One day in the early 1970s, Gary Tschache happened upon a brilliant display of horse poop that changed his life.
While visiting his mother and father in Helena, Tschache passed a pile that had been dressed up a bit, with big orange feathers and 1-inch plastic googly eyes staring down.
Next to it, someone had posted a sign labeling the creation a Montana Turd Bird.
"I just cracked up," Tschache said.
And then he recreated it. Over the next 10 years, Tschache estimates eager shoppers snapped up more than a million of his scaled-down version of the Turd Bird, a kitschy novelty item that he said initially rivaled the Pet Rock in popularity, but exceeded it in longevity.
"At the time, it was a little piece of magic," he said. "It was all from a lady who had a pile of poop and I laughed my guts out."
Tschache's version was about 4 inches tall, made from a single lacquered horse dropping precariously positioned on two pipe-cleaner legs. The birds had feather wings and tails, stood on particleboard bases, and were labeled with the name of the state in which they were sold.
The rarest were the Turd Birds made for specific businesses, such as the Billy Bob Turd Bird, sold in Billy Bob's bar in Texas.
Marketing the Turd Bird was a risk for Tschache. When he started, he had $143 in the bank. But he enjoyed the work and believed in his product.
"I didn't want to work hard, that's stupid," Tschache said. "I wanted to work fun."
The birds retailed for $2.95 in those days. His costs hovered somewhere around 22 cents, including shipping. Tschache paid kids a cent a turd and people 10 cents a bird to make them.
He even held Turd Bird-making classes.
"People had fun with them," he said.
For Tschache, the popularity and profitability of the Turd Bird gave him freedom in his own life, including the opportunity to be active in the local Lions club.
"People thought I could do anything because I sold poop," he said.
But the Turd Bird business wasn't always easy. Tschache said he traveled over 10,000 miles searching for the perfect horse droppings, only to hit the jackpot at the Nine Quarter Circle Ranch in Logan.
The ideal turds were picked up in spring, after horses spent the winter grazing on grass and getting moisture from snow. Horses that ate oats or forage with more water left single piles, not droppings.
"You can't just have horse poop," Tschache said. "You have to have good turds."
Tschache has sold other novelty items over the years n Buffalo Chips, The Original Cowboy Boot Polish and Cowboy Cologne. But none garnered the success of the bird. Even a renamed version failed to sell.
"I thought Prairie Canary was cute, but they wanted Turd Bird," he said.
Tschache thinks he knows the reason for the Turd Bird's popularity n comparison-shopping.
"When you see a group of Turd Birds, you're gonna start picking people out," Tschache said. "You'd be picking one out that looks like your friend or your mom or your brother."
Tschache said his main reward was being included in a speech on free enterprise given by his father, illustrating how people can take something essentially worthless and make something great from it.
And he did, even if it wasn't the most highbrow business. When his wife, Candy, was asked what he did for a living, she politely said he sold novelty items. But Tschache wanted her to tell the whole story.
"I said, 'Tell them the truth, I sell s-,'" Tschache laughed.
Tschache eventually sold the business and the latest owners have died. But Tschache believes the birds can make a comeback.
"If somebody wants to do this business, I'll show them everything," Tschache, also known as the Head Turd Bird, said. "I'm the foremost authority on horse poop in the world."
Rachel Hergett may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 582-2603.