Tellers of tall tales to vie for liar's title in Garrett Folklore, fantasy and truth in play

OAKLAND — OAKLAND -- Some of Gary Yoder's friends and acquaintances in Maryland's mountains refer to him as "liar emeritus."

The honorary title is a compliment, bestowed for his outrageous stories, some culled from boyhood memories, some from mountain folklore and others spewed spontaneously.


Mr. Yoder's repertory runs from tales of raccoon hunters bragging about whose dogs treed the most critters to farmers arguing about Garrett County's worst rains.

And he can hit you with the story of a man whose wife wouldn't let him watch television after a commercial prompted him to order denture cement. The man, as Mr. Yoder tells it, ended up gluing his dentures to his hands and bit four guys trying to shake hands with him.


Mr. Yoder's most famous tale is a fast-paced (and a tad blue) yarn that weaves soap suds, a would-be politician, a drawbridge and a drowned prize bull into a tall tale that leaves some listeners gasping.

In fact, two years ago, it won the first Tall Tale Liar's Storytelling Festival at the annual Autumn Glory Festival -- which is being celebrated this weekend in Oakland.

Mr. Yoder said of one woman who heard the tale, "To this day when I see her, she'll put her hand in the air like she doesn't even want me stop and say hi. She just starts laughing."

Mr. Yoder, 49, may spin that tale again tomorrow, when about 100 people are expected to cram into St. Paul's United Methodist Church basement to hear tall tales and "true" -- some say with a wink of an eye -- stories from storytellers from Western Maryland, West Virginia and Pennsylvania competing for a $50 first prize. The program runs from 9:15 a.m. to noon.

The best tall tales incorporate local history, people and events, said Gail N. Herman, a college instructor and professional storyteller from Swanton, who organizes the festival.

"In the liar's festival, it's a matter of who can tell the best story, who can tell the biggest lie," she said. "The truth can sometimes be absolutely outrageous, and lies can often sound truer than truth itself."

Having to entertain themselves in remote areas ranging from Appalachia to the Ozarks and beyond, fishermen, hunters, loggers and industrial workers over the years have improved on real events with exaggerated stories.

Western Maryland tales are similar to the stories spun in the logging, mining and farming communities of neighboring West Virginia and Pennsylvania, Dr. Herman said. Garrett County residents, in particular, identify with those states.


Mr. Yoder often relies on local culture to spin his tales, but others, such as Dr. Herman and Katie Ross, a Cumberland schoolteacher, exaggerate pieces of stories from Appalachia and the South.

Mrs. Ross captivates children with a story about "Finnie the Fish," who learned to live without water.

With great flair, giggling, and waving her hands to mimic a fish walking, she builds the tale to the fish's sorry end -- by accidental drowning.

Dr. Herman, a New Englander who teaches a storytelling class at Garrett Community College in McHenry, likes the tale of an old man with baggy pants who went fishing at a creek on Backbone Mountain, the state's highest point, armed with lots of flies and all kinds of bait.

Mr. Yoder, a special projects manager for the state Department of Natural Resources, said the key to good storytelling is "the way it's told." He often raises his voice, distorts his face, assumes accents and makes eye contact with his audience.

"The trick is in the telling -- not in the punch line. Your expressions


give a story life," he said.

Charles MacIntyre, a 74-year-old former coal miner and grocery store owner from Mountain Lake Park, likes nostalgia -- another popular theme among storytellers -- and plans to tell a "little story about a straw pie that my mother baked for my dad on April Fool's Day."

"When my dad socked that knife in the pie," he recalled, "straw went flying everywhere."

Many of the festival's participants recall storytelling from their youth in farming communities.

Joan Whetsell, an elementary school teacher from Addison, Pa., tells a rhyming tale of "Deacon Haines who drank his gin until he lost his brains."

The tale, she says, made the rounds of inns along the National Pike in the 1800s and may have originated in Baltimore.


"Basically, we're all storytellers," Mr. Yoder said. "Story-telling is very much alive. It happens every day."