The Giant Beaver of Pocahontas County
Near Spruce in northern Pocahontas County, 1907
Abner Slater was the first victim of the creature.
When I say “victim,” I don’t mean to imply that Abner was himself injured in any physical way; he was not. It was a clear, still night and not so much as a gentle breeze about.
Yet, sometime in the predawn darkness, a large sycamore came crashing through the roof of his cabin. Abner would later say that he looked through the opaque window and figured that the distortion caused by the greased-paper pane greatly exaggerated the creature’s size.
With that in mind, he dallied out without his rifle, expecting to see one normal- sized beaver around the base of his formerly standing sycamore tree. But what he saw made him back up to the open door of his cabin, back in and slam and bar the door shut.
He would have a whiskey or two and decide if he was dreaming or mad. Abner assessed the damage, looking around the cabin by the moonlight provided by his new open-air skylight.
The 45-inch trunk of the sycamore had pretty well wiped out anything that could be called furnishings. Most of the recent batch of moonshine and Abner’s banjo were spared; so far, so good.
The only casualty became evident when he noticed a long black tail sticking out from under the trunk where a willow chair once sat. The motionless tail belonged to his cat, Fierce. Abner would have shot this cat long ago if it wasn’t the best darn ratter around.
Fierce was the meanest and nastiest spirited cat he had ever known, and Abner had the scars on his arms to prove it. There would be no mourning for Fierce.
Now, Abner had to decide whether or not to tell his neighbors precisely what he had seen. There could be severe consequences for claiming that an eight-foot-tall beaver had demolished his cabin, and he knew it.
A call from Mudwallow, Ohio, April 2022
Those were the first words I heard upon answering the phone, or at least how I heard them.
My friend, Delbert, up in Mudwallow, Ohio, often begins his infrequent calls with a minimum of words. Even more frustrating is that he often uses initials, as though everybody knows the jargon of his current obsession.
“What’s ‘see Ohio’ mean?” I asked, thinking it was some new tourism slogan Delbert had dreamed up to get more people to visit Mudwallow.
Fat chance of that.
Delbert is not much for small talk, preferring to get right to the point of business.
“That’s short for Castoroides ohioensis. Did you know that a C.O. rampaged your own county down there in West Virginia during the early 1900s?”
Before I answered Delbert, I remembered the last such declarative question he laid on me last fall. He had called me and said, “Ken, did you know that P.C. (Pocahontas County) is smack dab on the annual migration route of Bigfoot?”
So, you can see why I am a bit skeptical about this “see Ohio” claim. Delbert’s sources of information are dubious, at best.
He’ll share some wild-ass story about a batboy living in a cave in Greenbrier County as though he had read it in National Geographic. Then, the next time I am in the checkout line at the grocery, that specific piece of tabloid journalism is glaring at me from the front page of the Globe.
“Delbert, as usual, I am lost. Just what are you talking about?” I demanded.
“Well, according to my source, (the Globe or possibly the National Enquirer) a giant beaver wreaked havoc down there in Pocahontas County in 1907. You need to look into it,” exclaimed Delbert.
And that is how Delbert drags me into these wild goose chases. He knows that my curiosity will get me to dig around to see if there is any validity to his outrageous claims.
And, quite honestly, sometimes there is.
My first tantalizing clue came from The Pocahontas Times, a mention of an alleged incident in the now-abandoned town of Spruce in 1907.
“Mr. Abner Slater, of Spruce, walked into Cass last week telling some of the residents that a giant beaver had laid ruin to his cabin on Shavers Fork. Claiming that the beaver stood no less than eight-foot-tall with teeth as long as his Bowie knife, he reports that it dropped a large sycamore dead-center on his cabin roof. It must be said that Mr. Slater is rumored to be a moonshiner of some disrepute. One logger in the Spruce area who sampled some of Slater’s hootch during a wedding last year, reported seeing the ghost of Robert E. Lee riding through his hayfield afterward. It is feared that methanol may be culpable in the manufacture of such hallucinations.”
The two words “giant” and “beaver” were only found sequentially in this one paragraph during 140 years of uninterrupted weekly publication. One could assume that this specific topic never came up before or after the year 1907.
So, did a giant beaver actually show up in Pocahontas County, or did methyl alcohol merely create the illusion of one?
Reluctantly, I bought a copy of the Globe and read a much expanded and exaggerated version of The Pocahontas Times account. Then, I called a paleontologist at West Virginia University. It was like switching the TV channel from the Jerry Springer Show to PBS.
Mark Timmons, Ph.D., didn’t entirely scoff at the idea. But as a paleontologist, he said it was altogether unlikely that an animal considered to go extinct 11,000 years ago was roaming the earth now, or even 115 years ago.
But on the other hand, Dr. Timmons confirmed that Castoroides ohioensis, the giant beaver, were in this area along with mastodons and mammoths during the Pleistocene period. A span of time starting 2.6 million years ago and lasting until approximately 11,000 years ago.
He also confirmed that the giant beaver did reach heights of eight or more feet when standing on its rear legs.
A genealogist friend did me a huge favor. In less than a week, she tracked down the great-grandson of Abner Slater, one – Reggie Slater, of Boston, Massachusetts. I called him on a Sunday afternoon and was told that Father Slater was conducting mass and that he would call me back afterward, which he did.
When I explained to Father Slater my reason for calling, he chuckled, saying, “Oh yes, many stories about my great-grandfather have been told at family reunions since I was a child.”
“One of my nephews authored a small book about Abner Slater’s adventures living in the wilds of West Virginia,” Father Slater said, adding, “If you’ll kindly give me your snail-mail address, I will be sure to send you a copy.”
The book, The Life and Times of a Mountain Moonshiner, arrived in my mailbox several days later. The “book” was a little heftier than the pamphlet I was expecting. Likewise, it was well-written and painted a picture of a colorful man and a life well-lived.
He lived on his own accord and never apologized to anyone for making shine. According to those interviewed in the book, his moonshine was well above the quality of most. I think that his estimation of the beaver’s size was not due to any impurities in his product.
The giant beaver incident was given its own chapter. It included eyewitness testimony from several folks living along the Cheat River all the way down to the Narrows. Some of these people were unknown to each other, giving more credence to Abner’s story.
The giant beaver was reported to have built a dam across the Cheat River, creating a lake all the way upstream to Jenkinsburg. The loggers loved the beast because they had a ready-made log pond when logging activity stopped for the winter. They simply dynamited the dam and rafted five solid miles of logs down to the sawmills the following spring.
The farmers, however, were displeased by the flooded fields created by the beast and resolved that it wouldn’t happen again. One man took it upon himself to capture the giant beaver before more crops were destroyed.
Wallace Beatty was a blacksmith of great repute. He learned his forging skills in Birmingham, England, as a young man. He moved to America to provide customized equipment and repairs for his neighboring farmers.
His skills went far beyond just shoeing horses.
William set about forging something that actually looked preposterous at first sight. Neighbors far and wide stopped by his shop to admire his creation. Children looked on open-mouthed at what must be the largest beaver trap in the world.
The gun-blue trap was 10 feet long, and the massive jaws were four feet across when open. The trap, once in place, would have to be set using a synchronized pull from block and tackle attached to both jaws. It would take eight strong men working in unison to set the trap.
And, set it they did.
Most of the adults, including Abner Slater and all of the children in Jenkinsburg, followed the team of horses pulling the trap on a dry sledge to the dam. The beaver lodge was nearly the size of most of the area barns and was, fortunately, located near the shore.
Once the trap was set, the men and boys camped about a mile away, checking on the trap every few hours throughout the night. Just about daylight the next morning, an unearthly scream was heard all the way to the campsite.
The thrashing and splashing were like nothing they had ever seen or heard before. The gigantic beaver pulled over a large black cherry tree to which the trap was anchored. The final slapping of the massive tail threw water a hundred feet up on shore.
When the creature was finally silent, it would be the last Castoroides ohioensis to have walked the Earth.
One little boy with tears streaming down his cheeks, asked, “Whatta we gonna do with him now?”
Silence reigned for a few minutes, as though that part of the plan hadn’t been thought out properly. It was then that their visitor, Abner Slater, said, “Well, I can tell you from personal experience that the tail of a beaver is about the most delicious thing you will ever sink your teeth into.”
So, as the story was documented, the meat was distributed to anyone that wanted some. The tail was marinated overnight in a watering trough full of homebrew and spices. A fire of applewood was set and allowed to burn down to cherry-red coals.
The farmer closest to the scene removed one of his eight-foot metal gates and laid it over the bed of coals. The tail was then set upon the gate and cooked all day. That evening folks ate beaver tail, drank moonshine – Abner’s of course – and told stories until daybreak.
I guess you could say that this was the very first “tail gate” party in all of history.
I have a friend who says she has a natural B.S. detector in her brain. If any readers are equally endowed, I will wager a handsome sum that your detector just went off.
Happy April Fools,