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Panther Club

06/02/04 12:00AM By Joe Citro
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(Host) Commentator Joe Citro recently visited his hometown in search of one of Vermont's legends.

(Citro) Every now and then I like to revisit the old hometown of Chester. A lot of strange things have happened there. For example, I think Chester probably launched Vermont's preoccupation with the elusive Catamount.

History tells us the last big cat -- catamount, mountain lion, or whatever you want to call it -- was killed in Barnard in 1881. That proclamation, long accepted as fact, was impossible to prove. Who can say the "Barnard Beast" didn't have a mate lurking among rocks nearby?

Anyway, scattered panther sighting continued after 1881, but no one paid much attention. After all, catamounts were extinct, right?

Then fifty years later, in March 1934, Chester's Congregational minister, the Reverend William Ballou, had an odd experience. While leading Boy Scouts on a hike up Steadman Hill, they discovered large animal tracks in the snow. Cat tracks. Over five inches in diameter. Rev. Ballou made a cast of them and went public with his find.

When the press picked up the story all hell broke loose. Suddenly Rev. Ballou found himself in the midst off a battle between believers and nonbelievers.

Local papers alternately attacked and supported him, but The Bennington Banner even called his profession into question. It was "astonishing," they said, that the "graft" was "worked by the clergy."

Rev. Ballou rallied supporters by starting what has become known as the "Panther Club."

About 100 people showed up for the first meeting and each brought a cat tale. Either they'd seen its track, heard its cry - or had actually confronted the great beast.

The club's official name was "The Irrepressible and Uncompromising Order of Pantherites." Rev Ballou was president, or Grand Puma. The treasurer was the Grand Catamount Keeper of the Catnip and their songs were led by the Grand Caterwauler, all suggesting the reverend had a sense of humor about the whole thing.

Meetings continued for a short while but the catamount maintained its mythical status until 1994 when a female and two youngsters were spotted in Craftsbury. These sighting were confirmed by tracks and droppings.

Diehards still say there are no big cats in Vermont, that the Craftsbury trio was just passing through, perhaps on their way to the tax-free shopping malls of New Hampshire.

But by watching the evolution on Vermont's Catamount from fact to campfire tale to fact makes us ponder Vermont's other questionable critters.

The Lake Champlain Monster comes to mind.

And what about those tall hairy bipeds people have been seeing around Bennington?

I don't know about you, but I'm eagerly awaiting the next exciting chapter.

This is Joe Citro.
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