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Arnold Huff’s life painful but filled with humor, wanderlust

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Collection of Weldon Cannon and Patricia Benoit

Arnold Huff had a rare genetic disease that turned his muscles to bone. After an automobile dealer gave him a car in about 1910, he began to travel throughout the state. An itinerant photographer snapped his photo in front of Temple’s Carnegie Library in Temple. Huff is seen lying in the back of the car.

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Even though Mother Nature dealt Arnold Huff a hard hand to play, he set out on a wonderful, marvelous, awesome 1,000-mile trek to see the sea.

Huff (1876-1922) saw it all, lying prone in the back of a revamped car because his body had turned to stone. At his death at age 46, his friends said his brief, painful life was amazing, filled with humor and wanderlust.

He grew up in Temple, one of 11 children of John W. Huff (1846-1904) and Margaret Virginia Gwyn Huff (1851- 1887?).

The Temple Daily Telegram reported he was able-bodied and vigorous until about age 16. “Suddenly he was stricken with a malady which robbed him of all his powers of locomotion, but leaving his mind as bright and forceful as ever.”

His case puzzled physicians. In 1900, he was hospitalized in King’s Daughters Hospital with a case of what they called “rheumatism,” but doctors were flummoxed. Physicians diagnosed his case as one of those “rare visitations of ossification,” and they were helpless to cure him.

“By the slow degrees, a change is taking place in the man’s being and composition” and he is “turning to bone,” the newspaper said. “From the waist down, he is helpless and requires all the services of an attendant at all times.”

Through a cruel accident of biology, Huff probably developed fibrodysplasia ossificans progressiva, a genetic mutation where his body could not switch off the mechanism that grows his skeleton.

Any small injury to connective tissue — muscles, ligaments, and tendons — resulted in the formation of hard bone around the damaged site. The condition is extremely rare, the first description written by 17th century physicians who described a woman who “turned to wood.”

Incurable

By the time Huff was a young man, he was rigid with a bone-hard torso and misshapen spindles for limbs. Huff’s joints permanently froze in place, and his muscles withered.

His condition was incurable but not insurmountable. Mercifully, the disease left his intellect intact. A voracious reader, he remained curious about the world around him. At first, he explored the countryside in a small one-horse wagon fitted for his use.

His godsend came in about 1910, when an automobile company gave him a car. Friends converted the body into a comfortable bed with a canopy.

Huff was so proud of his new wheels that an itinerant photographer snapped his photo in front of Temple’s Carnegie Library and sold postcards of the image with a caption “Arnold Huff out for a ride in his Rambler.”

Began to ramble

That’s when he really began to ramble.

Now he could satisfy his innate curiosity of the world, spending as much time as he could outdoors, touring country roads and visiting places that piqued his interest.

“His affliction has not served to sour his disposition, however, and he is as keen for various forms of enjoyment as any of his active brethren,” the newspaper reported. “There is always someone at hand to operate the machine.”

By 1910, he and his African-American driver, identified only as “Uncle Neal,” embarked on an extraordinary journey through Texas — remarkable because Texas had few good roads, virtually no highways and no traveler conveniences such as filling stations or rest stops.

Even able-bodied travelers found Texas challenging with its long vacant miles of dusty dirt and gravel roads.

Highways and road construction were still in their infancy. Local citizens formed “good roads” associations as early as 1903 to promote road construction and with hopes of establishing a highway bureau. Not until 1916 and the creation of the Federal Aid Road Act did Texas actually begin improvements.

Car adventure

That didn’t stop Huff. His car spelled adventure. He wanted to see Texas, Corpus Christi and the water.

So he and his driver traveled a distance of 1,029 miles over 50 hours at an average of 10 mph, including stops, which were frequent. The newspaper was quick to point out that he completed the trip “without accident of any serious kind.”

His trek to the Gulf of Mexico was so successful that Huff began planning other extended tours of the state. In 1911, he mailed a postcard card to a friend, saying he planned to visit her in Wisconsin in July 1912.

Others with his condition found work as sideshow attractions as “the Ossified Man” or “Stone Men” in circuses and traveling freak shows. The money these ossified people earned while on display paid for attendants and much needed medical attention.

Either because of pride or his family’s support, “Huff refused to place himself on public exhibition,” the Telegram reported.

By about 1920, perhaps he needed the money because Huff relented and contracted with a carnival to go on display along with other sideshow attractions and genetic anomalies.

When Huff died from pneumonia in 1922, newspapers throughout Texas printed his obituary. All noted his indomitable spirit, his humor and curiosity shining through a stone-hard body.

“His invariable cheerfulness and happy frame of mind under burdens that would crush a person of less evenly endowed temperament is considered marvelous,” reported the newspaper.

He is buried in an unmarked grave in Hillcrest Cemetery in north Temple.

1 image

Collection of Weldon Cannon and Patricia Benoit

Arnold Huff had a rare genetic disease that turned his muscles to bone. After an automobile dealer gave him a car in about 1910, he began to travel throughout the state. An itinerant photographer snapped his photo in front of Temple’s Carnegie Library in Temple. Huff is seen lying in the back of the car.

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