Caber Toss

2018 April Fools' Day Entry

Caber toss was arguably the most popular sport in Arkansas in the 1920s and 1930s. Indeed, Arkansas, despite its relatively small population, led the nation in the number of caber toss leagues, and most high schools and colleges had competitive teams. However, the sport declined during the years of the Great Depression and World War II, in part due to active government suppression of caber toss teams.

The sport of caber toss originated in the Scottish Highlands. The Gaelic word cabar or kaber means “rafter” or “beam,” and during military campaigns, such large beams were tossed across often ice-cold streams to provide a temporary bridge for soldiers. The first record of caber toss as an athletic event dates to 1574, and given its origin in military practice, the toss is graded according to accuracy rather than distance—the goal is to throw the caber, usually cut to a length of 19.5 feet, in such a way that it turns end over end and falls away from the thrower in a straight line.

Although Scottish immigrants accounted for a culturally significant part of the population of the United States from the pre-Revolutionary days through the twentieth century, caber toss did not catch on as a sport until the years following World War I. During the war, American soldiers served alongside Scottish troops and saw that tossing cabers served as a useful means for crossing enemy trenches, which were often booby-trapped. American and Scottish troops who socialized together after the war invariably ended up participating in caber toss competitions, and when American troops returned home, they brought the sport with them. As historian Michael B. Dougan has written, “Honestly, caber toss is one of the least offensive Scottish traditions that American soldiers could have brought back home—most Arkansans of the time probably could not stomach a haggis.”

Caber toss caught on quickly in Arkansas, and by 1921, most of the state’s institutions of higher education had caber toss teams, as did many high schools. The yearly Battle of the Ravine in Arkadelphia (Clark County), a football rivalry between what are now Henderson State University and Ouachita Baptist University, expanded into the field of caber toss in 1923; in keeping with the origin of the sport, competitors tossed their cabers over the eponymous ravine. The University of Arkansas (UA) in Fayetteville (Washington County) hosted a team informally known as the Razor-Cabers, while faculty also got into the game, establishing, in 1926, the Federation of Arkansas Caber Tossing University Professors, headed by UA theater instructor Tabor Fosse. Many municipalities and churches also hosted their own teams. The Pottsville Polecats won the state championship three years running, while the team at First Baptist Church in Jonesboro (Craighead County) famously competed under a banner reading, “Love thy caber,” and often shouted at their opponents, “In your eye!”—a reference to Matthew 7:3.

The popularity of postwar caber toss even extended to some of the state’s more morally suspect groups. Given the presence of numerous World War I veterans among their numbers, and their emphasis upon traditional masculinity, it is perhaps no surprise that the Ku Klux Klan came to enjoy caber toss. Neither it is surprising that they instituted their own variations upon the sport, which came to be known, in Klan jargon, as Kaber Krossing, and entailed the competitive tossing of a large wooden cross prior to it being lit on fire. Unfortunately, during the July 4, 1923, picnic hosted by Klan No. 7 of Hot Springs (Garland County), a new initiate to the order apparently became confused about the specific sequence of events, leading to the Arkansas Gazette headline, “Kaber Krosser Kombusted!”

The unusual popularity of caber toss in Arkansas during the postwar years hinges upon a number of factors. Some historians cite the appeal in masculine displays that had long marked the reputation of Arkansas, where eye-gouging, for example, had been a widespread pastime during the territorial and early statehood period. However, material factors likely played a more significant role. The timber industry in Arkansas experienced a significant boom during the postwar period, with outfits like Caddo River Lumber Company and Dierks Lumber and Coal Company expanding their operations across southwestern portions of the state and also employing many of these returned veterans, who now had access to processed trees in great abundance. Although most employees were no doubt honest, theft from mill ponds and other timber storage sites for purposes of caber toss competitions was a large enough problem that some companies were forced to mark each tree individually, a fact that raised the cost of Arkansas timber and perhaps contributed to the decline of timber companies during the first half of the twentieth century.

Indeed, the fantastic popularity of caber toss, and the relentlessness with which players would illicitly acquire the needed cabers, greatly hindered the economic development of Arkansas. During the early days of the sport in Arkansas, people engaged in the illicit cutting of timber across the state, so that floodplain areas saw a marked increase in soil erosion. Many Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) camps devoted to tackling the problem of soil conservation in the 1930s were, in fact, dealing with the legacy of caber toss. Too, many players were not above stealing telephone poles. During the Flood of 1927, several communities, such as Dermott (Chicot County) and Arkansas City (Desha County) had been left without the ability to communicate with the outside world, and thus request assistance, due to that year’s Southeast Arkansas Caber Association Spring Highland Intramural Tournament. Rural electrification in Arkansas also took a hit. In 1935, Harvey Couch of Arkansas Power & Light (AP&L) built lines to Prattsville (Grant County) and Malvern (Hot Spring County), but those lines did not last the year due to caber-crazed thieves stealing the poles.

In response, the state of Arkansas initiated a crackdown on illicit caber toss leagues. The problem became so bad that the Arkansas General Assembly passed Act 209 in 1935, authorizing law enforcement personnel to use lethal force against suspected utility pole thieves. Governor Junius Marion Futrell, in an April 1, 1936, speech, described caber toss as “nothing less than absolute deviltry and the greatest threat our proud state faces today,” although most historians believe that he was attempting to deflect attention from the ongoing crisis of poverty in Arkansas and his much derided proposal to turn the state’s penitentiaries into distilleries. During the general election later that year, Republican Osro Cobb attempted to connect his opponent, Democrat Carl Bailey, with the sport by dubbing him “Caber Carl,” noting a 1928 competition the prosecuting attorney had judged. However, Bailey went on to win the election and continued his predecessor’s actions against the sport, including legislation to prevent state-supported secondary schools and institutions of higher education from hosting caber toss teams. Football, more and more, became the sport of choice for young men.

In the face of increasing social and governmental opprobrium, caber toss moved more and more into the rural hinterlands. In fact, the expression “out in the sticks,” denoting a rural area far removed from population centers, originated in Arkansas at this time as a reference to places where caber toss remained common. However, the real death blow to the practice was World War II and the conscription of young men for military service. The sport did not revive with their return to Arkansas, and, to date, only Lyon College of Batesville (Independence County) hosts caber toss tournaments, held in conjunction with the yearly Arkansas Scottish Festival.

For additional information:
Arkansas Scottish Festival. Lyon College. https://www.lyon.edu/arkansas-scottish-festival (accessed February 27, 2018).

Dougan, Michael D. “Tabor Fosse: Arkansas’s Labor Boss of Caber Toss.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 76 (Autumn 2017): 191–273.

April Fool’s!

Abelour Laphroaig
Arkansas Scottish Cultural Foundation

Last Updated: 03/29/2018

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