Marshall Historical Society

The Waterman Bison
By Janet Dangler, February 2019

They said it couldn't be done, but during the 1940s until 1962, Julius Waterman, on the Deansboro—Waterville Road, 2426 State Route 315, was able to train two bison, named Ned and Ted. With infinite patience and hard work, over time Waterman taught them to do simple tricks, such as counting; but perhaps his biggest accomplishment was in calming them down, so that they would lick his face, shake hands and not lunge at visitors. A man of many talents, he was also proprietor of a popular dance hall, a dealer in pork and purebred beef, and provider of ice for Waterville patrons. Prior to training the bison, he trained and traveled during the 1930s with a pair of oxen.

Captain Julius Waterman was born in 1879, the son of George and Lydia Waterman. In 1896, he served in the Spanish—American war, in Company E, 1st regiment of New York volunteers. The company was mustered out in February, 1899. In 1901, he married Mae Byaska of Brookfield. They had three sons: Earl, Leon, and Harold. For a while, the family lived in Brookfield, then bought the property in Dicksville, as it was then called, on the Deansboro—Waterville Road, from William Brooks. At one time there was a sawmill and a cider mill on the property, which the Watermans operated until it was destroyed by fire in 1920.

In 1922, Waterman built what was called Willona Hall, a dance hall named for the stream running south-east which we now refer to as Big Creek. The dance hall was 90'x30', and there was plenty of room for parking. Refreshments featured were those such as ice cream and strawberry shortcake. Dancing was to the music of Gus Detlefsen's orchestra; the "popular jazz music" of the Kelly orchestra; Masters of Harmony, a 10 piece orchestra; Nick Hawk's Orchestra; The Albro Orchestra; even the Waterville Band under the direction of A.W. Mallory. Both round and square dancing were offered, and assurances were made to dancers that they would be instructed on the finer points of the popular fox trots of the day. Private dancing parties were also given: the Home Bureau held a dance there in 1935; and in 1936, a party by "some Swiss families" was held, featuring what was reported as very fine yodeling. Prizes were offered, and through the 1930s, Willona Hall dances went merrily on, the last mention of them being in 1936.

Captain Waterman must have been a restless man, because in 1940, recognizing the public's hunger for showmanship, he set out to train a pair of buffalo. He had trained oxen, as mentioned above, and showed them — with a 100 year old ox cart! — at several centennial celebrations around the country. However, the centennial business fell off little by little, and Mr. Waterman turned to a more glamorous substitute: bison, or American buffalo.

What we commonly call buffalo are actually bison. Both buffalo and bison are from the same family (Bovidae) but are different genus. The bison, found in cooler climates, have thick fur, short horns, a big head, and a distinctly large hump. Buffalo have longer horns and no hump, and can be found primarily in Asia and Africa. Bison were misidentified by early European settlers as buffalo, but although the difference was later clarified, today the terms are used interchangeably by most people. Habitat loss and unregulated shooting led to the near-extinction of the American buffalo, or bison, which once roamed the country in the millions.

Permission was granted to Captain Waterman by the United States government to capture two bison calves, with the caveat he'd have to catch them himself, attached with the warning that he'd risk being gored by the calves' outraged mother. But he was determined. First, he engaged the services of a few cowboys in North Dakota to catch a couple of calves, but when the cowboys' truck was smashed during the process, the transaction was called off. Undeterred, Captain Waterman contacted the government of Canada, requesting permission to capture the calves. Canada agreed but again cautioned that bison were wild animals and the mother bison would be enraged at anyone who tried to take her young. The Watermans were charged $50.00 apiece.

In 1940, Julius Waterman and two of his sons set off for Canada, arriving in Saskatoon, in the province of Saskatchewan. They cut brush and created a kind of "duck blind," behind which they hid, waiting to lasso the first pair of calves which passed by. Two 8- month old, 900-pound bison calves were captured, and, with great difficulty, they managed to get them into the large truck. Consequently, Captain Waterman left them in the truck for four weeks once they got back to Deansboro, hoping they would be so hungry, they'd be easier to After four weeks, with the help of his neighbor, Virgil Eastman, he led the bison from the truck in which they had traveled from Canada. At first the bison pawed the ground and lunged toward him. Over time, with infinite patience and kindness, he was able to train them to the point that they would lick their master's face, got used to halters and could be led around with a rope. How they got to be so docile is what Waterman called a "trade secret," one even the Ringling Brothers didn't know, he said; but it had a lot to do with time, hard work and perseverance, until the wild bison became gentle pets. According to research, bison are very aggressive animals and very difficult, if not impossible, to domesticate. But Captain Waterman did it.

The bison were named Ned and Ted. Captain Waterman was able to train the pair to dive from a ten-foot high platform into the waters of Willona Creek just behind the house, which was a relief during the hot summer weather. They could be seen on Route 315 on the front lawn of the Waterman farm, where they were tethered with 50-foot ropes attached to iron stakes.

Captain Waterman exhibited his bison several times at the Madison County Fair in Brookfield. Ned and Ted, with Captain Waterman, traveled with the James M. Cole Circus for 24 weeks. They were a hit: no one had ever before seen bison led into a circus ring to perform. They then joined the Wallace Brothers Circus, and traveled all over the country. They were briefly with the J.C Harlecker Circus and the Cole Brothers Circus, but Captain Waterman mostly enjoyed showing Ned and Ted at fairs and rodeos, letting people experience them up close. Fascinated visitors shook hands with them, watched them roll a barrel and do their diving trick, and let them lick their faces. The bison were also featured on television, on the Arthur Godfrey Show, and with Gerry Moore.

Perhaps the most important lesson Captain Waterman, with the help of Ned and Ted, taught the public was of the near-extinction of these noble beasts, and how they were protected by the government. At one time in the bison's history, 40 to 60 million of them roamed the United States; they were the principal food source of the Native Americans. When the 20th century began, there were fewer than 1,000 remaining. However, due to successful breeding and the regulation of hunting these beasts, they are no longer endangered and almost 500,000 can be found across North America.

In April of 1962, after more than two decades of a very varied, unusual and triumphant career, Captain Julius Waterman retired. He sold Ned and Ted to Freedomland USA, an American history museum in the Bronx, where they continued to bring awe and admiration to the public, thanks to the perseverance of their master. Captain Waterman died May 17, 1962, just a few days short of his 83rd birthday. He leaves a legacy that few can match: he showed the world how love, kindness, and patience can tame even the wildest of beasts; and brought joy to millions of men, women, and children.

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