As the temperature begins to drop and my children eagerly await the next snowfall in Maryland, I have found myself telling stories about the winters of my childhood and adolescence in Syracuse, New York. The city receives an average snowfall of 103.6 inches and in the record-breaking winter of 1992-1993 (when I was in middle school) the total snowfall was 192 inches. And I realize that to my children, I sound as though I’m telling a tall tale (“There was so much snow we could barely open the door!” “The icicles on our house hung all the way to the ground!”).
Tall tales are stories with exaggerated elements, including characters of outsize stature or strength. The most famous among them may be the lumberjack Paul Bunyan and his blue ox, Babe, or the “steel-driving” John Henry. As the winter holidays bring us together at home again, you may find yourself with time to spare for storytelling—and tall tales are a fun format to tell together.
We have a number of tall tales in our collection that you can use for inspiration, including this story, “It Was So Cold That…,” about a Wisconsin lumberjack named Happy Jack and his derby hat. It was recorded in 1938 through the Federal Writers’ Project, which was created in 1935 as part of the New Deal’s Works Progress Administration. The storyteller was a seventy-two-year-old man named John Rivers; the interviewer described him as follows:
“Stocky, square build. ‘I’m six foot four if I straighten up,’ he told me… He has no visible teeth and his wide, flat underlip continually sucks at a pipe, making a wheezing sound…Hands large, crooked and gnarled…The forefinger on his right hand is missing two joints…Talks ramblingly in order to tease listener and create suspense; story interspersed often with a husky chuckle. His small alert brown eyes dart up and down over listener as he talks, and he gets huge appreciation out of listener’s response to a joke or sly thrust.”
I am reproducing the heart of the story here, with some of the hyperbolic elements in bold, for inspiration for your own tall tale. If you choose to retell this story, I recommend reading it and reinterpreting it in your own way using his more fantastical elements for emphasis.
Well, it was back in ’83 or 4, that cold spell we had. Nothin’ been seen like it since…it was so cold that the lumberjacks ain’t quit talkin’ about it yet … And that reminds me of Happy Jack — he was in our outfit.
Bet you never heard of Happy Jack and his Derby hat. The boys always kidded this feller Happy Jack about how he was always wearing a derby. Wherever he went he would have this derby stuck onto his head — wouldn’t matter if it was morning or night or if he was in a parlor or a poolhall or out buckin’ timber or what — winter or summer, rain or shine, this feller Happy Jack had on his derby. And some said he slept in his derby, too…[his derby was] just like some part of himself like an arm or a foot — see? Some said Happy Jack musta been born with that derby on, and couldn’t take it off. And the boys around the logging camp was always kidding him about it like that.
Hey! I started out to tell how cold it was that there year, didn’t I? I almost forgot about how cold it was, ‘splaining about Jack and his derby. But well, you’ll see how this here derby of his came to be the most important part of the story…
You see around the logging camp in ‘Consin back in them days, that winter that it was so cold…Nobody yet can tell you the exact temperature because of course it was so cold that any thermometer couldn’t hold together for a minute— the thermometers they all just went out of commission for 200 miles around. But the very coldest spot in the whole district was right there in camp…
So after two or three weeks we was all out of grub and starvin’. Alright, something had to be done— something had to be done about getting some food. The most possible thing we hit on was to go out to the river…bore a hole in the ice and let down a line and snub some fish. So it might work and it might not, but anyhow the men cut cards to choose who should try it. Happy Jack got the deuce of spades— and that being the shortest number, old Happy Jack saw how right there he was in a “deuce of a fix!”
But anyhow, being good-natured and willing to try anything to get his bellyfull especially, he said OK…We gave him a drill [in] case the ice wouldn’t give to the saw, and first we rigged him up in all the coats and jackets and woolen shirts we could spare… When Happy Jack was ready to go out…he looked like something stuffed up and bloated out…Yes sir, being not ‘xactly a lean sort of a feller to start with, and all togged out like that, he musta weighed about 350 to 400 pound.
Happy Jack picked up the torch and the saw in his mitts— he had 6 pair mitts on, 3 wool and 3 leather, furlined— and muffled up to the ears. And on top of his ears o’course was settin’ that little old derby. That was all he would wear on his head was his same old derby.
Now we waited and waited for Jack to come back…After three days the cold let up a little—just a little. We could tell by rubbing our beard and hair. The tinkle of the icicles in our hair and beard had a different sound— and by this we knowed the spell was lettin’ up some. So it being not quite so bad, the bunch of us decided to wrap around us the blankets and things we had… and go out to the river and look for Happy Jack.
It was a sad procession, we running out there— we all of course expectin’ to have to skid* Happy’s corpse back with us. And one of the boys I ‘member said kinda mournful, Jack’s gonna look mighty strange in his coffin with that derby hat on him— but I for one am here to see that no one tries to take it away from him… Might happen his Maker wouldn’t recognize him without it!
We all ran out there to the river feeling fearful sort of and looked around for Jack. Well the ice on the river stretched clean across and it was as solid as a bridge of steel 50 inches thick— and clean swept— not a mark or a sign of a human foot on it.
Then far out near to the middle, one of the boys spotted a little black object— and when we got close we saw it was Happy Jack’s hat layin’ there on the ice. Just his hat layin’ there alone-looking on the ice.
It looked mighty funny to see that derby without its owner stuck on to it. In fact it made tears come to our eyes. And that wasn’t so good because the wetness right away froze over our eyes before it had time to trickle down…But anyway we ran fast as we could up to there and one of the boys reached down for the derby. But it ‘peared to be froze fast to the ice— and nobody could budge it. Still an all you could hear a sort of burbling sound underneath there and around that hat the ice was a darker color like water near the surface, and we came to conclude that Happy Jack had fell in the hole he’d made and the ice had frozen over again, but not had time yet to freeze so thick.
What with kicking at that derby and hacking at the ice around, finally a piece broke away around the rim of that ol’ hat and as many hands as could grab hold got a hold of that derb and all yanking together, we lifted ‘er up, and the ice making a screeching and crackling as it busted loose.
And what was rammed on to the rim of that derby hat but Happy Jack hisself frozen hard as a clinker. Yes sir, that derby was rammed on so tight it held up a man weighing about 400 pound, and more with the coat of ice on him. Yup, it had held him up and kept him from drowning.
We all started a-slappin’ his back and rubbin’ his face and pumpin’ his arms and legs up and down, and he finally came to and cracked a smile…Then he reaches down in his boots and drags out a string of fish 14 yards long— nuff to last us ample over the cold spell.
“When I was hangin’ there by my hat, they came and swam into my boots,” Happy Jack said. “Guess the poor critters was glad to find a place some warmer than that river in this weather.”
So, course we went back to the bunkhouse and had us a right smart juicy fish dinner. Yup, and it seemed like right from that day the thaw set in and the cold spell was broke. But it never did get warm enough to thaw that derby off ol’ Happy’s head. Nope, Happy Jack couldn’t let go of his derby no way—it stuck to him through thick and thin. Yup, through thick and thin ice that derby stuck, and that was one time it even saved his life.
So now, try your own! You can tell your own version of this story or make up a new one. Try beginning with “It was so cold that…” and do a round-robin story with your family, taking turns to add to it and letting the tale get taller as you go. Have fun!
*lumberjack term for felling or sawing trees, and hauling or floating the logs