Capturing the “Oakland Creature”: Four decades ago, confusing sightings and a mass theory terrified a small Nebraska town

March 3, 2023, 7 a.m. ·

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The metal art piece, found at the home of Kay Kemmerer in Oakland, Nebraska, would signify Bigfoot in most American towns. But in Oakland, population 1,300, it can also represent “The Oakland Creature.” A series of sightings in the small Nebraska town in the summer of 1974 led to some panic, a police search and ultimately an unanswered question: What was out there in the night? Photo by Tim Trudell for the Flatwater Free Press

A freakish scream in the wee hours of July 4, 1974, woke Dale and Linda Jones from a deep slumber. They thought one of their pigs had gotten its head caught in the pen’s slats.

Shep, their German shepherd, barked from the front porch.

Dale grabbed a flashlight and headed to the pig pen on his farm a few miles south of the small Nebraska town of Oakland, off of US Highway 77. Finding nothing wrong, he turned back toward the house. Then he heard it again.

"It was like something I'd never heard before," Jones said. "It's indescribable. People asked me, and I'd try to tell them, but unless you heard it … ."

Running back to the house, Jones reached for a baseball bat to use while he checked his farm. Then Linda, standing on the porch, trying to quiet Shep, saw it. A silhouette of a figure standing several hundred feet away.

"It took off running on two legs, between the corn cribs toward the cornfield," Linda Jones said.

The couple went back inside on that Independence Day, locked the doors and latched the windows. They had no air conditioning in the old farmhouse, and thanks to the heat and fear, sleep proved impossible.

Together, Dale and Linda lay in bed, eyes open, wondering: What in the world have we seen? What … exactly … was that?

The Joneses, in their early 20s at the time, were likely the first to witness an unidentified figure that became known as the "Oakland Creature." Once their story became public, the sightings – and talk about what this was or wasn’t – spread like wildfire across the 1,300-person town known as the Swedish Capital of Nebraska.

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Some residents of Oakland described the so-called “Oakland Creature” with a bear body and a monkey face. Others say it was a mountain lion and a giant possum. Art by Anita Kuyper for the Flatwater Free Press

Nearly 50 years ago, many area residents bought the idea that some type of creature was roaming the area. Many believed that a giant monster had infiltrated the normally quiet community, say old newspaper accounts as well as new Flatwater Free Press interviews.

To outsiders this may seem like an outrageous theory, experts say, just like any seemingly supernatural occurrence or conspiracy theory can seem.

But, to the people involved, something seemingly outrageous – something like Bigfoot roaming your hometown – can begin to make perfect sense.

“Knowing what I know about science, I know that bears don’t mate with monkeys,” to create Bigfoot, said Andy Norman, a professor at Carnegie-Mellon University who studies phenomena like Bigfoot sightings, conspiracy theories and QAnon beliefs.

But “an ordinary cougar call can actually feel more like Bigfoot if that’s what you had on your mind,” he said, explaining how one sighting can lead to many. “Everybody’s been talking about it, right? Our brains are tricky, and they often detect patterns that aren’t really there.”

To some local residents of Oakland in the summer of 1974, this most certainly didn’t feel like a mind-trick. It felt wholly, undeniably, real.

Within a few days of the initial incident, Nick Wickstrom recalls an odd scene one morning while he was delivering the Omaha World-Herald newspaper outside town. The 13-year-old Wickstrom and both his brother and father saw something large running alongside the gravel road.

"It looked like it was running on its front knuckles," said Wickstrom, now retired from the U.S. Navy. "It didn't look like anything I've ever seen before or since. There was no tail. Its legs looked like ours. But, for all I know, it could have been an opossum…a really big opossum.

“But, I couldn’t identify it. You know, we were country kids. We could identify just about every critter out there. But this one was different.”

Some witnesses claimed the creature stood more than 6 feet tall, with a bear’s body and a monkey’s face. State zoologists disputed that any known animal matched the description.

Late one night, some teenagers hanging out at the cemetery allegedly saw the creature walking upright along a tree line. They threw firecrackers at the figure, watching it scamper into the woods.

Once alerted, Oakland Police Chief Greg Webb engaged the assistance of North Bend's police chief, who had a coyote trained for tracking. The police searched the area deep into the overnight hours, coming up empty.

"We had a drought that year, so it was about impossible to find any tracks," said Leonard Canarsky, an officer with the Oakland Police Department before being elected Burt County sheriff later in 1974. "I remember spending nights in the city park looking for it.”

The Joneses, who had been the first to encounter the phenomenon, believe the Oakland Creature used a pasture on their farm as its home base.

"We'd hear it every night," Dale said. "We had 22 acres of land … so there was no way of finding it."

That didn't stop people from trying. Locals organized hunting parties, but they always came up empty, he said.

At the height of the sightings, three Omaha TV stations sent news crews to interview locals. Newspapers, including The World-Herald, published stories on the sightings.

About the same time, reports of cattle mutilations were widespread across northeast Nebraska.

Law enforcement officials didn't believe the two were related, Carnasky said, because the mutilations were “too well-performed” to have been done by animals.

“It was more like sacrifices.”

Sightings stopped as cooler weather moved into the area in September. Linda Jones delivered the couple’s first child that month, and neither she nor Dale recalls hearing noises after that. Once the Oakland Creature disappeared, talk faded.

But the now-distant memory remains. And a question: What was it?

Canarsky, the sheriff, guesses the creature was a mountain lion.

"The drought probably would have brought them along Logan Creek, looking for food," he said.

The lack of evidence suggests there’s a logical reason behind the story, said Norman, the professor. But he wouldn’t have necessarily believed that had he been an Oakland resident in 1974.

“I love a good mystery as much as the next person,” he said. “Had I been there at the time, I’m sure I would have been really curious to find out.”

During an interview, Norman pointed out that reports of extraterrestrial visits spiked in the late 1970s as millions of Americans reported having a close encounter with a third kind.

It’s impossible to say for certain what changed, he said, except for one thing:

The movie “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” the 1977 Steven Spielberg hit.

“Science of why people believe things has a lot to teach us. One of the takeaways is that people often see … what they expect or hope to see,” he said. “Reported sightings spiked because more people were kind of either hoping or expecting to experience strange phenomena.”

However, Norman said, people in Oakland who saw something and then tried to make sense of it shouldn’t be ridiculed by the rest of us.

Sometimes, people believe in things like the “Oakland Creature” because it satisfies a deep need. Sometimes, people believe in the “Oakland Creature” because the human mind craves an explanation, even when there isn’t one.

“There are many species on the planet that we have not yet documented or cataloged,” Norman said. “But the chances that something the size of a Bigfoot has managed to escape all scientific confirmation are vanishingly small.”

He pointed out that the lack of evidence of proof like fossil remains.

“But never say never, right?”

To this day, Linda and Dale Jones say they do not know what they heard and saw in the early morning hours of July 4, 1974. They don’t know if it was a psychological phenomenon, a physical creature, a wild animal or a mountain lion.

They do know that whatever they saw was not normal.

And whatever it was, they have no desire to meet it up close.

“If somebody would ask me to go look for it, I didn’t want to see it,” Dale Jones said. “It was just terrifying.”