By Shad Kvetko


GRANDPA AND HIS THING.....Reprinted here with permission of  the Author Shad Kvetko and James Taylor Shocked & Amazed.  From an article that appears in Shocked and Amazed 6


"The Thing?" the billboard read in the shaky font of horror movie titles. "98 miles." I had seen these signs many times in my youth while driving the dusty highways of southern Arizona with my father. Every time the lurid green and yellow ad would incongruously appear in the desert, like Pavlov's dog I would again anxiously field the question "Dad, could we go see the



Thing?" Of course "No!" was the inevitable answer, thus leaving my youthful curiosity about the esoteric nature of such roadside mysteries crushed until the next billboard appeared.

It would be years later that I would finally get to satisfy that curiosity (for better or worse). But this time, it would be a personal matter. You see, in the strange web of fate, it had turned out that I was related, if only through marriage, to the very man who created the Thing, Homer Tate.

Some of you who read this might recognize the name Tate from his Tate's Curiosity Shop, which he used while producing gaffs for sideshows in the 1940s and '50s. But as I have found, only a few know much more about him than his last name and strange cre­ations. This is sad considering the interesting life and complex na­ture of this "Barnum of the Southwest.


" I wish I could relate to you all the anecdotes I have learned, but the tale is a long one, and I could probably fill this entire magazine.

Homer Tate was born into a pioneer family in Poetry, Texas, on September 7, 1884. Over the next eleven years the family pushed westward in covered wagons, settling for a time in Indian Terri­tory (now Graham, Oklahoma) then on to Spanish Fork, Utah. After a three-year stay they again set out and ended up in central Arizona in 1898. As a young man, Homer worked at many different occupations, from a miner in Globe to a farmer in the Gila Valley to the sheriff of Graham County, where during prohibition he served as a still breaker. He also ran a motel and service station in Safford. This is not atypical for men who were finding themselves in the wide open early years of the twentieth century; however, none can recall what motivated him in 1945 to pick up his family and move to Phoenix to start his museum and curiosity shop. From all accounts Homer was a consummate practical joker, and one can only specu­late that this endeavor was an extension of his incorrigible sense of humor.

This excerpt from a 1940s travel magazine gives us a window into that sense of humor, and a rare description of the interior of Tate's workshop and museum:

"Phoenix is still a town where free enterprise can, as a Western saying goes, scratch its own itch. Rugged individual­ism expresses itself in strange and sometimes awesome ways along East Van Buren Street, one of the principal thorough­fares, where alligator farms, cactus curio shops, junk yards and reptile gardens crowd each other. None has more fascina­tion than Tate's Curio Shop where in a single room, Homer Tate, a pink-faced Irishman, manufactures oddities for side shows, carnivals, and "people who like to scare other people out of their wits." On the sides of his four walls are cases of arrowheads, two-headed calves, deer with curly horns, skulls, pictures of freaks, and his own handiwork represented by an appalling assortment of shrunken heads, mummies, Devil Boys, Fish Girls, necklaces of hands, fingers and ears (they'll last a lifetime and only cost twelve dollars). Curled around the room's ceiling are forty-five feet of vertebrae ending in a dragonlike skull. This is, according to an at­tached sign, A GENUINE PSEUDO SNAKE. "Over there,"
he says, pointing to a molting creature in one corner, "is a bamboozle bat a bird that flies back­wards to keep the dust out of his eyes. And them," he adds, indicat­ing some dark crouched figures, "is my mummies. They're liked as much as the real ones. It's all baloney, of course," he concludes, "but this stuff would have scared my father to death."

Tate had, in fact, two museums. The first one was in Apache Junc­tion before he moved to the location mentioned above. And just as the "free enterprise" and "rugged individualism" that exist now on East Van Buren Street consists of crack whores and drug deals, this passage is a poignant glimpse at a city's past that has utterly disap­peared.

Even though Homer's creations were, shall we say, rather vague, he was quite successful. He mar­keted his wares mainly through the mail via catalog, and it is said that there was not a show in the '40s and '50s that didn't have at least one of Tate's gaffs.

Not that he had much competition. There were only a few other producers of such "midway monstrosities" in his day. Still, he wasn't in the habit of telling many folks exactly how he made his uncanny progeny.

I have heard many theories concerning their makeup, includ­ing the outlandish notion that he used excrement! Looks aside, this was definitely
not his medium. Although, in fact, it is also not far off the mark, so to speak. No, the more mundane but none the less amusing answer is toilet paper. That is, toilet paper mixed with horse glue that would reportedly eat the flesh right off your hands! This formed the "skin" over a body of newspaper. Add some choice goodies scavenged from the carcasses of deceased desert dwelling animals to the mix and there you have it! Of course, none could match the subtle sophistication and innate artistic complexities of the master sculptor himself! And for the final touch, that moldering patina of the grave, Tate had the somewhat limited palate of shoe polishes to choose from.

Another aspect of Tate's life that is virtually unknown was the fact that he was a poet. In 1965 he and his nephew published his work in a book entitled Through These Eyes: A Poetic View of Life by Homer Tate. His subject matter ranges from the humorous to somewhat maudlin religious verses. Here is an ex­ample of the former:

These old bones are gettin' achey,

My old legs are growin' shaky; Day by day I'm growin' older,


Got a pain in my right shoulder. Well, perhaps he didn't have anything on Robert Frost after all, and, unfortunately, none of his poems have anything to do with his chosen career; however, the book is valuable because it con­tains rare photographs of Tate in his workshop creating his oddities!

There are only two known copies of this book extant, both belonging to family members.

You may be asking, "Whatever became of Homer Tate and his museum and curiosity shop"? The answer is a little mysterious. The family is reluctant to talk about it. It seems that in the late '50s or early '60s Tate got into a little trouble with the law and may have spent some time in the pokey! For a good Mormon family which had always taken a dim view of its patriarch's bizarre hobbies, enough was enough and, apparently, Homer's sons tragically liquidated his museum and curio shop. More than likely the items were just taken to the dump. He spent the rest of his life writing and working in the church and passed away quietly on Friday, February 21, 1975 at the age of 90.

Not much was told to the grand­children of their grandfather's eccentricities. They heard the stories of his numerous and sometimes very elaborate practical jokes and had vague memories of receiving shrunken heads on Christmas morning. But all in all his sideshow business was forgot­ten. That's where I come in. You see, I had been collecting oddities for some time when a collector from the East Coast asked me about Tate's and that's when it clicked. I had heard the same stories from my stepmother about the shrunken heads and put two and two together. Thanks to her intervention, I am able to present this brief history of a man who would otherwise have been mainly forgotten, except for his heads, of coarse.

Photograph 1 Feejee Mermaid Courtesy of Vade Tate

Photograph 2 Devil Boy from the collection Shad Kvetko

Photograph 3 Wolf Boy Courtesy of Mark Frierson


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