John Henry, Johnny Appleseed and Daniel Boone are well- known West Virginia folk heroes. Clay County’s “Wildman” is not as well known, but that makes his life no less legendary.
Orval Elijah Brown was born on February 19, 1908 in the small community of Lizemores located in Clay County. From childhood, he was a unique individual. Orval grew up on his family’s farm, which was down a hollow known as Big Sycamore.
He loved the farm, but the young man who would soon be known as “Tarzan” dreamed of a different life.
He dropped out of school in the 8th grade, but he was intelligent and was known to be an avid reader. He adored the Tarzan comic strips and at the age of 17 he made the decision to leave his parent’s home and walk to the jungles of South America so he could live as Tarzan did. Unfortunately, he only made it as far as the Rio Grande.
Tarzan gained real notoriety during the Great Depression for his untamed appearance as well as the fact that he made his own clothing. Often, he could be found wearing nothing more than a handmade loincloth.
By the time, he was 20 he had become a full- blown local Folk Hero. He prided himself in staying in incredible physical shape and he lived a disciplined life free from alcohol, drugs and sex. He also called a cave home.
As the stories spread about a man, living much like Tarzan in a cave in Clay County, Brown soon became a tourist attraction. People would travel from all around West Virginia and surrounding states to get a glimpse of the “Wild Man,’ who lived life outside of the box. Visitors to his cave became so common that the “Wildman” began charging people.25 cents for pictures with him. Brown bragged that on some days he made as much as $30.
Brown would also often show up at state fairs and carnivals selling autographed photos of himself and showing off his muscular physique.
Many older residents of Clay County still tell tales of the “Wildman” walking down Main Street with his unkempt hair and beard wearing nothing but a tightly fitting loincloth flexing his muscles for anyone with a camera.
In 1930, Brown’s life changed. From 1930 to 1933 he was called to serve his country in the U. S. Army. He served with the Navy from 1941 to 1943.
He was honorably discharged from the Navy and returned to his “Wildman” roots in his beloved Clay County.
In mid-September of 1950 his life took a drastic turn. The “Wildman” was arrested for the murder of his cousin, Wilford Reedy. Brown claimed that he killed his cousin in self-defense. When his trail began, instead of claiming self-defense, Brown claimed insanity. The “Wildman” was found guilty and spent 17 years in Weston’s infamous Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum.
Upon his release, he left Clay County behind and moved to Nicholas County where he lived until his death in 2005 at the age of 97.