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
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 antelope 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 antelope horns into the head of the
mounted jackrabbit. It was a masterful job and looked as if that rabbit really
had grown those horns. 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