tough – reading Superman and Batman comic books by flashlights and drinking Coca-Cola in the tent, and fighting off mosquitoes.
Unknown to us at the time, my grandfather had slipped out of the house with his dumb bull and had hidden in the pasture behind our tent. The first pull of the cord on the dumb bull quickly got all three of us young kid’s attention. The second pull on the cord caused me to see the fear in my older brother’s eyes, which in turn had a domino effect on me as well as my younger brother. I don’t know whose eyes were bigger—mine or my two brothers’!
Every dog in the entire neighborhood was barking at whatever this creature was by the third pull of the cord by my grandfather. The dog barking added more fuel to the fear that was inside of that little pup tent.
By the fourth pull of the dumb bull, we three boys decided it was time to end our campout and head back to the safety of our grandparent’s home! However, none of us were brave enough to exit the tent first. The fifth pull of the string seemed like the creature was almost upon us! This long drawn-out pull of the string caused my older brother to take the initiative and high-tail it out of the tent first with me right behind him.
We forgot about our younger brother! It was every man for himself at this point. We abandoned our flashlights and our sacred comic books. The soft drinks spilled all over our bed rolls. I could see my older brother several feet in front of me. Needless to say, my younger brother was right on my heels. He tripped me up as our legs got entangled and we both fell in the grassy yard. Our older brother sure wasn’t about to stop and help his younger siblings. It wasn’t necessary. We were both up and back on our feet in a millisecond. We heard the hideous noise again just as we blew through the front door of the house. Whatever was out there was following us towards the house. We slammed the door so hard we nearly broke out the glass in the door.
My grandmother later described us as being white as sheets and blabbering about some kind of monster in the pasture. Just about that time, our grandfather enters the home carrying a funny looking nail keg and laughing like a hyena. We three youngsters learned that hot night in the summer of 1965 what a dumb bull was. We all got a good laugh about the dumb bull prank later.
None of us ever knew what happened to the dumb bull after that, but we never forgot the sound of that ungodly creature!
In 1968 I moved from Marshall to Carthage and finished high school at Carthage High School in 1975. Why during my high school years I never resurrected the dumb bull prank I do not know, as I was prone to play practical jokes on my friends.
Fast forward to 1983. I’m 26 years old and married for 6 years, still living in Carthage. My wife Brenda & I had a group of friends that did everything together. I will only use their first names: Kevin, Randy, Mike, Joe, Angela, Robin, and Tammy. Kevin & I were known as practical jokers as we were always pulling jokes on each other as well as the rest of “the gang”.
My grandfather owned a large tract of land in the Sabine River bottom north of Carthage. On this tract of land was a large lake, which we think was an old river bed. Family members simply called it “The Lake”. Others called it “Corbett’s Lake” as my grandfather was named Corbett Akins.
The lake was situated deep in the river bottom off of old Highway 59. The road to the lake was sandy in areas. In the 1980’s my friends & I would get off work at 5:00 and head to the lake. Back then it seemed like we had so much time. We could get off work, go goof around in the river bottom until about dark, head home and eat “supper” and then stay up until way past midnight.
In the summer of 1983, Kevin & I decided it was time to play a joke on all the others. After mulling over several ideas, a light bulb went off in my head – a dumb bull!
We knew that just the sound of a sub-human creature in the woods would probably not scare everybody. We knew we would need something visual to go along with the audible noise of the dumb bull. So, we came up with the idea to make some “Bigfoot” footprints in the sandy road leading to the lake. The idea was to get everybody down at the lake one evening, let them “discover” the footprints in the sand, then have someone begin using a dumb bull in the woods to scare them.
We had the plan, now we just needed to build a dumb bull. We quickly found out that was easier said than done. In 1983, we had no idea how hard it would be to find a nail keg. Remember, there were no Lowe’s or Home Depot stores around us at the time. There were only two hardware stores in Carthage as well.
Kevin went to one of the locally owned stores & I headed to the other. As I entered the store, an older gentleman asked if he could help me. I told him I needed a nail keg only – not the nails, just the keg. The gentleman just laughed at me and said they hadn’t received nails in kegs in 20 years! He then asked me, “What are you gonna do, build a dumb bull?”
I was shocked that this guy knew what I was up to. It reminded me of the time way back in the early 70’s when I was in high school. I entered Jenkins Pharmacy on the square and asked Mr. Jenkins if he sold “oil of mustard”. I’ll never forget the look in Mr. Jenkins eyes when he replied “No! I know what you’re going to do with it too! I quit carrying it years ago because all the high school boys would come in here and buy it and then they’d rub it on my commode seat in my rest room in the back of the store! I know what you want it for too. You’ll get in trouble with it at school young man!” Mr. Jenkins had me figured out that day as well. My reason for wanting the oil of mustard is best left for another story at a later time! Back to the dumb bull story …
Kevin came up empty-handed on his quest for a nail keg as well. Our ingenious prank was in jeopardy unless we could construct a dumb bull. We decided to look at alternatives to the nail keg.
A trip to the local Gibson’s Discount Center (there was no Wal-Mart in Carthage yet) proved beneficial. We picked out a very large, plastic, industrial trash can. After poking a hole in the bottom and experimenting with various sizes of strings and cords, we finally had a “modernized” Rubbermaid® Dumb Bull! Our great-grandparents would have been shocked to know that we had denigrated their childhood prank down to a 1980’s disco-plastic version!
With the dumb bull constructed, we just needed to work on the visual part of the prank, that is, the “Bigfoot” footprints. We cut out two very large footprints from plywood with four “claws” on the end. Size wise, these two footprints measured about 22” in length as best I can remember. As I said, Kevin and I had pulled many pranks on each other and the group as well, so we knew we needed outsiders to pull on the dumb bull in the woods. We wanted all of us friends to be present when “Bigfoot” did his screaming in the woods. We enlisted the help of my younger brother and his wife to play “Bigfoot” in the woods when we arrived at the lake.
The plan was simple. We would all head to the lake in our separate vehicles. My wife & I would be in the lead car as we had to unlock the gate. Joe & his wife would be in the second vehicle, Randy & Angela would follow them, Mike and his wife Robin would be next, then Kevin would be in the last vehicle in the pack.
None of them suspected a thing. The only ones that knew of the oncoming prank were my wife & I, Kevin, and Mike’s wife Robin. We had to tell her about the prank as she was pregnant at the time and we sure didn’t want to scare her so bad as to cause a miscarriage!
Earlier in the day, Kevin and I had gone to the lake and stopped at an area of the road known as “Rattlesnake Ridge”. This area of my grandfather’s land was well known to everybody as a crossing for rattlesnakes. I strapped on the two plywood feet and stomped around in the sandy road. The foot prints appeared to come out of the water at the bank of the lake and cross the sandy road at Rattlesnake Ridge. We wanted the footprints to continue on down another road that shot off from the main road as this was a very sandy road. The giant footprints were plainly visible in the sand.
The mouth of Martin Creek emptied into the Sabine River on my grandfather’s land. We continued the trail of the giant foot prints down this narrow road all the way down to the banks of Martin Creek. The footprints appeared to enter the water. We wanted it to appear like something like the “Creature from the Black Lagoon” had passed by!
We planned for my little brother and his wife hid their vehicle and got in place with the dumb bull before we all arrived. They had gathered some small branches to break and throw to make it appear that “something” was out there trampling around in the woods making an unearthly howl.
Shortly after 5:00 after we all got off from our jobs, we made our usual plans to head to the lake. The caravan of vehicles headed out with my wife & I leading the pack.
Kevin & I could only hope that my little brother and his wife were in place with the dumb bull awaiting our arrival. There was no electricity in the river bottom then and remember, we had no cell phones in 1983, so we couldn’t call him to see if all was good to go. “Operation Bigfoot Dumb Bull” was put into effect as we all headed out and there was no turning back.
The plan was for my wife and I to stop at Rattlesnake Ridge claiming that we had seen a large rattler cross the road into the grass. We would be stopped about 50 feet short of the previously planted footprints. We stopped and told the others about seeing a 6’ rattler cross the road and we all started looking for it. Sure enough, a few moments later, we heard Mike screaming “My God! Look at these $^#@$ footprints!”
The trap was sprung – all the rest of the group fell for it hook, line, and sinker! Nobody could figure out what type of prints they were. The women started getting scared and wanting to go home. The guys were unsure what to do. Kevin and I convinced everybody to follow the tracks and see where they went. We all proceeded off course from the lake and headed towards Martin Creek – just like we planned.
Once we reached Martin Creek, we all had to stop as there was no bridge to cross it. All of the vehicles were now blocked in by my vehicle in the front and Kevin’s in the rear. There was no way for any of them to get their vehicles out without Kevin first moving his.
We all exited our vehicles. Mike’s wife removed the keys from the ignition and locked their truck – all unknown to Mike. Remember, she knew what was about to happen.
We all walked to the banks of Martin Creek. The bank was steep and muddy. Sure enough, some of the group spotted the fake footprints once again leading into the waters of Martin Creek.
Again they all took the bait exactly as Kevin & I planned. Nobody could figure out what type of prints they were. The women were scared again, and Robin was doing a good job of appearing frightened.
At that point, my little brother pulled the dumb bull. I can’t describe how spooky that thing sounded in the woods. My brother’s wife began snapping branches and throwing them to give the effect of something walking and snapping branches. Nobody could tell if this creature was swinging around in the trees like Tarzan or walking in the woods at this point. The second pull of the dumb bull caused all heck to break loose! Subsequent pulls on the dumb bull caused mass chaos and screaming, of course, Kevin & I were doing a good job of acting and adding to the pandemonium.
Joe was near the water on the banks of the creek and could not get traction up the bank because of the slipperiness of the mud. He kept falling down in the mud and ended up being covered in it. Mike began frantically screaming and hollering and fell down as well. He was yelling at his wife “Get your $@& in the truck! “ He was making tracks for his truck and he would have surely won Olympic Gold that day had he been in a race. At the moment he reached the truck, he realized there were no keys in the ignition and his truck was locked. Mike began beating on his truck window and jerking on the door handle. Kevin & I thought he was going to tear the truck door off or break the window as he was in a wild frenzy. Mike nearly tore his jeans and underwear as he was trying to find his keys in his pants pocket!
Randy & Angela panicked as well and headed for their vehicle. Randy was always the calm and quiet one of the group. But this time he wasted no time in getting to his truck and neither did his wife Angela! Randy pulled out his pocket knife and stood by his truck door ready to defend himself against whatever it was out there.
Joe finally made it up the bank, covered in mud from head to toe. He got his wife and himself in their vehicle and cranked up. Everybody is screaming and freaking out at this point as my brother was still pulling on the dumb bull.
By now, all of the group realized that they couldn’t get out of the area unless Kevin moved his vehicle first as he was in the back of the pack. Of course, Kevin and I are still outside of our vehicles and we are doing our job of “adding fuel to the panic fire” by delaying our exit from the area.
Finally, Mike convinces his wife to hand over the keys to their vehicle and he cranks up. He still can’t go anywhere as all the vehicles are packed tight in the line up. The dumb bull is still moaning in the woods, everybody is screaming, Randy has his knife ready, Mike & Joe have locked themselves in their vehicles and rolled up all the windows. Mike rolls down his window and warns Kevin that if he doesn’t move his vehicle that he is going to ram it and push it out of the way as he was “Getting the $#@! out of there!”
I could see the fear in all of their eyes, just like you could see the fear in mine way back in 1965 when I first heard the call of the dumb bull! Mike was racing his engine and he was dead serious about getting out of there one way or another.
At this point, we had to call the prank off. We had succeeded in our plans. Once again the simple little dumb bull had done its magic. A cheap plastic trash can and a piece of string had struck fear in the mightiest of men. Our lives back then, like the dumb bull we had constructed, could all be summed up in one word: simple. Yes, our lives were so simple back then and we all had some great fun together.
Sadly, Joe passed away in 1996 and Randy in 2002. I lost two great friends with their passing. Mike and I still laugh to this day about our little prank. Mike will admit he was indeed scared to death when he heard the dumb bull in the woods.
If you have intentions of building a dumb bull after reading this, please be warned. A dumb bull will indeed cause cattle to stampede. My grandfather and grandmother told me of a time they pulled a dumb bull prank on some of their friends in a cow pasture and they were nearly run over by the frightened cattle.
After we pulled off our prank, Kevin and I loaned the 1983 model “Rubbermaid ® Dumb Bull” to someone else and we never built another one. I later built a “Mongoose Box” for another prank and still own it today. Some of you may know what a “Mongoose Box” is. For those of you that don’t, the story behind it, just like Mr. Jenkins and the “oil of mustard” story” is best left for another time on this web site.