By RODNEY HART
Herald-Whig Staff Writer
LOUISIANA, Mo. -- Mention the word "Momo" around Louisiana these days, and you'll get everything from laughs to furrowed brows.
Some say it was a hoax perpetrated by several kids with active imaginations. Others swear it was a large ape-like creature (or creatures) that terrorized the small Mississippi River town 40 years ago this month.
One thing is for sure -- people remember the creature.
It was dubbed the "Missouri Monster," or Momo for short. It caused a huge uproar in the area and nationally as people searched for the creature. For years later, Louisiana businesses had celebrations like "Momo Days." Montgomery City native Bill Whyte, now based in Nashville and scheduled to perform July 28 at the Pike County Fair, even wrote a song about Momo.
The spot where it all started is near Ninth and Allen streets, right next to what is now called Star Hill. Back then it was called Marzolf Hill, and the Harrison family lived right next to it.
The three young Harrison children, Terry, Walley and Doris, claimed to have seen a tall, dark and hairy creature. There was an awful smell coming from it, and it appeared to be holding a dead animal.
Doris Harrison Bliss was 15 during that summer of 1972, and she says Momo was real.
"I was in the bathroom cleaning the sink, and I looked up out the window and I saw it," Bliss said Tuesday afternoon from her Louisiana home. "I made my brothers come in, because they were scared to death."
When Edgar Harrison, their father, returned home that afternoon, he found brush beaten down where the children said the creature had been. In a 1985 interview with The Herald-Whig, Edgar Harrison claimed to have seen two creatures behind the house.
"It was almost like a human except it had black hair all over it," Harrison told Herald-Whig Staff Writer Edward Husar.
What followed were reports by many of seeing the monster, hearing strange noises and sniffing awful odors. Louisiana Police Chief Shelby Ward didn't believe in Momo, but with many gun-toting citizens crashing through undergrowth in the area, he became concerned and organized a 20-man search party eight days after the furor started.
Nothing was ever found.
More sightings were reported in areas around Louisiana, and media began arriving from around the country to report on the strange story. There was even a visit from a man who ran the Unidentified Flying Objects Bureau.
Clyde Penrod made a plaster cast of a strange footprint believed to be made by the monster. There is confusion about where the footprint was found -- his daughter, Christina Windmiller, says the three-toed footprint was located on the River Road that runs along the Mississippi River. Other reports said it was made on a nearby farm nearly a month after the creature, or creatures, were sighted.
"It's really nice to think that it (Momo) was real," Windmiller, who was a year old when the hysteria started, said. "But it probably wasn't."
Priscilla Giltner is a retired schoolteacher from Louisiana who thinks several of her pupils faked the whole thing. She won't mention their names, but she laughs when remembering.
"I had them in school, and one of them dressed up as Momo," Giltner says. "It was nothing in the world but a prank. They were up on Star Hill for whatever reason, and for whatever reason, God only knows, they decided to pull this trick.
"I really don't think they counted on anybody actually seeing them up there."
Giltner, whose husband, Donald, was the mayor of Louisiana from 2006 to 2010, says she was on a family vacation in Georgia when it all started. Her son went to get a newspaper, and they were astounded to see a big headline saying "Big Foot Has Found A Mate In Louisiana, Missouri."
Momo may not have been real, and it never was captured, but the resulting attention it brought to the sleepy river town in Pike County was nothing but good. Momo Days, the song about Momo and other events helped the town remember.
"There was even a Momoburger at the local Dairy Queen," Priscilla Giltner says. "It kind of sparked this town up. It's kind of our thing. We don't have much, but we do have Momo and nobody else can claim Momo but us."
The boys involved in the prank simply had active imaginations, the retired schoolteacher claims.
"I don't find anything wrong with what they did," she says.
The house where Doris Harrison Bliss lived with her now deceased parents and brothers was torn down last year, but the memories remain.
"I was harassed about it a lot at school, and I don't even like to talk about it," Bliss says. "But it's true. I wouldn't lie to you.
"I used to hate talking about it, because people made fun of me and stuff, but now, and you can pardon my French, they can kiss my (butt). I saw what I saw and I heard what I heard."