The Giant
Dena L. Winslow
Copyright 1995 – first published in Echoes Magazine.

 

Unusual men live on in tales that survive the passage of time.  David Bubar was such a man.  The legends that surround him are akin to those of Paul Bunion, but David was a real man and appears in most early histories of Aroostook County.  Those who knew him never forgot him; his name has passed down through the generations.

David was first seen in the Fort Fairfield area in the spring of 1833 as he was walking along the old Tobique Road toward town with his brother Charles and sister Lydia.  They were loaded with their possessions.  Lydia carried the clothing and a few tin dishes in a burlap bag.  Charles hauled a hide-covered trunk and an axe.  David had everything else.

The old stories describe David as a bearded giant of a man, simple, remarkably good-natured and strong as an ox.  He was reportedly nearly seven feet tall and weighed 355 pounds.  His beard flowed down his chest and his hair down his back.  When it was too long, David’s brother sat him down near a log and chopped it shorter with an axe.  He had perfect teeth and big hands and feet, so big he usually went barefoot.  In the coldest winter months, David wore mittens made from feed bags and wrapped his feet in old coats or wore moccasins.

Captain Van Ness of the fort in Fort Fairfield ordered shoes to be made for David.  Because no shoe last could match the size of his feet, an ox yoke was cut in two and used for the purpose.  Two entire calf skins formed the tops of the shoes and a whole side of leather was used for the soles.  Calculated in today’s shoe sizes, his feet must have been about a size 20.

Not long after David got his new shoes, Chief Newell Bear made him a pair of snowshoes.  David had a hard time learning to use them, but once he did he could cover a lot of ground in a short time.  His speed on snowshoes and his well-known honesty earned him the job of carrying the mail through the woods between the fort and Houlton.  At that time, no road existed between the two, which were more than 50 miles apart.

Early settlers recall how excited David was to be appointed to this job, which paid $1 for each round trip.  A post office was established in one of the stores at the fort and David continued to carry the mail until 1841, when Daniel Libby took over the job for $10 per trip.

Carrying the mail could be a dangerous adventure, David reported an encounter with a pack of snarling wolves.  Determined to save the mail, he kicked off his prized boots and climbed a tree with the mailbag in his teeth.  As the wolves leaped after him, he slapped them down with his bare feet.  The bleeding scratches he sustained drove the wolves into a frenzy, but David gained the safety of the tree branches.  As they day passed and the wolves showed no sign of leaving, David emptied the mailbag’s contents into his shirt and threw the canvas bag to the wolves.  They tore it to shreds, devoured it and then left.  David made his escape, running all the way to Presque Ilse, where he delivered the mail and treated his injured feet with kerosene, probably in an attempt to prevent infection.

When David returned to the fort, the postmaster, who was also the storekeeper, offered him a reward.  David asked for molasses and the storekeeper gave him a gallon of blackstrap molasses telling him it was the last he could get until spring.  David promptly pulled the stopper and lifted the jug to his lips, reportedly downing the whole gallon without stopping.

The same storekeeper needed to deliver a barrel of flour during a terrible winter storm to a home on the edge of town.  The wild storm made travel by wagon impossible so the storekeeper called in David, betting him 50 cents that he couldn’t lift the barrel and carry it to the home.  David picked up the barrel and went out the door.  He returned with it some time later to claim his 50 cents.  The storekeeper argued that David had failed to deliver the flour, but David responded that the bet was that he could carry it out there, but nothing was said about leaving it.  He received his 50 cents, which he traded to a local boy for a jew’s harp.

In the summer, David entertained himself by rolling boulders into the river to hear the splash.  On one occasion, curious neighbors weighed a rock he had been carrying back up the bank to roll again.  According to the tale, it weighed 412 pounds.

David also liked to cut down trees and was known far and wide as a great tree chopper.  He refused to work for money, but would work all day for small trinkets.  He wanted a ring like the lumberjacks wore, but none could be found to fit his fingers.  Then someone took the brass knob from the end of an ox’s horn and filed it out to make a ring that would fit David.  The ring barely fit his little finger, but once he got it on, he never took it off – in fact, it was buried with him.  To earn the ring, David chopped down 30 trees.  Reportedly he also cut down 30 to earn a fish hook.

While jewelry fascinated David, he was terrified of watches because they ticked and of compasses because their needles quivered.  He also was afraid of guns and anything to do with them.  To hunt, he carried a small buckskin bag of round rocks, which he threw with deadly accuracy, even bringing down deer and moose.

A popular story tells of David wrestling a bear.  A man from the south traveled north with a trained bear, making the rounds of the lumber camps, where he bet $5 that no man could beat his bear wrestling.  The hardy men in the camps were always eager to show off their strength, especially if they could make money at it.  One after another they were whipped by the bear and lost their money.  One of them mused, “I wish my ol’ frien’ David Bubar was here.  He’d whip that b’ar.”

Some of the crew immediately hopped into a canoe and went in search of David.  They offered him $5 to come and fight the bear.  David accepted, so after supper that evening, the camp turned out for the entertainment.

David and the bear seemed an even match as they circled, sizing up each other.  Suddenly, David jumped on the bear, throwing it to the ground.  The angry bear bit his arm, which made David angry in turn, so he thrashed the bear a bit and then threw it in the river as the lumberjacks cheered.  The bear’s owner, furious with the giant, started clubbing him with his bear whip.  Hit one too many times, David snatched away the whip and threw the bear’s owner into the water after it.  Then he threw bug rocks at both.  Eventually the lumberjacks coaxed David away and the bear and the man limped off.  David was rewarded with the promised $5, which he quickly traded with a lumberjack for another jew’s harp.

David also displayed his strength when he went to have his fortune told.  The fortuneteller, Jack Ayers, a champion ox teamster and former sailor, lived in a small cabin on the Aroostook River in Caribou.  He told David he’d read his fortune for free if David could bring back a particular big cream-colored rock from the river landing.  David found the rock and lugged it back to the cabin, where he sat on it to have his fortune told.  IN 1909, W. T. Ashby wrote in his History of Aroostook that the cabin had decayed but the rock was still there.  Men from miles around tried to lift it, but none could.  “It lies not far from where I sit writing,” Ashby added.

Ashby apparently had not heard the story of a group of young Caribou men who, in April of 1866, went to test their strength with the “Bubar stone.”  Some of the stronger youths were able to raise it to their knees.  Alec Cochran did better than that, lifting it higher and higher as the excitement grew.  Suddenly, something snapped and Alec dropped the stone, falling over dead.  After that incident, Henry Lufkin went down to the site and rolled the stone into the river.  It later became the support first for a wooden bridge and then for a steel one.

David’s appetite was as famous as his strength.  He often traveled from lumber camp to lumber camp and house to house to beg for food.  Sometimes he ate until he was sick.  Often, though, he provided the new settlers with food.  One summer he presented a swarm of bees that had hived in a hollow log to Catherine Armstrong, who had known and loved David since she was a small child.  He had plugged the five-foot birch log with grass and carried the noisy load ten miles to stand it in Catherine’s garden.  He warned the children to stay away and told Cathering the bees were about to swarm and the log was full of honey.  He advised the family to set up a new hive for the swarming bees.  He also told them to creep out to the log after dark and pull some grass out to open a crack.  “Keep back tomorrow and by noon they’ll all be out gathering honey.”

The Armstrong root cellar fell victim to David, however.  As the family prepared to leave on a trip, Catherine carefully sealed up the root cellar to keep animals out of the family’s supplies.  On their return home, they heard a growling sound from the root cellar.  Afraid it was a bear, Catherine’s husband cautiously pried open the root cellar, only to find David Bubar inside it.  Unknown to the family, he had entered to get something to eat and had fallen asleep.  When he awoke, the family had left, the door was sealed shut and he was trapped.  He ate the stored food to survive until he was rescued.

David did not use tobacco, would not touch liquor – and was afraid of girls.  Cornered in a room by two teasing, mischievous girls, he jumped through a window and ran away with the sash hanging from his neck.

He loved children, and never tired of listening to them.  As Stephen Henry Armstrong grew up, David listened to him tell of his ambition to go away to college.  David was getting on in years and Stephen was away in the Civil War when David gave Catherine a securely, if clumsily, tied package to be given to Stephen when he returned.  Catherine stored it carefully away inside the bride’s chest David had made for her many years before.  Stephen Henry died in battle and, several years after David’s own death, Catherine’s husband was a prisoner of war in a southern camp, where his health was failing.  Catherine had no money to secure his release and bring him home.  Searching through the bride’s chest one day for baby items to give a new mother, Catherine found David’s package.  Untying it, she found every dollar David had earned in his years of carrying mail, a sum of $350, enough to bring her husband home.

David was remembered not only for his acts, but also for his words.  Watching the minister struggle to bore a hole in a short, round, unsteady piece of wood to make a mallet, David said, “Say, Mr. Goodman, put that in the hog trough and it can’t turn ‘round.”

“God be praised,” said the minister.  “We can learn something from any fool.”

“Sartenly,” said David.  “That’s why people go to hear you preach.”

Asked how he was able to catch a partridge, David responded, “I surrounded it.”

Cruising timber on the Madawaska Stream late one fall, David and Charles were staying in an old camp some seven miles from home.  David, as usual, was barefoot.  They awoke one moring to a blizzard that had dumped a lot of snow in the night.  “Let her come,” said David.  “We’re prepared for it.”

David lived with his brother and sister for many years and was reported by Ivory Hardison to be living with Charles in 1843 just across the Aroostook River from the mouth of the Prestile Stream at a place known locally as Bubar Flat.  Eventually, Lydia Ann and Charles both married and had families; their descendants still live in Aroostook County.  Because he was such a “terrible feeder,” David lived part of the time in a deserted lumber camp.  Summers, he roamed the river banks, eating wild onions, clams, fish, wild duck eggs and berries.  Winters he moved from camp to camp and among the settlers’ homes.

One particularly bad winter, when the snow was so deep the lumbermen couldn’t move in the woods and had to return home, David retreated to the deserted camp.  He lived on deer he caught floundering in the deep snow and slept rolled up like a cocoon in a camp blanket next to the fire.  On an especially frigid night, David had piled logs high in the fireplace before laying down to sleep.  Sometime during the night a blazing log fell from the fire across his neck.  He was severely burned before he could free himself from the blanket.  He managed to get on his snowshoes and struggle through the drifts to the nearest house, three miles away.  With no medical aid available, the friendly giant perished in agony several days later.

Before he died, David asked to be buried beside his parents at his boyhood home on the St. John River.  Charles and a companion loaded David’s body on a sled and set off on the 50-mile trek to New Brunswick.  As was the custom then, they stopped overnight at a house on the way for a meal and shelter, leaving the sled in the yard.  Some hogs dragged the body from the sled and under the barn, where it was later found badly mauled.  David’s body eventually was buried at Kelley burying ground at the mouth of the Wasko, but his image lives still in tales of Aroostook.

Sources:

Ashby, W. T., “A Complete History of Aroostook County and It’s Early and Later Settlers,” The Mars Hill View, Dec. 23, 1909 to October 6, 1910.

Ashby, W. T., The History of Fort Fairfield.

Lufkin, Milton Teague, Henry, Man of Aroostook.

Mason, John, “The Giant from Aroostook,” Yankee, January 1968.

Tibbetts, Pearl Ashby, Land Under Heaven, Falmouth Book House, Portland, Maine 1937.