Willow Creek, Calif. Some people believe in Bigfoot. Most don't. Some aren't sure what might be tramping around California's backcountry.
Margaret Wooden is skeptical, but she knows one thing: Bigfoot could be good for business.
"He's quite a drawing card," says Wooden, who helped organize the Willow Creek-China Flat Museum's new Bigfoot Wing.
The idea: Put some local history on display and see if this struggling former lumber town can jump-start its economy with a big hand from Bigfoot.
"It was a natural," says Jo Ann Hereford, another in the squadron of volunteers who keep the museum going.
Encounters with the creature
Bigfoot? Like the Abominable Snowman of the Himalayas, Bigfoot -- often called Sasquatch -- is an apelike creature 6 feet to 10 feet tall that numbers of people claim to have spotted roaming the backcountry of the Pacific Northwest. The existence of the critter has never been proved to the satisfaction of scientists. Neither has it been disproved.
Bigfoot goes back a long way in Willow Creek, an old Gold Rush town about 300 miles north of San Francisco. Tracks were reported in 1958 at Bluff Creek, a remote spot about 50 miles north.
Newspapers quickly took up the story. "Huge Foot Prints Hold Mystery of Friendly Bluff Creek Giant," reads one headline preserved in the Willow Creek exhibit.
Seventy-six-year-old Al Hodgson remembers it well.
He was running a general store in Willow Creek when a reporter for a local paper talked him into giving her a ride up to remote Bluff Creek.
Soon, he was making regular trips into the woods, Plaster of Paris at the ready.
Hodgson never found Bigfoot, although he did make casts of some footprints.
But he was there the night in 1967 that Bigfoot hunter Roger Patterson came into town saying he'd just captured his elusive quarry on film. The much-debated grainy footage shows a shaggy ape-like creature walking upright.
"I really personally think he absolutely did see Bigfoot," says Hodgson, recounting the story, country fashion, in a laid-back drawl. "I've had my doubts at times, but I just don't see anything else really. I just don't think he faked it."
Examining the evidence
If the scientific community hasn't exactly embraced the concept of Bigfoot, that hasn't quenched amateur enthusiasm. Sightings have been reported all over, although the Pacific Northwest is a favorite.
This month, explorer J. Richard Greenwell will lead his fourth annual Bigfoot expedition into the forests of Northern California. Greenwell is a research associate with the International Wildlife Museum and secretary of the Tucson-based International Society of Cryptozoology, a society dedicated to the scientific evaluation of evidence of "unverified animals."
His first and third trips turned up some strange prints, weird howls and mysterious nighttime visitors who sneaked food; the second year's outing was a month of "absolutely nothing."
"A lot of scientists think the thing cannot exist, it's impossible, so why waste time even testing the hypothesis," Greenwell says. "In real science you start off with, 'Let's examine the evidence.' If you start off by saying it's impossible, then what you're doing is you're taking the shortcut."
Greenwell thinks the Willow Creek exhibit is "fairly well done. It's not like the Smithsonian, of course, but for the resources they had I think they put a lot of thought into it."
Hoping to attract tourists
The bulk of the memorabilia was willed to the museum by Bigfoot enthusiast Bob Titmus, on condition it be put in a worthy setting.
Town boosters, looking for something to replace the dwindling logging industry, went to work, getting $9,000 in federal grants, stirring up chili cook-offs and putting sweat equity into a new, two-story addition.
The main part of the Willow Creek-China Flat (the latter is the town's original name) Museum consists of a lovingly tended collection of regional artifacts -- from antique baby booties to gold mining mementos.
The Bigfoot room is dominated by casts of -- you guessed it -- big feet along with the stories and pictures of the people who found them. There's also a fun case filled with Bigfoot toys and books.
The exhibit, which is free, although donations are accepted, is attracting "all kinds," says Hodgson, who serves as one of the volunteer guides.
"Some of them are really the person who takes it up on the weekend and there are people that are really sincere, down to looking for anything they can find."
Drive into Willow Creek and it's not hard to tell you're in Bigfoot country.
You can snack on a Bigfoot burger and play a round or two at the Bigfoot Golf & Country Club. You can even take a spin on the Bigfoot Byway, a scenic stretch of road that ends in Willow Creek.
Looming large in front of the museum is a two-story high statute of the local legend, sculpted by chain saw from a fallen redwood.
Sometimes Hodgson gets a little good-natured chaffing about his conviction that the statue's real-life counterpart is out there somewhere.
"I tell Al, 'Well, I am from Missouri -- the 'Show-Me State,"' says Wooden with a smile.
Others aren't so sure.
"My position is there's something -- there had to be something," says E.B. Duggan, who with wife, Dallas, is a staunch museum supporter. "People that I really believe in have done the collecting of the evidence. I have to believe that there's something out there. What it is I'm not really sure, but I know it sure as heck isn't no bear."
The Willow Creek-China Flat Museum is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Fridays-Sundays and holidays through the first week of October.