The Great Folklife Festival Bull Chase of 1976

Two cowboys pictured on the right roping a bull calf that is resisting capture on the left.
Two cowboys lasso the calf that broke free at the Festival of American Folklife (Source: Frank Johnston of The Washington Post)

“There’s a cow loose near the Rainbow Pool and he’s headed toward Constitution Gardens!"[1] yelled U.S. Park Police Officer Casey Carlson into her radio while zooming her scooter along the National Mall.

It all started around 12:30pm on August 4, 1976 in the American Southwest section of the Smithsonian’s annual Festival of American Folklife. As cowboys demonstrated the calf roping technique, a 400-pound bull calf “made him a hole"[2] in the corral fence and took-off from the Festival site with another animal following close behind.

One of the calves ran out onto Independence Avenue – much to the surprise of lunch-hour pedestrians and automobile drivers – and was caught swiftly by two Texas ranchers. However, the other proved more elusive.

One of the first festival staff members to notice the yearlings escape was the technical director, Pete Reiniger. Upon seeing the calf running away from the festival site, he immediately signaled to his ‘crew’ to join him in pursuit of the baby bull. As he recalled later,” We didn’t know where we were going exactly."[3]

Neither did the calf, apparently. Initially, it headed west toward the Lincoln Memorial, but soon veered off toward the Theodore Roosevelt Bridge. It probably came as a relief to authorities that the animal’s destination would not be the popular marble statue of The Great Emancipator. But just where was this cow going?

With Reiniger and his entourage leading the chase on foot, Festival cowboys and ranchers following on foot and by car, and the U.S. Park police joining in on scooters, the chase was on!

When their radios crackled that the calf had been spotted at the underground parking garage of the Kennedy Center, the parade of pursuers rushed to the performing arts center.

The Festival employees were the first to arrive on the scene. They found the bull stuck between two cars and miraculously helped it get free, but the capture was short lived – moments later the U.S. Park Police arrived on the scene and spooked the calf. Due to the noise of the scooter motors and the lights on the emergency vehicles the calf lost control once more and “took off down the vast expense of the ‘B level’ garage with 20 policemen in yipping, skittering pursuit."[4]

Then, out of nowhere, an Ethiopian Student from Howard University named Alemayehou Gabremedin, appeared and grabbed the bull calf by the tail and hung on with surprising ease. After the incident he told the Washington Post, “I know about cattle. . . I don’t know why people are scared of him. He doesn’t hurt nobody.”[5]

Although the calf was stopped, it did not calm down and continued to fight. Festival staffers John Stewart, Bill Flythe, and Peter Reiniger, each grabbed part of the animal and held on with all their might. Reiniger remembered, “I think I had a hold of its tail and somebody had a hold of its head, not really the way to do it, but we didn’t have ropes or anything and even if we did, we did not know how to rope a calf."[6]

In hopes that a little refreshment would help the animal relax, parking employee Max Field "offered the yearling a bucket of water”,[7] but the calf immediately butted it over to the dismay of everyone involved. A second bucket was also rejected and the calf proceeded to butt a red Fiat nearby.

Finally, forty-five minutes after the animal escaped, two Texas ranchers - Horace Coffee and Fred Dalby - arrived in the garage with a Festival pickup truck. They effortlessly corralled the calf, threw it on its side, tied three of its feet together with a ‘pigging string’,[8]and hoisted it on to the truck’s bed for transport back to the festival site.

Just like that, the bull chase was all over and the festival resumed as planned. But, despite an impressive program of events, the lunch-hour animal chase was all anyone talked about for the next few days. As one festival official lamented, “Here for the first time we have a 12-week festival with 5,000 participants from 33 countries, and who cares? A calf gets loose and that’s probably the only thing anyone will remember.”[9]

 


Footnotes

  1. ^ J. Y. Smith, “Calf Leads Police, Cowboys on Chase Into Kennedy Center,” The Washington Post (Washington, D.C.), August 5, 1976.  The Rainbow Pool was located between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool, at the present site of the World War II Memorial. Constitution Gardens is just north of the Reflecting Pool, between the Vietnam Veterans Memorial (to the west) and 17th St., NW (to the east).
  2. ^  J. Y. Smith, “Calf Leads Police, Cowboys on Chase Into Kennedy Center,” The Washington Post (Washington, D.C.), August 5, 1976. 
  3. ^ Pete Reiniger (Sound Production Supervisor, Smithsonian Folkways) in discussion with the author, November 2, 2016.
  4. ^ J. Y. Smith, “Calf Leads Police, Cowboys on Chase Into Kennedy Center,” The Washington Post (Washington, D.C.), August 5, 1976. 
  5. ^ Ibid.
  6. ^ Pete Reiniger (Sound Production Supervisor, Smithsonian Folkways) in discussion with the author, November 2, 2016.
  7. ^ J. Y. Smith, “Calf Leads Police, Cowboys on Chase Into Kennedy Center,” The Washington Post (Washington, D.C.), August 5, 1976.
  8. ^ Ibid. 
  9. ^ Ibid.