Today in Tedium: Last time I told you about a cryptid, that cryptid had found its way to the top of the pop-culture heap. A sports team was named after the Jersey devil, and it made an appearance on a currently popular TV series. Despite its name, the state of Pennsylvania played an important role in making the Jersey devil a legend—just as it did the squonk, a less prominent cryptid who’s pretty sad about it. That’s not a random phrase. It’s a creature that’s more than a little sad a lot of the time because of how ugly it is. If it didn’t already exist as a cryptid, it would have to be made anew for the modern day. And unlike some cryptid legends, the roots of the squonk are pretty straightforward and obvious—and not exactly from Pennsylvania. Today’s Tedium tells the story of the squonk. — Ernie @ Tedium
“Mirror mirror on the wall / His heart was broken long before he ever came to you / Stop your tears from falling / The trail they leave is very clear for all to see at night”
— A lyric from “Squonk,” a Genesis song about the cryptid. (If your experience with Genesis is mostly from the radio, be warned that this is pretty much straight prog rock. This is from the period after Peter Gabriel left, leaving Phil Collins as the singer, but before they went pop.) The song describes the basic story behind the squonk, a tear-soaked creature that, when captured, dissolves into tears. The band reportedly recorded the song because its writers, Tony Banks and Mike “and the Mechanics” Rutherford, saw themselves in it. (Another famous example of a squonk mention came a couple years earlier from Steely Dan, who namedropped the creature and its tears in the ’70s banger “Any Major Dude Will Tell You.”)
The source of the squonk origin story is obviously rooted in forestry—even if its Pennsylvania roots are a bit less clear
If the squonk didn’t exist in 1910, they would have had to invent it in 2023. As cryptids go, it has a lot going for it that resonates with the modern day.
A creature that is always sad that evades capture by disappearing into a puddle of tears describes at least half a dozen people I’ve talked to on Twitter over the years.
As folklore goes, the tale is actually quite straightforward. There’s no hoaxes here—just a particularly resonant tale.
The story of the squonk, when it comes down to it, is the story of a man named William Thomas Cox. He was not from Pennsylvania, but he nonetheless had a deep influence over its folklore as a forester with the U.S. Forest Service and later the state of Minnesota.
Cox, who died in 1961, was a conservationist at heart, and in many ways, his writing gave him deep influence beyond his bureaucratic roles. Early in his career, Cox contributed to Boys’ Life, a publication of the Boy Scouts of America; later on, he had a popular column for The Farmer in the years immediately after World War II.
But it was a book written early in his career as a forester that had the deepest influence on the broader world—and it’s the book that gives us the story of the squonk. Titled Fearsome Creatures of the Lumberwoods: With a Few Desert and Mountain Beasts, the fairly short, illustration-heavy book is designed to extend the folklore around forestry, in an effort to prevent it from being lost.
In the introduction, it’s made clear that this book is a labor of love to honor an industry he deeply appreciates—forestry.
Every lumber region has its lore. Thrilling tales of adventure are told in camp wherever the logger has entered the wilderness. The lumber jack is an imaginative being, and a story loses none of its interest as it is carried and repeated from one camp to another. Stories which I know to have originated on the Penobscot and the Kennebec are told, somewhat strengthened and improved, in the redwood camps of Humboldt Bay. Yarns originating among the river drivers of the Ottawa, the St. Croix, and the upper Mississippi are re-spun to groups of listening loggers on Vancouver Island. But every lumber district has its own peculiar tales. Some have their songs also, and nearly all have mysterious stories or vague rumors of dreadful beasts with which to regale newcomers and frighten people unfamiliar with the woods.
Much has been written concerning the lumber jack and his life; some of his songs, rough but full of the sentiment of his exciting vocation, have been commemorated, but, so far as I know, very few of the strange creatures of his imagination have ever been described by the naturalist or sketched by the artist.
The lumber regions are contracting. Stretches of forest that once seemed boundless are all but gone, and many a stream is quiet that once ran full of logs and echoed to the song of the river driver. Some say that the old type of logger himself is becoming extinct. It is my purpose in this little book to preserve at least a description and sketch of some of the interesting animals which he has originated.
The book mentions 21 separate creatures; the squonk is by far the most famous, though you might be fooled by “The Leprocaun,” which is not the Irish character you’re thinking of.
The text of the Squonk makes clear its unusual origin as a meme character and even suggests a source of the legend:
The range of the squonk is very limited. Few people outside of Pennsylvania have ever heard of the quaint beast, which is said to be fairly common in the hemlock forests of that State. The squonk is of a very retiring disposition, generally traveling about at twilight and dusk. Because of its misfitting skin, which is covered with warts and moles, it is always unhappy; in fact it is said, by people who are best able to judge, to be the most morbid of beasts. Hunters who are good at tracking are able to follow a squonk by its tear-stained trail, for the animal weeps constantly. When cornered and escape seems impossible, or when surprised and frightened, it may even dissolve itself in tears. Squonk hunters are most successful on frosty moon-light nights, when tears are shed slowly and the animal dislikes moving about; it may then be heard weeping under the boughs of dark hemlock trees. Mr. J. P. Wentling, formerly of Pennsylvania, but now at St. Anthony Park, Minnesota, had a disappointing experience with a squonk near Mont Alto. He made a clever capture by mimicking the squonk and inducing it to hop into a sack, in which he was carrying it home, when suddenly the burden lightened and the weeping ceased. Wentling unslung the sack and looked in. There was nothing but tears and bubbles.
Unlike our prior research topics, the foundation of this cryptid is pretty obvious. There were no random mentions in newspapers in the years before this book came out, though the term “squonk” had started appearing in newspapers in unrelated contexts around this period.
And while the Squonk is not mentioned very much in newspapers of the time beyond references to the book, J.P. Wentling, the man rumored to have seen the creature, sure was. References to Wentling, a forestry expert who worked for the U.S. Forestry Service and later as a professor at the University of Minnesota, appear in newspapers throughout Pennsylvania and Minnesota between the years 1900 and 1938, with Wentling moving to Minnesota just around the time that the book published.
So we may not have our squonk, but we do have evidence that the person being described in the book is not a made-up person, and worked in a field that might have presumably put him within shouting distance of a squonk-like creature one day.
A Squonk Supreme: A unique roast for a unique beast
Okay, so maybe the sqounk doesn’t have the name recognition of a jackalope.
But it has something else—a deep, interesting persona that makes it stand out in a crowd. That’s something that can very much be said of Mountain Town Coffee Roasting’s A Squonk Supreme, a bright, fruity medium-light roast made special thanks in no small part to its Rwanda Abakundakawa beans.
With flavor notes of citrus, caramel, and black cherry, it’s a roast to remember, just like the cryptid it’s named for.
By the way, if you find yourself in Ellijay, Georgia, be sure to see this cryptid in the wild—it’s sold at an actual coffee shop, Ellijay Coffeehouse, along with a number of other cryptid-themed coffees. Be sure to give A Squonk Supreme, and Mountain Town Coffee Roasting’s other cryptid-themed coffees, a try.
A second forester with a taste for tall tales filled in the squonk’s details
If you were a close reader of the prior section, you probably noticed that Cox did not specifically place the squonk in Pennsylvania—rather, it placed Wentling there, and said that he ran into one.
There’s not a lot of strong evidence that the state had this deep association with the squonk. In the 30 or so years after Cox wrote his book, it had only been mentioned in Pennsylvania newspapers only a handful of times, and usually from syndicated columns?
So, how’d it become associated with Pennsylvania? Well, we can credit another book, Henry H. Tryon’s 1939 work Fearsome Critters, for that.
Like Cox, Tryon was a forester, and is credited for helping establish a forestry service in South Carolina. Later, he became the administrator of New York’s Black Rock Forest. And during this time, he gained his reputation as an expert on the same kind of tall tales Cox once specialized in.
In a 1937 Associated Press piece, Tryon was portrayed as an expert on tall tales, and specifically described trying (and failing) to capture a snipe.
Many years past, on my first woods job, I was taken on a snipe hunt and one bird actually did enter the bag I was holding. Know-ing him to be a most unusual specimen, I couldn’t refrain from peeking. That was precisely what the snipe wanted. He instantly and completely dazzled me with a stream of green and yellow sparks from his right eye. Being only a kid, I naturally fell back, dropping the gunnysack and letting the bird escape.
As he flew away through the alder thicket I heard his easily-recognized, derisive call.”
So what about the squonk? In the book, Tryon filled in some important details about place that Cox forgot to mention:
Probably the homeliest animal in the world, and knows it. The distribution was once fairly wide, the usual habitat being high plains where desert vegetation was abundant. History shows beyond dispute that, as these areas gradually changed to swampy, lake-dotted country the Squonk was forced to take to the water. Of distinctly low mentality, it traveled constantly counter-clockwise around the unaccustomed marches in search of fodder. With time, it developed webbing between its toes, but only on the submerged left feet. Hence, on entering the water it could swim only in circles, and never got back to shore. Fossil bones dredged from these lake-bottoms reveal that thousands perished of starvation in this manner.
To-day the Squonk is met with solely in the hemlock forests of Pennsylvania. It is a most retiring bashful, crepuscular animal, garbed in a loose, warty, singularly ill-fitting skin. The Squonk is always unhappy—even morbid. He is given to constant weeping over his really upsetting appearance, and can sometimes be tracked by his tear-stained trail. Moonlight nights are best for Squonk hunts, for then the animal prefers to lie quiet in its hemlock home, fearing, should it venture forth, that it may catch a glimpse of it-self in some moonlit pool. Sometimes you can hear one weeping softly to himself. The sound is a low note of pleading somewhat resembling the call of the Cross-feathered Snee.
I don’t know what’s up with all these foresters generating tall tales about such an obviously sad creature, but at some point it feels cruel.
The year The Squonk Society, a Commodore 64 demo group, released its first demo. There’s no word if the Dutch-based group, which released more than a dozen demos over the span of a year, was named after the creature or something else, but one presumes they might have heard the Genesis song. A number of the group’s demos can be found on the Internet Archive.
The squonk makes for an unusual kind of cryptid when all is said and done. Its folklore is particularly novel and bizarre. But on top of that, evidence is strong that it’s not even the best-known squonk-related thing in its home state.
In the early 1990s, a group of performance artists in the Pittsburgh area got together and produced a variety of works under the name Squonk Opera, a group that has toured internationally for the past three decades and has performed on Broadway and America’s Got Talent. Despite its name and close proximity to the apparent area where the squonk lives, the group’s name is not a reference to the cryptid, but to jazz.
But while at times overshadowed by a performance art group, the squonk nonetheless has its fans. Just last month, a festival in its name, Squonkapalooza, was held in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, about an hour and a half east of Pittsburgh, an event which brought in cryptid enthusiasts from far and wide.
I wasn’t there, but The Carpetbagger, a folklore-focused YouTuber, was, and he appears to have had a great time.
I invite you to think about this for a second. We live in a wonderful world where a festival exists for a creature that is famous for crying to the point of self-destruction. People wear T-shirts of this. This is a cultural thing. And honestly, it’s likely that the squonk’s stock will go up now that it’s inspiring an out-and-out festival.
May the squonk have one less reason to cry.
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