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Back then: Bull of the woods
On Aging

Back in the time of the open range, one of the most striking “critters” was “The Bull of the Woods.” As the term suggests, this apex member of the bovine species was locally dominant and predominant.

If there were other “male beasts” in the area, the bull of the woods was the boss by reason of size or combativeness or plain meanness. The link between such animals and the terms “bully” and “bullying” as applied to people is obvious.

The bull of the woods was predominant, meaning he sired most of the calves dropped by cows throughout a community. He might spend most of his time with his home herd, but he visited elsewhere in response to pheromonel signals, which apparently carry quite a distance.

In the community where I grew up, the bull of the woods, an impressive polled (no horns) Hereford, belonged to Daddy’s cousin J.P. His herd followed him and he wandered widely. He had no name and I cannot print most of the things he was called. Let’s now call him “Toro.”

Toro’s widespread unpopularity stemmed from his habit of breaking into fields of growing corn, leading his herd with him. A dozen cows and accompanying young can destroy a lot of corn in a short time. His method of entry was simple. The huge beast simply walked through a fence. Posts popped or staples that held fence to posts went flying. Sometimes he exited in the same way but in a different place.

Persuading Toro and harem to leave one’s field was a challenge. Yard dogs would bark but not chase; ditto brave bulldogs. Humans did not take a switch to him, did not want to go into the field with him. The solution was a shotgun loaded with birdshot. A load of number 8s to the rear quarter delivered over a fence from 40 to 50 yards away hardly penetrated his thick hide, but stung enough to persuade him to go elsewhere with harem in tow. If Daddy was not at hand, Momma knew how to use the Remington 12 gage pump.

Once Toro invaded the field of Uncle Bill who stepped over the broken fence and went after him with his Browning automatic shotgun. In response to the butt shot, Toro turned on his attacker and advanced. No more Mr. Nice Guy. The next two shots went straight to the broad white head. At the third, Toro fell to his knees, bellowed, climbed back onto his feet and exited. Thereafter, he invaded other fields but not Uncle Bill’s. Given to humorous hyperbole, my uncle declared that whenever that bull was sold the buyer would pay for 10 pounds of lead.

With the end of the open range, some farmers got out of the cattle business and the rest confined their herds to fenced pastures and woodland plots. They learned from the market place that buyers favored animals that turned out good beef, leading to the selection of breeding stock that thrived on proper care and feeding rather than wild wood hardiness.

The term “Bull of the Woods” came to be applied to other things. One popular brand of plug style chewing tobacco was so named. My one encounter with a quick bite from Granddaddy Williams’ plug ensured that it would never be popular with me. The term was also applied to men, usually with the connotation of someone dominant or at least extraordinary.

One man appropriated it for himself. Usually, “Mr. Lewis N. Clark” was a quiet, unassuming man. Except for his binge drinking, he seemed to be an almost model citizen. Binge drinking is an interesting phenomenon, a practice followed by several men that I knew back then. Most would not drink a drop of alcohol for weeks — even months — then consume to the point of drunkenness constantly for days. Perhaps this pattern reflects the fact that farmers had to stay sober during crucial parts of the crop year and “fell off the wagon” after the harvest or during long holidays.

In any case, Lewis N. Clark went on a binge and decided to go exploring. When his wife decided that he had been gone long enough for her to be concerned, she went looking for him. Eventually she heard his voice and then found him totally nude in the middle of a brier patch proclaiming, “I am the bull of the woods.” When he sobered up enough to discover all of those scratches on parts of his anatomy that had never been scratched before, he decided that he was not cut out to be the bull of the woods.

Roger G. Branch Sr. is professor emeritus of sociology at Georgia Southern University and is a retired pastor.

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