Whale of a tale
Traveling show came complete with lecture, smell
By FRANK BOYETT, The Gleaner
I'll leave it to y'all to decide which was bigger: The whale or its smell?
While it might sound outlandish to suggest that a whale once visited Henderson, it actually was not that uncommon at one point in American history. Carnies even had a name for it, although not a very imaginative one. They called it a "whale show" when someone embalmed a whale and carted it around the country by rail car or tractor-trailer for use as a sideshow.
One such show visited Henderson for four days in 1930, according to the Oct. 2 issue of The Gleaner. It came on a specially built rail car, which was parked on a siding at what is now the Henderson Water Utility's yard at Third and Alvasia streets.
"Several hundred pupils of grade and high school age, as well as many grown people, will take advantage of this opportunity to view a specimen of the largest animal ever created.
"The whale is a subject for many heated arguments and debates among the youngsters. One of their favorite discussions is the one about Jonah being swallowed by the whale, a marked attitude of skepticism on the subject is evident among many of the youthful debaters."
The fellow who accompanied the whale on its rounds was an old whaling man named Gunner G. Gasink. I'm not sure Gunner was his first name; it may have been his job title when he hunted whales for a living. One of the questions most often asked of him was, "Is the whale dangerous?"
Well, yeah, as a general rule, he said, although not this particular whale on rails.
"Out at sea it isn't funny when you get fastened to a live whale," he said. "Forty miles an hour in a speed boat is a pleasure, but behind a whale like this one it's a different story!
"I have seen small boats smashed to pieces with one flip of a mighty tail and the crew left struggling in the icy waters to be picked up by the other boats."
The biggest danger the school kids faced, however, was the smell. The Gleaner made no mention of it, but I'm sure there was a definite odor. How could you have 60 tons of dead whale without an odor?
I did a little research on the Internet, to put Henderson's whale show in context, and found several mentions of such shows occurring about 1930. Most of them took place in inland areas -- which makes sense when you think about it.
In 1997 Victor King described a show in Winfield, Kan., that happened about that time.
"You could smell this exhibit long before you saw it! On a huge flatcar was a sort of embalmed whale. There was a tall wooden fence around it and it cost 10 cents to go in an get a close look. As I remember just kids went in. Most adults waited with handkerchiefs over their noses and called, 'Hurry up, let's go!' "
Joseph Platania of Huntington, W.Va., wrote in 2004 about finding a newspaper description of three embalmed whales visiting that city in April 1930.
"The exhibit attracted thousands of visitors daily, including classes of school children who were taken to see the whales."
Gil Savery of Lincoln, Neb., reminisced in his Front Porch column about a preserved whale visiting that city when he was a child:
"Preserved (sort of) by chemicals, the whale gave inlanders a rare glimpse of a large sea creature. Interesting, yet pretty stinky!"
I also found references to embalmed whales on display at the Minnesota State Fair and in a sideshow off of Route 66 in Tulsa, Okla. I might also point out that the Smithsonian Institution currently has more than 6,500 embalmed whales -- all sorts and sizes -- stored at various locations.
But let's return to Gunner Gasink's lecture that accompanied the whale's visit to Henderson. He noted that modern whaling, as of 1930, was much less dangerous than what he had known as a young man.
"Nowadays there is not the danger," he said. "The modern method of killing whales is to shoot a harpoon into them. The point of the harpoon is a bomb that explodes inside the whale, shattering the heart and lungs, and they soon bleed to death.
"No, sir,' said the gunner with a far-away look in his eyes, 'there is not the danger or excitement in whaling anymore. Science and modern methods have changed all that."
Yes, and modern entertainment has probably ensured we'll never smell the likes of a traveling whale show again.
100 years ago
A live razorback pig was turned loose on the stage of the Park Theater, providing much entertainment when a bank clerk tried to catch it, according to a 1905 story in The Gleaner.
Stephen "Stix" Sneed Jr. had been picked by lottery to try his hand at handling the 125-pound hog. "Young Sneed had a hard time catching the pig and putting it into the box, but finally succeeded. It was for several minutes that the audience was afforded a subject for side-splitting laughter."
50 years ago
City and state officials had egg on their faces in 1955 after finding that they had caused a major problem by recently deepening the railroad underpass at Green and Fourth streets, according to a story in The Gleaner.
City Engineer Newton Neel said sewers draining the dip in the road were inadequate during hard rains, with water reaching four feet deep at one point. The problem was solved when new drainage was installed in 1990.
25 years ago
Traffic was moving smoothly over the Second Street detours caused by construction of the railroad overpass, according to a 1980 story in The Gleaner.
"We tried to watch the whole thing as the day progressed, and the adjustment seemed to be going very smoothly," said Public Works Director Larry Fulkerson.
Contributed by Netta Mullin, HCH&GS
Copyright 2006 HCH&GS