Elmer Bitgood was the Paul Bunyan of Voluntown
One of the more enjoyable aspects of working for The Last Green Valley has been to discover the many interesting, historical, “characters” that lived or were born in one of the 35 towns that comprise the National Heritage Corridor.
In 2008, TLGV published a booklet called, “Notable and Notorious: Historically Interesting People from The Last Green Valley,” with 86 stories of renowned statesmen, soldiers, entrepreneurs, artists, writers, activists and colorful characters. You can download an updated version of the booklet from TLGV’s website: https://thelastgreenvalley.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/NandN.pdf.
Of all the notable folks from our region, Elmer Bitgood of Voluntown is probably my favorite “colorful character.” I first learned about Elmer and his feats of strength from a 1992 publication, “Legendary Connecticut: Traditional Tales from the Nutmeg State,” by David E. Philips. I heard more about Elmer when I was delivering a presentation about The Last Green Valley at the Voluntown Library. The folks in Elmer’s hometown certainly know about his legendary strength, and so I thought I would share a bit of his story with you today.
Elmer, the third of seven children of Charles W. and Rebecca E. Bitgood, was born in 1869 and died in 1938. Elmer lived a life of manual labor, doing farm work and other types of hard physical labor. His legend grew during his lifetime and expanded after his passing.
Here is the text from our “Notable and Notorious” publication, which cites as a key source an October 1998 article by John D. Fair for the Journal of Physical Culture, “The Search for Elmer Bitgood: the Paul Bunyan of New England.”
Elmer Bitgood has been called the “Paul Bunyan of New England” and “the local Sampson.” He was by all accounts an extraordinarily large and strong person. Paul Bitgood, one of his brothers, was a practitioner of natural healing in New London and recorded the size and habits of his sibling. In adulthood, Elmer weighed 340 pounds and stood 5 feet 9 inches tall. He lived a simple life working on the family farm; he consumed no other drinks except milk and water, never married and was a strong and faithful Baptist. Elmer was good natured, gentle, quiet but quick to laugh. He was much loved by those in his community.
Legends of Elmer abound and seem to grow exponentially as each is repeated. However, there are a number of legitimate articles that appeared in contemporary publications that included interviews with his family and acquaintances, justifying Elmer’s amazing notoriety.
An article in the Providence Sunday Journal in 1916 recorded Bitgood’s feats of strength, including “lifting a 180-pound keg with both hands over the head, lifting 175 pounds of good solid Connecticut rock with one hand straight up above the head and …raising a dumbbell weighing 416 pounds with both hands over the head.”
Elmer himself explained to the reporter how he backlifted huge weights, adding rocks to a platform in his backyard “until the weight is 4,200 pounds. How often do I lift that? O, sometimes three or four times a day and sometimes not for a week. It all depends; if I need exercise I try it and if visitors come along and won’t believe I can do it, I just show them.”
The final paragraph in John Fair’s article in the Journal of Physical Culture helps to provide a better perspective for understanding the real Paul Bunyan of Voluntown.
Obscurity of time (a century ago) and place (rural Connecticut) dictates that Elmer Bitgood will remain an enigma and that the search for the man behind the legend will be unending. But it is a mystique, rather than reality, and the desire of an embodiment of our childhood dreams, that provides so much appeal to the legend of Elmer Bitgood. Far more perhaps than the truth itself, it expands our appreciation of human potential. Most important, such tales are fun to contemplate and add immensely to the rich lore of the iron game.
We live in a remarkable region called The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor. So many fascinating people have gone before us that helped define what makes this region so special and unique. I hope you will join us as we care for their stories, enjoy their retelling, and pass them on to the next generation.
Bill Reid is the Chief Ranger of The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor and has lived in the region for more than 30 years. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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