Ernie Brown, Jr., aka the Turtleman, has faced down many a vicious animal, including giant snapping turtles, snakes, skunks, raccoons and wild hogs, in most cases trapping the critters with his bare hands.
But a trail in Lebanon, Ky., named in honor of the star of Animal Planet’s wildly popular “Call of the Wildman” series, reduced TV’s toughest animal trapper to tears.
“It breaks my heart,” said Brown. “It’s an honor, to have all them people behind you.”
And behind him they are. Brown has legions of fans all over the world, a remarkable feat for a man who grew up in the backwater of Kentucky and once made his living about as far from the spotlight as possible, in a factory cutting barrel staves.
As a kid who “jumped in ponds and caught turtles,” Brown snared his first snapping turtle, a 25-pounder, when he was seven. Even before that, he knew he had a singularly unique skill, one that could land him on the much-coveted cover of Rolling Stone, his grandpa’s favorite magazine.
“Grandma said, ‘Find a talent, get people to love it, stick with it and know every inch of it. They’ll put you on TV and on that magazine.
“At five years, I went and got myself a talent,” he said. “Haven’t heard from Rolling Stone, but I’m still trying for it. I’m knocking out my goals one at a time.”
Trekking with the Turtleman
In the meantime, Brown is touched by the trail that lets fans of Animal Planet’s “Call of the Wildman” follow in the footsteps of this animal lover from Lebanon. A town of 5,539 located in central Kentucky, it’s where the Turtleman maintains his rural lifestyle when not filming the show.
Christened the Turtle Trek, it meanders through downtown and into the county to neighboring Gravel Switch, and features six stops, including sites seen in episodes of the TV series and local landmarks famous for their connection to either Brown or his alter ego.
The Marion County Heritage Center, listed as the No. 2 stop on the Turtle Trek, should be the first place visitors go. Here is the world’s only Turtleman exhibit and it is comprehensive, with many of the items donated by Brown himself. You’ll see traps made and used by Turtleman before he became a international sensation and those he has created on camera.
There are display cases spilling over with memorabilia, including boots, tools, the banjo Neal James used in composing his Turtleman song, turtle shell paintings created by Brown and his mom, fan-made gifts like colorful wood carvings and touching fan letters. Since the show debuted in fall 2011, Turtleman has become a hero to thousands and thousands of kids – and it is a role he takes seriously.
“I feel like I got to be that man, that hero – and I’m honored when kids call me that.”
In one letter, a boy named Tim invites Brown to visit South Carolina to see the wildlife there and calls him a hero because “you are a good turtle-catcher and you love it!” Tim closes with a request for Brown to write back when he has time.
“My whole house is full of fan mail,” said Brown, who receives 5,000 letters a week and opens every envelop himself. “I open one bag at a time and I keep the letters in order. I don’t have no help. It’s backed up and I don’t get to it every day – I gotta do shows and I’m out of town.
“But one of these days, there may be a letter there in your mailbox from the Turtleman.”
One exhibit not seen in many museums is a life-size model outfitted in cammos and tagged with every injury Brown has sustained going mano–a–mano with varmints. Fans of the show may know that Turtleman has been bitten dozens of time by snapping turtles and other critters, has had his ribs broken and was once stuck by a porcupine quill. The display puts it all out there, each bite and break locked and labeled.
Other stops include the new WhiteMoon Winery, featured in the “Tee’d Off Turtles” episode and the first stop listed on the Turtle Trek. Although the barrels Turtleman used to catch the critter are on display at the Marion County Heritage Center, visitors can sit back and sample Kentucky Proud wines in a countryside setting.
Stops No. 3 and 4 are downtown: the Stillhouse Restaurant and art gallery is famous for its Turtleman Cheesecake, but that’s not all. With Maker’s Mark Distillery located just outside of town, the restaurant has a Maker’s Mark Bourbon Fried Grill menu, featuring chicken, steak and pork entrees perked up with one of Kentucky’s most beloved brands of bourbon. The Lebanon Tourist & Convention Commission is where fans will want to pick up a souvenir “Lebanon, KY – Home of Turtleman” T-shirt.
Two other stops include Historic Penn’s Store, a 19th century country store in nearby Gravel Switch seen in the episode, “Fort Rattlesnake,” and the Sandusky Mule Barn, featured in the episode, “Groundhog Day.”
Other things to see while in Lebanon are Maker’s Mark Distillery, where visitors can take a tour, enjoy a tutored tasting – and dip a souvenir bottle into the signature red wax; Limestone Branch Distillery – home of legal moonshine; and the Kentucky Cooperage, with tours showing the process of barrel making.
Lebanon’s TurtleTrek debuts just as fans of the show will be tuning into Season Two of Animal Planet’s “Call of the Wildman,” premiering at 9 p.m. on Sun., June 2. Episodes will challenge Team Turtle’s prowess with nuisance animals at several Kentucky venues, including Louisville’s notoriously haunted Waverly Hills Sanatorium, Lebanon’s Marion County Heritage Center and Turtleman’s childhood home in an episode featuring TurtleMom (Brown’s mother).
Fans will see Turtleman take on coyotes, llamas, venomous snakes, pigeons, skunks, raccoons – even bulls – rescuing and relocating them to the wilds. And he’ll do it with pure animal instinct gleaned from a lifetime of studying all variety of critters.
“You got to learn their bad habits and their good habits. If you’re not fast enough, you’re gonna get bit. If you grab the wrong end, you’re gonna get bit.
“You got to make a magic hand – wave your hand like a wand – distract the critter with your hand and count your seconds. You got to time it just right and you’ll never miss your grab. That’s my secret tip.”
Viewers will also hear Brown’s trademark yodel-scream, a talent he attributes to TurtleMom and grand-TurtleMom, and see plenty of “live action.”
If You Go
Get Turtle Trek details here: www.VisitLebanonKy.com/itineraries-tours/turtleman-trek. Learn about visiting Lebanon, Ky., at www.VisitLebanonKy.com.
What makes the Turtleman tick? Click here.