Bigfoot has big shoes to fill: Economic recovery
By M.S. Enkoji, Sacto Bee Staff Writer
10 May 2000


WILLOW CREEK -- It's a mystery, maybe a hoax, certainly a myth. Now, Bigfoot -- the hirsute, elusive forest dweller of the Northwest -- is about to become pitchman.

The mountain village of Willow Creek in Humboldt County brands itself the Gateway to Bigfoot Country, and a new museum paying homage to the phenomenon that has tangled science with lore and skeptic with devotee will welcome world opinion.

"It's blatant publicity," said JoAnn Hereford, one of 50 volunteers feverishly working on the Bigfoot Museum, which opened Saturday. For a region once rich in timber jobs, it could just take a giant, hairy creature of legendary stature to affix the town on the economic map again. Willow Creek is counting on it.

"We have a vision for Willow Creek," said Hereford, who, along with other volunteers, helped bring in federal money for the museum to help jump-start the community's sagging economy.

Built as a new wing to the Willow Creek-China Flat Museum, most of the Bigfoot collection was inherited from a former Redding taxidermist, who in 1958 began making 15-inch plaster casts of footprints he found in the forest north of Willow Creek. Soon after seeing the casts, a local newspaperman coined the name Bigfoot. The white slabs could dwarf a pro basketball player's Nike, and they've found an adoring, rightful home inside newly minted glass cases.

Besides the casts, bits of bone and re-created skulls, lots of pictures and written accounts have found a resting place in the museum. Even before the doors opened, the curious were poking their heads in as Hereford and others ran vacuums and tidied up. Just outside the door looms the signature statue: a two-story Bigfoot carved from a redwood trunk.

Going online, Hereford has gleaned children's books and games, including a Milton Bradley Bigfoot game, circa 1977, now neatly displayed under glass in the museum. Another phase of the museum will include a research area, with a computer and catalog of materials for visitors.

But there is nothing among the memorabilia that definitively settles the big, big question.

In spite of numerous sightings throughout the Northwest, the existence of an upright, striding primate species in need of a good barber has never been scientifically recognized.

No matter in Willow Creek. Bigfoot is as real as double-digit unemployment here. Since the timber industry withdrew in the 1990s, unemployment climbed as high as 40 percent in the region. So Willow Creek, along with 13 other remote mountain communities in the county staggered by the cutbacks, hustled to tap into federal money set aside to stimulate economic turnarounds.

Community leaders -- volunteers like Hereford, who retired from the U.S. Forest Service -- came up with a plan to redefine the town of about 800 and chart a new course for the next 10 or 15 years, said Jim Kimbrell, executive director of the Arcata Economic Development Corp, which helped all the communities apply for the federal money.

The plan was to transform Willow Creek into an overnight stay, or a summer home away from coastal fog, or maybe a permanent home for telecommuters. It has to become a place to remember at the crossroads of a highway cutting from Redding to the coast and another going north, Kimbrell said.

Enter Bigfoot.

Willow Creek got $10,000 for the themed museum, the spark for an identity and a draw, Kimbrell said, "that was a very nice grant for a community that size." The Bigfoot theme took another boost recently when the U.S. Forest Service dubbed a nearly 100-mile stretch of road ending in Willow Creek the Bigfoot Byway, a scenic route with hiking, biking, rafting and fishing sites.

Press Hereford a little and she gives an oft-repeated line about the furry legend that allegedly stomps through the forest leaving pond-size footprints: "I'm extremely skeptical, but I've heard stuff from people who don't make stuff up. Some of us can laugh about it; some of us can't."

Though the gamut among residents runs from skepticism to solemn reverence, the ranks close quickly when it comes to Bigfoot the public relations ploy. From foot-shaped fly-swatters to a round of golf at the Bigfoot Golf and Country Club to an evening at the Bigfoot Motel, the options for a close encounter seem endless among the handful of businesses clustered along the highway. "Hey, you need a theme for your shop," said Sil Brander, who owns the Early Bird cafe and tackle shop just down the street from the museum.

Under a mural of two Bigfoots romping around a campfire, he whips up Bigfoot Burgers -- two five-ounce patties, three slices of bacon and cheese on a sourdough bun shaped like, yes, the footprint of the town's most celebrated non-citizen. That'll be $5.49, please. Brander, 35, hefts a sample bun like a shoe salesman with a hot seller. Believers and non-believers alike have no problem marketing something they may never see.

"Now that's a Catch-22," said Brander, grinning and averting his eyes as he searched for that company line. "I know people who definitely believe, but I say seeing is believing. And no, I've never been introduced to Bigfoot." Given the interest he's seen at his counter, the museum will be as much a draw as river rafting with Bigfoot Rafting, or dirt bike trails through mountain terrain, he said. "A lot of people will come up for that," Brander said. It's certainly part of the plan.

The overall plan involves narrowing the four-lane highway through town to a slower, two-lane route with bike lanes, and a face lift for the commercial strip, as well as a change in the kind of commerce. "The idea is to capture people and keep them one additional day," Kimbrell said.

And banking on Bigfoot fascination is not so far-fetched, said D. Jeffrey Meldrum, an associate anatomy professor at Idaho State University in Pocatello.

Bigfoot is probably one of the most popular subjects of cryptozoology, the study of animals not yet scientifically recognized, he said. Unlike the Loch Ness Monster and giant salamanders, Bigfoot more closely resembles humans, said Meldrum, who has studied evidence about Bigfoot for several years. Because he specializes in studying two-legged animals that walk upright, foot casts have drawn his attention. And he is convinced of one thing: "It's simply not unreasonable." The flat-footed, wide-heeled footprint suggests the kind of foot a heavy, muscular body needs to hike rugged terrain, said Meldrum, who plans to be on hand for the museum opening. "It boils down to a question of probability."

The Bigfoot collection is in Willow Creek, about 50 miles east of Eureka on state Highway 299. Open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays and holidays from May through the first week in October. Admission is free. More information: (530) 629-2551.

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