At the Museum: Believe it or Not! …Tales from Fishers Island #2

Believe it or not!, Fishers Island has attracted more than its fair share of widespread publicity as a result of true yet seemingly fantastical tales dating as far back as the 1700s. Museum Director Pierce Rafferty has put together a collection of these stories we’re calling Fishers Island—Believe It or Not! Here’s the second installment—be sure to catch the third installment in the February 2023 Fog Horn. (And, if you missed it, the first Fishers Island—Believe It or Not! installment is here.)

Rabbit engraving courtesy of Pierce Rafferty

Believe it or not, a Fishers Island cat/rabbit love story of sorts once caught the attention of the nation

 Strange Hunter

The Associated Press reported on Sept. 4, 1939: “’Bring-’em-back-alive’ Hibiscus, a giant cat owned by Henry L. Ferguson of Fishers Island has captured 150 cottontail rabbits—alive!

He carried them in his mouth uninjured to his owner. Ferguson said the cat, which weighs more than 16 pounds, began hunting the cottontails after its comrade, a pet rabbit owned by the Fergusons, died some time ago.

‘It may be that he is trying to replace the pet rabbit,’ Ferguson said. ‘He kills rats, but never hurts a rabbit.’”

Scan 1094   Illustration of White Cloud from The Feather Magazine, April 1898 issue. Museum Collection.

Believe it or not, a Fishers Island Farm’s chicken was so valuable it traveled in a private Pullman Car.

Prized Fowl Travels in Style

In the late 1890s, E.M. & W. Ferguson’s Fishers Island Poultry Farm had, amongst its many prize-winning show birds, the first pure white Plymouth Rock chicken ever known. Other breeders had cream whites and other shades, but White Cloud was pure white and very valuable. In fact, so valuable that he once traveled by reserved Pullman parlor train car to a poultry show at Madison Square Garden after suffering a bout of pneumonia.

Perhaps one result of his comfortable ride was that he won first in class for the third time in a row, the first chicken to ever do so at a major New York show. “White Cloud” was valued at $2,000 in 1898 dollars, the equivalent of approximately $72,000 today.

Believe it or not, Fishers Island clams have killed birds not once but twice …

A Kingfisher’s Death by Clam

Ripley’s Believe It or Not published the following letter from a Fishers Island resident that documented the first killer clam:

Dear Rip:

Yesterday at low tide my family and I were witnesses to a tragedy of unusual nature. A pair of kingfishers had been our friends for weeks, making our dock their headquarters, and flying around us without fear.

My daughter and I were digging clams in about an inch of water, when one of the kingfishers darted down within a few feet of us and struck at something in the water. He struggled with it as a robin often does with a worm. The struggle lasted not more than half a minute as we walked toward the bird. As I drew near the bird was still. I tried to lift it from the water but it held fast. I then dug deep into the mud and brought up a large clam of the hard-shell variety which had clamped firmly to the bird’s bill. The bird was dead, either drowned or died of fright.

Believe It or Not,

Henry C. Avery, Fishers Island, August 7, 1925

Scan 33322 Clam clamped on beak of drowned bird, West Harbor, 1941. Museum Collection. Signed note on reverse of photo: “Found July 2nd, 1941, West Harbor. Dick Baker, Lee Ferguson, Charlie Ferguson.”

The Herald Tribune published on July 21, 1949 the details of the second killer clam incident:

“H. L. Ferguson, Jr. of Fishers Island reports an unusual wildlife tragedy. He wrote:

‘The waters of West Harbor at this popular summer resort recently disclosed a wildlife tragedy when the body of a common tern was found attached to a large hard clam which held the bird’s bill in a vise-like grip.

‘Apparently the clam’s two shells were open when spied by the small gull-like bird, which may have mistaken the clam’s tongue, or feeler, for a minnow and made its fatal dive only to have the clam close up on its beak and drown the unfortunate bird in several inches of water.’

“Harold J. Baker, who discovered the unusual occurrence while out fishing, said, ‘It just goes to prove that it doesn’t pay to stick your nose in other people’s business.’”

* https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=47254998

scan 9726  US Coast Guard Station, circa 1960s, Fishers Island NY. Museum Collection. Please note that the adjacent former Ft. Wright jail, seen at left, was razed in 1975. Champ drove from an unknown starting point off camera at left through the parking lot into the Coast Guard building.

Believe it or not, a Fishers Island bloodhound took his owner’s station wagon for a slow-moving joy ride in 1967.

Dogged Driver Needs Lesson

Another Fishers Island story flashed across the wires of the Associated Press in November 1967 after a dog named Champ drove his master’s station wagon a considerable distance before encountering a structural impediment. Champ, a two-year old English bloodhound, was owned by A. John Gada, who left the dog in the car with the motor running while he waited dockside for an approaching ferry. The dog managed to engage the automatic transmission and slowly backed up the vehicle through a 10-foot wide gate, around several cars in the Coast Guard parking lot, “barely missing one flagpole, bashing into another and narrowly avoiding the water” before finally coming to a full stop only after ramming into the Coast Guard Station (today’s Lighthouse Works building). Quote from Manitowoc Herald Times (Wisconsin) November 8, 1967.

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