John Howell’s column

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Black bear, brown bear, any but a Teddy bear

Black bear were once so numerous in this part of the state that when one of my wife’s granddaddies several greats removed came to this part of the state before the Civil War, he named the farmland he attempted to clear out at the mouth of the Coldwater River “Bearsden.”

Old bruin quickly developed a taste for the same corn that Edward Neilson was trying to cultivate, triggering a bloody clash described in family letters still extant that involved muzzle-loading shotguns, dogs and knives. It may have been the nearest level playing field where man has met bear since.

About that same time, a member of the family who originally settled the place near Eureka where Rupert and Rita live now wrote a letter describing the antics of two bear cubs playing in a tree in the yard of the first home constructed there.

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Ole Miss’ announcement that the black bear had been selected as its new mascot sparked a retelling of family and local black bear lore among us.

My mother recalled a fishing trip to Bobo Lake she once made as a child with her mother and dad, several other relatives and two cooks who worked for one of the relatives. The cooks rode in the car’s “rumble” seat, an upholstered exterior seat that opened out from the rear deck of pre-World War II autos and left its passengers out in the elements.

On the return trip, following the route that would become Highway 6, the car had to stop while a bear ambled across the road. The rumble seat passengers, now really exposed to the elements, were more than a little disconcerted until the car could resume a speed sufficient to leave the bear in its wake.

All of these events happened within a very few miles of Stone’s Lodge, across the Tallahatchie River on Dummy Line Road in southwestern Panola County, which became the setting for William Faulkner’s classic struggle of civilization encroaching on the primeval, The Bear.

The most recent bear encounter I’m aware of came in 2003 when a carload of winners returning from a Tunica casino in the early morning hours struck a large bear in the road north of Marks. The impact killed the large bear. Wildlife folks speculated that the bear had swum across the Mississippi River from Arkansas during that dry summer which had lowered the level of the river.

Miles Mitchell said that he wasn’t sure whether he’d seen a black bear or whether it was a tale told on him by the late Bub Craig, Batesville mayor during the 1970s. Either explanation is plausible.

Mitchell’s Bates Street home is located next to the former site of the “Monkey Station” on Highway 6 where owner Victor Ferguson earned the place its nickname by keeping monkeys on display to attract customers. Ferguson, and subsequent owner Bob Kelly may have brought in an occasional bear to spice interest among passers by. One of those bears got loose and found its way, of course, to Mitchell’s yard.

My inquiry to Mitchell about the episode brought to his mind a line from an old song which I don’t recall he said because I’m too young.

The song involved a preacher who was chased up a tree by a bear, and the line Mitchell recalled was the preacher’s prayer:

“Lord, if you can’t help me, please don’t help that bear.”

The Ole Miss faithful must be hoping soon to have their opponents in the same position as that preacher.