Editor’s note: This is the first of a new series titled “A Day With ... .” Reporters Kim Dunlap and Spencer Durham will give readers a glimpse into a typical day of various residents from Howard, Tipton, Miami or Cass counties with unique jobs. Photographers also will provide photos and videos from each subject’s day. Visit our website at kokomotribune.com to view video and more photos from Kim Dunlap’s day with Granpa Cratchet.
GREENTOWN - Sam Bowman can work a tiny trailer the way some artists can work clay or a piece of canvas, shuffling around from one end to the next without missing a beat.
Pieces of tape and 40 years of experience help him remember where to step or what not to touch, but the man’s a magician.
It’s not the magic of pulling rabbits from hats or making objects disappear; rather, it’s the simple ability of making a kid laugh after they had a hard day or transporting adults back to childhood for just a few minutes before realizing again that they’re adults.
It was a mid-July evening at the Howard County 4-H Fair, and there was just 10 minutes left until show time.
“You’re not Granpa. We want Granpa,” a little boy shouted up to the trailer from the front row of the gathered crowd, a response to the pre-show entertainment.
That was Bowman’s cue.
Seconds later, held up by Bowman’s right hand, Granpa Cratchet — complete with a bushy white beard, plaid shirt and overalls — appeared in one of the windows.
“Hey, have you guys seen a little chicken running around out here?” Bowman yelled from the trailer floor below, his voice strained to fit the character of the older puppet he portrays.
Kids laughed. Bowman smiled.
And while the 70-year-old Sharpsville native admitted he couldn’t imagine spending four decades doing anything else, the way his act got started in the first place was pretty much by accident.
Creating Granpa Cratchet
“I grew up on the farm and loved to build things,” Bowman said. “I helped raise my brothers and sisters, so there’s that whole formula — kids, creativity, humor — so I was off and running. So I went to school and ended up going to a church in Peoria (Illinois). I said I had to volunteer and do something for God, so they said, ‘OK, teach our little kids.’ And that started it. I did children’s church, and then I did a show at a local mall.”
That was the big break Bowman needed.
Pretty soon, he was touring malls nationwide in connection with a group out of Chicago.
And it was around that time when someone told Bowman that he needed to create a “country” act to go along with his other mainstays.
“Bam,” he said, “I grew up with my grandpa at a farm in Indiana, and I happened to find a grandpa puppet. I was off and going after that.”
But Bowman’s puppet needed to not only look like a grandfather; he needed to act like one, too.
For that, Bowman looked to his own family, but he also said he imitated the characters from the television shows and movies he grew up on.
“I was born in 1951,” he said, “and my dad was overseas in the Korean War in the U.S. Navy. My grandmother had passed that spring, so it was just my mom, my grandpa and me on grandpa’s farm. So I grew up with my own grandpa, and he tied me to the days of the steam engines and old farm life. So a lot comes from him, but there is also a compilation of growing up with the TV stars of the 1950s.”
Characters such as Ralph Kramden from “The Honeymooners,” Mr. Haney from “Green Acres,” Jimmy Stewart or Walter Brennan, Bowman added.
Put them all together, and you get Granpa Cratchet, he laughed.
“In fact, that’s one of my show announcements,” Bowman said. “‘Travel back in time to the good old days, when life was simpler, and meet the oldie, moldy, crazy, off-the-wall, totally weird grandpa that everybody loves or wants to get away from.’”
And that’s how it’s been for the past 30-plus years, with Granpa Cratchet literally being Bowman’s right-hand man.
The pair — along with some of Cratchet’s friends, like Granma, Cousin Clem, Ace Thunderdud, Fuzzball the Dog and Spaz the Chicken — have played as many as 105 county fairs in one summer once, and they’ve been a staple at the Howard County 4-H Fair for over three decades.
Of course, if you ask Bowman why a puppet like Granpa Cratchet seems to resonate with 21st-Century crowds, you’re likely to get several different answers.
But at the root of it all, Bowman acknowledged, is comedy.
The universal language
Bowman looked at the stack of puppets that lined the walls of his trailer and smiled as he thought about how his act has molded and changed over the years.
“It’s all in the book,” he said, laughing and gesturing toward a stack of self-authored books titled “Because Grandpa Says So, That’s Why: The Wit and Wisdom of Granpa Cratchet.” “ … I do know what resonates and stays the same over the years is the universal language of comedy. It’s about slapstick, making mistakes, off-the-wall gaffs, fast-paced material.
“Not only is it biblical that laughter is a good medicine, but it’s really scientifically proven,” he continued. “Children laugh up to 100 times a day, and adults are more like three or four. I guess we just get old, but me, I like to have fun all the time. That’s probably why I have more fun than anybody on earth and why people think I’m 50 and not 70. So for me, it’s a continual flow of energy that really does renew you and does your body good.”
That’s the simple answer, Bowman said smiling.
“But the deeper truth of it is that I believe that God put a calling on my life,” he said. “He equipped me to do this, gave me an anointing to do this, and I don’t know why it works. It just does.
“So I come back to the fact that people, especially kids, love wild and crazy and fun.”
Granpa Cratchet also works because he represents a concept that’s often lost in society these days, Bowman said: the sense of family and the wisdom of prior generations.
“I feel like these days especially, people need family,” Bowman noted. “They need connection. For some reason, to have that older generation love you, value you, accept you, honor you, it’s this concept of ‘He loves me,’ that I think works so well with kids. That’s why I think the idea of the puppet mobile (a miniature truck Bowman drives around during fair week) has flourished. Kids can get down and hug the puppets or touch them one-on-one. It just strikes a chord with them.”
A life’s work
But at 70, Bowman knows the end of Granpa Cratchet is likely near, though he has no current exit strategy.
A few years back, Bowman even left the act altogether, but he said he couldn’t seem to stay away.
“I still have the dream,” he said.
Bowman then grew emotional as he thought about that last show — whenever that may be — when he’ll raise his arm up as Granpa Cratchet for the last time.
“I tell you, the places I’ve been, the people I’ve met, the experiences I’ve had on the road, it just has been, sorry to quote the movie, a wonderful life,” he said, tears welling up in his eyes. “There are bigger rewards than money. Kids love what I do, and that’ll be my biggest reward with all this. But yeah, there is probably an end to the tunnel right now.
“I don’t know how many years I’ll be able to continue to do this, but I hope this will be my last fair I’ll ever play,” Bowman added, referring to Howard County’s place in his heart. “You don’t think about the end when you’re at the beginning. But I do wonder what that’s going to feel like that night. Somedays, I’m like, ‘I don’t want to go do this,’ but then I know at that time, it’ll be like burying someone. It’ll be like a death, a funeral. And I guess I’m just not ready for that yet.”