By Stephen D. Bowling
How Robert Ripley heard about “Little Jake” we may never know, but he did. IN fact, Ripley drew a picture of Jake that appeared in his worldwide syndicated column called “Ripley’s Believe It Or Not.” The daily feature was one of the 100,000 that Ripley drew for his estimated 80 million daily readers. Breathitt’s only claim to fame in Ripley’s work was “Little Jake.”
Ripley may have heard about Jake in a newspaper story that The Lexington Herald published on January 26, 1930, in which they made the claim that the largest hog in the world was in Breathitt County. The story was picked up and reprinted in hundreds of other papers around the country. No matter how he found out, Robert Ripley included his sketch of Jake along with three others (including the first mention of Grizzly Adams) in his February 25, 1930 panel. It ran in papers around the world over the next week.
The porker, nicknamed “Little Jake,” belonged to an Elkatawa man named Matthew John Long. Matt Long and his son, Thomas Hargis Long, were well-known as hog breeders and traders in much of eastern Kentucky.
According to information published at the time, Little Jake, a four-year-old Poland-China hog of Liberator descent, weighed in at a whopping 1,465 pounds. The Lexington newspaper reported that the hog’s hocks measured one foot around, and he had a tail one foot long. Jake measured four feet, four inches tall, and was eight feet, six inches from tail to snout.
Matt Long was born February 1, 1875, in Morgan County, Kentucky, to Isom and Elsie Jane (Amyx) Long. He grew up in Morgan County. Increasing tensions with Spain spurred Long to enlist on November 22, 1897, in the United States Army. He served as a Corporal in Company B of the 6th Regiment of Infantry during the Spanish-American War. He was discharged on November 21, 1900and he returned to Kentucky.
In 1901, Long married Ida B. (Lindon) Gambill (1880-1941), the daughter of Alfred and Mary E. (Taulbee) Long. He and Ida moved to Breathitt County, where he established a general store on the 20 acres they purchased. Over the years, the store grew, and Long and Oldfield operated with some profit serving the Elkatawa community. He served as the Post Master at Elkatawa for several years.
Long purchased several Poland China hogs and began breeding top-quality hogs. Thomas Hargis Long, Matt’s son, managed the farm and oversaw the breeding of new lines coming from the famous pig Liberator. They won many prizes with their famous pigs over the years until their fam had reached state-wide. The chances were good that Ripley would have heard about the Long operation even if The Lexington Herald had not run their article.
Even in 1930, some did not believe everything they saw or read. A group of skeptical readers created an earl “fact-checking” group to challenge the cartoon and information panels that Robert Ripley produced. The group would contact the subjects of Ripley’s work in an attempt to expose what they believed might be fraud or sensationalized work. The fact-checkers of The Akron Beacon in Ohio contacted Long by phone at Vancleve and verified that Ripley’s work was accurate. Their findings were published in the February 26, 1930 edition of the paper, the day following the initial publication of the panel.
Matthew J. Long, age 66, died shortly after midnight near Jackson on November 7, 1941, in the back of an ambulance owned by Ray and Blake Funeral Home on the way to a hospital in Lexington. Doctors identified his cause of death as a heart attack that he suffered earlier in the day. He was buried in the Hazel Green Cemetery in Wolfe County near several family members.
His son, Tom Long, left Breathitt County and lived in West Virginia. He died there on April 27, 1973, and was buried in the Cedar Hill Cemetery at Mathias in Hardy County, West Virginia. He was 68.
Exactly when “Little Jake” came to his end is not recorded. What is certain is that he filled many frying pans after his 15 minutes in the spotlight.
Through the centuries, many strange events have happened in Breathitt County. Murders, killings, feuds, and human tragedies impacted the daily lives of the people of our area. Natural formations, minerals, abundant water, and unusual weather are found in Breathitt County home. So many events and occurrences happened here that still defy explanation, but it took an oversized Poland hog for the world to ask if we really “Believe It Or Not.”
© 2022 Stephen D. Bowling