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Nick Oberting stood at about six-foot-three, and weighed just under 200 lbs., but in the minds and hearts of our local citizens, he was much larger. Though his feats of bravery and strength reached legendary proportions during his lifetime some have not yet heard the story of our own “Paul Bunyan.”
Oberting was born in 1849, in Alsace, France, and immigrated to our area with his family as a young child. Records and newspapers show that he lived in both Boone and Dearborn Counties throughout his adulthood. It was here he gained notoriety, and became a fearless lawman known for performing his duties unarmed.
One brave deed he performed as a young man set the tone for a lifetime of courageous acts. As retold by Col. Willis of Boone County: Oberting was aboard the ferry crossing the Ohio, along with Willis and his livestock. Mid-crossing, a bull loosened his restraints and went into the water. The bull sank, as it was still hobbled and couldn’t swim. Oberting immediately dove in after the beast, swam the river’s bottom, and cut the rope on the bull’s legs, freeing him. Oberting was exhausted from the rescue and used the beast’s tail as a tow-line to the bank. Willis offered a reward, but he graciously refused, pointing out that yes, he had saved the bull’s life, but the favor was returned.
Oberting’s career as a fearless lawman began when he was a young man, and included multiple run-ins with outlaws and bad men. There was no shortage of lawlessness along Ohio River, but Oberting was equal to the task. Throughout the course of his 20 years of service as Marshal of Lawrenceburg, he reportedly made 500 arrests and saved seven lives.
At a young age Oberting’s athleticism had emerged. In addition to his swimming ability, he was a skillful boxer and fast sprinter. These gifts would help him bring thugs to justice without the use of firearms; in fact, he considered carrying a gun to be an act of cowardice.
Little wonder that this man’s life story grew to mythical proportions. Another celebrated event was the rescue of some children who were being charged by Oberting’s own bull, “Satan.” He intervened, grabbed the bull by the horns and wrestled him to the ground in an epic battle. The event was immortalized by a poem bearing Nicholas’ name, written by James Whitcomb Riley in 1916. It begins: “Sing! Of Voice of Valor, sing! Sing of Nicholas Oberting! Giant of the strength of ten, Yet the gentlest of all men.”