Of Western myth and jackalopes
"Are there jackalope around here?" the dude from Chicago asked. "Well, up here there's too much elevation. They're down on the sagebrush flats." from Jackalope by Hilda Volk
On Jan. 6, 2003, the West lost one of its great mythmakers, 82-year-old Douglas Herrick, of Casper, Wyo. No, Herrick wasn't a writer, an artist, or a motion-picture producer with an inside track to creating big-screen stories. He was a taxidermist in the little town of Douglas, 40 miles east of Casper.
Herrick's brother Ralph said it all started in 1932, as they returned home after hunting jackrabbits. "When we come in we just throwed the dead jackrabbit in the shop, and it slid up against a pair of deer horns we had in there," Ralph recalls. "It looked just like that rabbit grew them horns."
But Douglas saw a vision that made his eyes light up. "Let's mount that thing," he said.
So they screwed the deer antlers into the head of the mounted jackrabbit. It was a masterful job and looked as if that rabbit really had grown those antlers. The brothers sold their creation to the Bonte Hotel in Douglas for $10 -- not a bad price during the depths of the Great Depression.
Locals thought the antlered rabbit was a riot. But even funnier was the way the few dudes who passed through Douglas back in those days just stopped in their tracks and stared. The Herricks made a few more of their hybrid, and pretty soon there, jackalopes popped up in bars and hotel lobbies from Casper to Rapid City.
I met Douglas Herrick in 1976, when I worked at the uranium mines north of Douglas. By then, uranium mining and oil drilling were booming, and so was the jackalope business. Douglas Herrick himself had never gotten caught up making the horned bunnies. Just creating the thing had been enough for him. But Ralph and his son Jim had begun turning out a thousand mounted jackalopes each year. They sold them to souvenir shops, hotels, motels, Western-wear stores, bars throughout Wyoming and adjacent states, and to collectors who, knowingly or unknowingly, had become swept up by Western myth.
Over the years, a lore that sounded almost credible sprang up around the critter. Mountain men were said to have first seen these purported progenies of jackrabbits and dwarf deer, or antelope, in the 1820s. Jackalopes were said to run like the wind, doubtlessly a trait inherited from their antelope side. Some claimed they even churned up the mysterious, swirling dust devils that danced across the high plains on hot summer afternoons. They could imitate any sound coyotes, owls or even cowboys singing around a campfire. And a story went that they became vicious when cornered. Yet the females could be milked like dairy cows -- but only by savvy ranchers who knew their ways.
When Western automobile tourism boomed in the 1950s and 1960s, jackalopes were waiting for the wide-eyed Eastern visitors. And that's when the real thrill of the creation emerged. Some awestruck visitors truly believed that Wyoming jackrabbits could grow horns. And the good ol’ boys who sold jackalopes delighted in feeding tourists a line of manure a mile long, all while selling "genuine" specimens guaranteed to wow the folks back home.
Today, unlike uranium mining and oil drilling, the jackalope business is still going strong around Douglas. Ralph and his son make a few thousand jackalopes each year, most of which end up at Wall Drug in Wall, S.D., an emporium which for decades has given countless Easterners their first look at the real West. Like everything else, the price has been jacked up by inflation. Today, a shoulder-mount jackalope runs about $90, a standing mount twice that.
In 1985, Wyoming Gov. Ed Herschler declared Douglas the official home of the jackalope, and the town now boasts an eight-foot-tall jackalope statue. The rabbit’s peculiar image decorates everything from park benches to city vehicles.
But what Douglas Herrick really made that day in 1932, when he screwed those antlers into the top of that jackrabbit’s head, was the perfect symbol for the West, a place where the impossible still carries a hint of wacky possibility.