Arts and Leisure

Before Big Foot, The Mysterious Gyascutus of Vermont

Some claim the Gyascutus was first discovered in Vermont (where the animal is also known as a Wampahoofus). Others say its origins were in northern Maine. Most who have studied this largely overlooked species say it was first discovered in a lumberjack’s dreams just before the Civil War.

Illustration of a Gyascutus from Henry Tryon's Fearsome Critters.

Illustration of a Gyascutus from Henry Tryon’s Fearsome Critters.

Sitting in camp after a hard day of work, lumberjacks were inspired to invent all manner of legends and mythical animals. The point of the inventions was to trick greenhorns and entertain the lumberjacks. One such animal was the Gyascutus.

The Gyascutus is an animal that was somewhat imperfectly adapted to life on the hillsides of northern New England. It evolved so that the legs on one side of its body were much shorter than the legs on the other. The result was that a left leaning Gyascutus could travel rapidly counter clockwise around a mountain. The right leaning variety could travel in the reverse direction.

Of course the animal was highly susceptible to calamity if it got turned around with its longer legs on the uphill side of the mountain. The result was that he would usually tumble to the bottom of the mountain and die.

Scientists (using the term loosely) have reclassified the animal as a Side-Hill Gouger (Membriinequales declivitatis), and they tracked its path westward.

In one of the many collections of lumberjack folklore, Henry Tryon’s Fearsome Critters, the animal’s westward migration is described as a partnership between two Side-Hill Gougers, one with shorter legs on the left and the other on the right:

I am indebted to Mr. Bill Ericsson of North Haven, Maine, (and various other points) for the following account of how the Gouger population migrated from New England, “It Seems,” said Bill, “that the Gouger population was getting too thick. There warn’t enough food to go around and somebody just had to move out. A pair of these ambitious little varmints, one orthodox, one abnormal-legged, got together and decided to strike out for a new location. Of Course they could navigate on the hillsides and slopes all right; but they knew mighty well they’d bog down, on the flats, so when they struck level going they just leaned against each other with the longer legs outermost, sort of like a pair of drunks going home from town.” This mighty smart adaptation of a natural deformity took them well across the Central States and made it possible for them to found the Gouger Colonies now existing in the West.

Newspapers occasionally invoked the hunt for the Gyasctus to refer to any foolish pursuit.  And in 1845, Midwestern newspapers began circulating the story of a pair of Yankees who traveled the Midwest and South exhibiting the Gyascutus in a circus-style show.

A crowd of paying patrons would be gathered together in a darkened hall. Peeking from beneath a curtain on the stage were a pair of ‘hoofs.’ Once the room was filled, the showman would begin by first promising to give the crowd a taste of what the Gyascutus sounded like. After prodding the curtain, the room would be filled by a monstrous wailing noise and much crashing and thrashing.

The showman would sound the alarm that the Gyascutus had broken loose and people should run for their lives and the ensuing panic would provide cover for the Yankee showman and his accomplice to escape. Somehow they managed to recapture the Gyascutus for another show by the time they reached the next town.

Regional variations of the Gyascutus abound in various folklore collections, but few people today claim to have actually seen one. Evidence of this once-plentiful species can be seen on Vermont’s Mount Mansfield where hikers still can walk the Wampahoofus Trail on their way to the summit.

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