Crowd Greeted "Gentle Giant" At Bulan, Perry County, In 1940

By Langley Owsley - 2000

I remember when a gentle giant payed a visit to Bulan, Kentucky. The year was 1940. It was on May 4th when Robert Pershing Wadlow, age 22, came to the quiet little town of Bulan, about five miles east of Hazard.

The day was warm, and excitement filled the air. Everyone was talking about him; Robert Wadlow, the biggest man in the world, or so the advertisement in the window of the Thomas Smith General Store proclaimed. "Big Boy Day. Come See Him! Meet Him! Talk To Him!" the sign invited.

I was so excited and curious I could hardly wait for 2:30 to arrive. For a 17-year-old this was the most amazing thing that had happened in our community. People came from miles around. Five thousand are reported to have shown up for the event. They came to see Robert Wadlow, a man who stood over 8' 11" tall, weighed 491 pounds, and wore a size 37 shoe.

Robert was being sponsored by the International Shoe Company, and he and his dad traveled all over the United States, promoting Peters brand shoes. It was for this purpose that Robert was to be present in Thomas Smith's store on Thursday, May 4, 1940, from 2:30 p.m. to 4:00 p.m.

As his arrival time drew nearer, the crowd continued to grow larger. I had never seen so many people in my life. As I wandered through the crowd, watching and listening, my own anticipation heightened. Some people were saying he was being brought by bus, while others were sure it would be by train. They all seemed to agree that there was no way he would be coming by car. You can imagine everyone's surprise when that's exactly what happened.

None of us knew at the time that Robert's father had modified the family car to accommodate his size. The front passenger seat had been removed so that Robert could sit in the back seat and stretch his long legs toward the front.

I watched, amazed, as he emerged from the car and stood up, supported by a cane. Right away, some people started moving away from him. I suppose they feared he might fall on them. Robert ascended a platform erected just for him, and as the crowd stared, he held up a Coke bottle in his hand that disappeared as soon as he wrapped his fingers around it.

Next, the challenge was given for the tallest man in the crowd to come stand next to Robert, reach up, and try to touch his head. It couldn't be done. Like the poster said, "He towered above every other living man."

As I watched with fascination, it was hard to believe that this man, who stood as tall as a tree, was born a normal baby, weighing just 8 1/2 pounds, when he entered the world on February 22, 1918.

Unbeknownst to those of us who came to look at this man, who at an early age, had become an oddity of nature, he had made every effort to live a normal life. I later read that a the age of six months, he weighed 30 pounds. At the age of five, he attended kindergarten and was 5' 6 1/2" tall and wore clothes that would fit a 17-year-old. This impressed me, because I was 17 at the time, and thankful to be normal.

At the age of 13, Robert became a Boy Scout and had the distinction of being the tallest Boy Scout in the world. His weight, at the time, was 270 pounds, and he was 7' 4" tall. It took 14 yards of material, 36" wide, to make his uniform. The suit he wore to Bulan took three times the amount of material required to sew a regular one.

Robert Wadlow lived only two and one-half months after leaving Bulan. He had trouble with his feet most of his life. He passed away in his sleep on July 15th, after an infection developed in his heel from a blister that had hospitalized him on July 4th. He was buried in his hometown of Alton, Illinois.

Robert had been born with an overactive pituitary gland that wasn't discovered until he was 12 years old. At the time, doctors could do nothing for him, but today there are medications for people who are born with this problem.

Langley Owsley, 82 Dewey Drive, Bulan, KY 41722, shares the story and pictures with our readers.