My visit with Charles “Ches” McCartney, aka the Goat Man, one of the South’s most famous wandering travelers and folk characters – powered by goats!
The picture hung in my parents’ home for years before I finally asked about it. A pencil sketch of a gentle old man looking like some unkempt, nomadic Santa Claus, cradling a baby goat in his strong, leathery hands. Behind him, a team of older goats pulled a ramshackle, trash-strewn wagon, a placard on its roof screaming “GOD IS NOT DEAD.”
As a kid, I dismissed the drawing as yet another curiosity my parents would buy in the folk art galleries and antique stores surrounding our North Georgia mountain home. But when I began writing columns for the local paper and became hungry for story material, I asked my mother one day about that strange old man on the wall. She flipped the picture around with a smile, revealing a manila folder full of newspaper articles taped to the back, waiting for the day that I would ask.
That was how I first became acquainted with the fascinating life of Mr. Charles “Ches” McCartney, aka the “Goat Man.”
Table of contents
For over five decades, the Goat Man roamed the highways and backroads of the South, fueled by little more than simple wanderlust. Most of this time was spent in a goat-powered, scrap wood wagon covered with cooking utensils, dented signs, old furniture, rusty lanterns and whatever else he could find on the roadsides. “The Goat Man’s coming!” became a common refrain on radio stations and newspapers across the region. Traffic would back up for miles as curiosity seekers stopped to gawk at him. Some schools would even let out early so that the children could see this modern day pioneer.
My Visit with the Goat Man
After his “retirement” from traveling in 1987, rumors circulated that the Goat Man and his team had been killed on a rain-slickened highway by an out-of-control truck. But in 1998, I discovered he was indeed alive and well at the Eastview Nursing Home in Macon, Georgia. After arranging for a visit with the staff, I drove down to see him.
As I was led into the crowded television room, I spotted a short and frail old man sitting alone on a bench. He was indistinguishable in his clean plaid shirt and pressed khaki slacks, a new baseball cap covering what was left of his brittle white hair. He constantly rubbed the stubble on his face, as if he were feeling for the fuller beard of his youth. His hearing was nearly gone, and he mumbled almost unintelligibly when he spoke. But the minute he smiled at me, the gentle, road-tested wanderer from my parents’ picture suddenly appeared before my eyes.
He immediately spotted a Goat Man biography under my arm and motioned for it. Without my asking, he took out a pen and signed his name twice on the cover page. Although pictures and framed magazine articles on the Goat Man hung throughout the nursing home, the other residents seemed oblivious to the fact a celebrity was in their midst. “Ain’t no lies in that book,” he said, excitedly tapping his long fingernails on the cover. “I don’t tell nothin’ but the truth.”
The nursing staff around us smiled. No one is sure how many of the Goat Man’s stories are fact or fiction. He claimed to be around 105 years old, although nursing home records at the time estimated his age to be somewhere in the mid-to-late 90s. Also that his goats were on display at Disney World, although no one had ever seen them. He also claimed to have spent the night in the White House as President Carter’s guest, though no record of such a visit exists.
Ches McCartney, Circus Performer
But most accounts of Ches McCartney’s life agree he began his traveling days in 1915 when, as a teenager, he ran off to New York City from his home in Iowa. According to one of his self-published booklets, he sold newspapers on a street corner before embarking on a whirlwind romance with a 24-year-old Spanish knife thrower. Struggling to make ends meet, the couple put on a traveling circus act in local taverns where, upon arrival, Ches would take down the dart board, get up on the wall and allow his new bride to throw twenty-five keenly sharpened knives in his direction.
The performing duo eventually split up, and Ches returned to Iowa. Thinking he had quenched his wanderlust, he remarried, had a son, Albert Gene McCartney, and settled into a life of farming. Ches was first introduced to the benefits of “goat power” when he used them to plow his fields after he lost his horses during the Depression.
The McCartneys eventually lost their entire farm in the Depression, and Ches went to work cutting timber for the Works Progress Administration (WPA). It was during this time a tragic event occurred that would forever alter his life. While working deep in the forest, a tree fell across him, shattering his left side and pinning him to the ground for hours. According to Ches, when a search party finally arrived, they presumed he was dead and took him to the local funeral home. He later awoke on the embalming table, much to the shock of the mortician.
Birth of the Goat Man
Ches eventually recovered, but his left arm was forever mangled. Unable to work, Ches nevertheless refused to go on the public dole, wanting to be his own boss. “I decided to do what I could,” he would later write, “and so my life with the goats began.” Inspired by one of his favorite books, Robinson Crusoe, he had his wife sew goat skin outfits for him and his son, while he designed two goat skin-covered wagons. The family then set off for parts unknown.
His wife eventually grew tired of the road and left him. Albert Gene stayed in Iowa to attend school, rejoining Ches on his vacations. But Ches traveled on, gaining notoriety across the country as the “Goat Man.” His goat skin outfit eventually gave way to several layers of greasy, sooty clothes, which he would peel off depending on the weather. He never shaved or bathed, and it was said his smell would roll into town long before he did. “[The goats] don’t care how I smell or how I look,” he later wrote. “They trust me and have faith in me, and this is more than I can say about a lot of people.”
At its height, the Goat Man’s junk-filled “goatvoy” consisted of two wagons pulled by a team of over thirty goats. The larger billies were hitched to the front of the wagon with homemade leather leads. Nannies were tied to the back with a couple of strong billies that served as the “brakes” on steep hills. The Goat Man also collected stray and neglected goats that he found during his travels, including a three-legged goat that rode in a special box on the front wagon. He referred to the goats as his “babies,” and called each of them by name as he walked beside them.
He slept with the goats in the back wagon, which he dubbed the “maternity ward” since it was where the females gave birth. At night, visitors to his campsite would frequently find him curled up with his goats in the back wagon, reading Robinson Crusoe or The Bible under the warm glow of a kerosene lantern. “On cold winter nights, my goats are the finest electric blanket I can find,” he would say.
The Goat Man’s Traveling Show
Upon arriving at his chosen campsite, usually on the outskirts of some town, the Goat Man’s first responsibility was to feed and water his goats. He would then build a campfire out of whatever sticks and trash he could find lying around and cook his dinner. The final touch was to throw a couple of junk tires on the fire that he kept stocked in his wagon. He claimed that the thick, acrid smoke chased the mosquitos away and added a distinct flavor to his food. But the burning tires more than likely served a more ingenious purpose: to attract visitors.
Thinking there had been a car wreck, curiosity seekers already held up behind his slow-moving caravan would rush over to the campsite at the sight of the smoke. There, they would find the Goat Man drinking flesh goat milk from his herd, which he claimed had kept him healthy for years. He would then offer up a plethora of novelties for sale: booklets on his travels, picture postcards, proprietary medicines, sewing materials. Whether folks bought something or not, he always thanked everyone for coming out.
All of the money he raised either went to the maintenance of his goats or to a series of churches he planned to build throughout the South. The Goat Man claimed to have been ordained by the Pentecostal Church, and refused to travel on Sundays so that he could preach in a booming voice to the crowds gathered around his wagon. One of his tiny churches, the Free Thinking Christian Mission in Jeffersonville, Georgia, stood for several years until vandals burned it down. When I asked him about this, he sadly shook his head. “Takes all kind of people to make a world,” he said. “And I think we got ’em, all right.”
For those hardy visitors who could stand the stench and the constantly bleating goats, the Goat Man would eagerly recount stories of his travels and offer opinions on his three favorite subjects: God, politics and women. He claimed modern day preachers were only interested in the Almighty Dollar, and warned of upcoming race wars and economic depressions. He also tried to generate interest in a run for the Presidency on a third party ticket. By the late 1960s, he claimed to have been married three times, fathered children by each of his wives, and to have received over 25 additional marriage proposals. “The Good Lord gave me three wives, which proved to be three too many,” he would often say. “The Good Book says that there’ll be seven women for every man. Somebody can sure have my other four.”
One subject that continued to haunt the Goat Man in later years was Vietnam. He claimed to have another son missing in action, and my mere mention of the subject brought about an unexpectedly angry response. “The money people just kept sendin’ the boys over there, killin’ ’em all,” he said. “People know how to kill, but they don’t know nothin’ about savin’.” At one time, he even considered camping out with his goats on the White House lawn until he received an answer on his boy’s whereabouts.
Struggles With The Modern World
Over the years, the Goat Man became a problem for law enforcement. Due to heavy traffic jams behind his wagon, he was frequently rerouted at various state lines. Humane societies charged him with cruelty to animals, although he was never convicted. In the 1940s, he was even suspected by some Twiggs County, Georgia residents of being a Nazi spy. After a short investigation, the local police decided that his mountain man appearance was not a disguise. “[The whiskers and long hair] have something to do with professed religion,” they concluded.
Unfortunately, the Goat Man’s herd proved irresistible to vandals. One of the worst violations occurred on a snowy Christmas morning in 1964 when the Goat Man awoke to find Old Billy, his oldest goat and so-called “companion of companions,” wounded by a hunting arrow. Kind passers-by helped bring the goat to a veterinarian, but he died of complications four months later. The Goat Man later eulogized him in one of his autobiographies with the heartbreaking poem, “In Memory of Old Billy.” The vandals were never found.
Despite this setback, the Goat Man traveled on, eventually covering, by his count, some 100,000 miles and 49 of the 50 states. The only state he missed was Hawaii, due to logistical problems and his concern that, as he told an Alabama newspaper, the “goats might eat the grass skirts sight off the hula girls!”
As superhighways appeared across the country in the late 1960s, it became more dangerous for the Goat Man to continue his odyssey. But it would take two more tragic events to knock his caravan off the road for good. While traveling through Chattanooga, Tennessee late one night in 1968, the Goat Man was violently mugged. He later awoke in a hospital with a gash in his head that required twenty-seven stitches to close. His goats were not so lucky; eight were found dead, their throats slashed.
The Goat Man’s Travels End
Horrified by his ordeal, the Goat Man and his herd were driven to Conyers, Georgia to recover. While there, two of the remaining goats were stolen. One was believed to have been tied to a railroad track, while the other was never found. This proved to be too much for the Goat Man, who finally called it quits in 1969.
His livelihood gone, the man who prided himself on being his own boss finally moved into a one room wooden shack in Jeffersonville and lived off Social Security. One evening, he forgot to extinguish his makeshift stove after dinner, and fire swept through his shack while he slept. Luckily, he escaped with only his hair and beard singed, but his shack burned to the ground. Sympathetic Jeffersonville residents bought him and his eldest son, Albert Gene McCartney, an abandoned school bus to live in.
Domestic life eventually became too dull for the Goat Man, and he became a common sight limping along Highway 80 between Jeffersonville and Macon, Georgia, decorating himself with various objects he scavenged from the roadsides. He would also hitch a ride into Macon every week to socialize at the senior citizen’s center. Frustrated with his shrinking Social Security checks, he vowed to renew his cross-country odyssey, this time with the help of airplanes and buses.
In October 1985, the Goat Man followed through on his threat. He was reported missing to the Twiggs County Sheriff’s Department, and did not resurface until three months later, when a doctor from Harbor-UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles called to report that the Goat Man was hospitalized there after being mugged. The Goat Man claimed to have traveled to Hollywood with the intention of romancing actress Morgan Fairchild. Instead, he was robbed at gunpoint of his watch and two government bonds. After his release, friends purchased a plane ticket back to Georgia for the dazed Goat Man.
The California trip effectively ended the Goat Man’s wandering days – that is, to everybody but the Goat Man himself. He considered his stay in the Eastview Nursing Home to be only a temporary thing. “I’m on the go all the time, bud,” he repeatedly told me. He then scratched his stubble with a smile, saying how anxious he was to grow his flowing beard back.
As my visit ended, I asked the Goat Man if he would allow me to take a picture of him to put in the frame of my parents’ drawing. He smiled and guided me out onto the sunny deck, allowing me to take all I wanted. Our task completed, he stayed back in the dining room as I told him goodbye.
“God be with you,” said the Goat Man. He then turned and stared silently out the window at the open blue sky.
Adendum to the Goat Man Story
Shortly after my visit, tragedy struck both the Goat Man and his only known son, Albert Gene McCartney.
After his father moved into Eastview Nursing Home (now Center), Albert Gene continued living in the old school bus outside Jeffersonville. Like his father, Albert Gene was a loner and avid walker. But he was a common sight in the county, performing odd jobs here and there.
Around June 1998, worried friends of Albert Gene, then 62, reported to local police that he hadn’t been seen for days. Twiggs County deputies visited the school bus and found Albert Gene’s decomposed body, along with scattered shell casings. The local sheriff believed Albert Gene was murdered, shot three times. But as of this writing, Albert Gene’s murder remains unsolved.
In November 1998, Ches McCartney passed away at Eastview at age 97 (ever the storyteller, the Goat Man claimed to be 106 or older). Ches and Albert Gene McCartney are buried in community donated plots in Jeffersonville Cemetery.
The Goat Man’s old school bus still sits outside Jeffersonville along US-80. Much of the year it sits hidden in thick overgrowth, like any other junked vehicle littering the roadsides of the rural South. But fresh memories of the Goat Man live on with many Southerners of his generation. In today’s hyperconnected world, the curious sight of a true itinerant wanderer, off-the-grid yet engaged with society on his terms, needing little more than the company of his goats, will likely never be seen again.
NOTE: This story first appeared in 1998 before the Goat Man’s death and has been updated with more recent developments.