Supplying butterflies and spitting crickets

Guinness record once held by Olbrich supporter

Nobody can spit crickets like Dan Capps and his son, Jeff, and now I have finally heard about it first-hand.

It’s not the kind of story one dreams about uncovering while in journalism school, but then I didn’t go to journalism school.

The other day I heard of a good story—the Rooted and Growing Capital Campaign at Olbrich Gardens—and was considering writing about it, when somebody mentioned that Dan and Jeff Capps are longtime supporters of Olbrich Gardens, especially during Olbrich’s annual Blooming Butterflies event, now up and running through August 13.

“Dan Capps, the cricket spitter?”

I first heard the name nearly two decades ago, when Capps, who worked as a mechanic at Oscar Mayer, was on national television in a program called “Guinness World Records: Primetime.”

On the show, which can be viewed on YouTube, Capps competed against an Indiana man for a shot at immortality—or at least a notation in the Guinness book—as the world’s foremost cricket spitter.

On his final try, in a moment of high drama, Capps spit a cricket over 32 feet, establishing the record and his place in history.

I was writing a newspaper column in Madison at the time—June 1998—and always meant to interview Capps about his accomplishment. As far as I could tell he was the only Madisonian in the Guinness book. Somehow I never got around to it.

Last week, in connection with Olbrich’s Blooming Butterflies, I spoke to Dan’s son, Jeff Capps, who now runs his dad’s insect collecting and display business.

Jeff, 42, a La Follette High School graduate, said he and his father have been bringing butterflies to the Olbrich event for more than 20 years. They brought 12 display cases this year. The business is part-time but Jeff hopes to make it full-time. He currently has an exhibit, “Insects of the World,” at the Schiele Museum of Natural History in North Carolina.

Olbrich Gardens is special to them, Jeff says. “Such a beautiful garden. Most places like this you’d have to pay to visit.” As for participating in Blooming Butterflies? “It’s an honor for us,” he says.

The City of Madison has committed $5 million for the Rooted and Growing campaign that will go toward dedicated education space and a new production greenhouse at Olbrich. The Olbrich Botanical Society is also fundraising and the general public is invited to participate.

Blooming Butterflies is an important event for Olbrich, and on Friday afternoons during its run Jeff will be on hand to talk about the extraordinary Capps collection.

“My father started collecting in 1958,” Jeff said, when we spoke last week.

Dan Capps is now retired from Oscar Mayer, Jeff said, and while Jeff is running the insect business, his dad still helps.

Jeff traveled with his dad to county fairs and shopping malls while he was growing up, as Dan displayed his insects and occasionally displayed his prowess spitting crickets. But Jeff didn’t see it as a vocation.
“In high school, I was more interested in girls than bugs,” he said.

He never realized how much he was learning as he tagged along with his dad, Jeff said, and six years ago, he took over the business.

It is worth noting that Dan’s mastery of cricket spitting has also been passed down to his son.

The “sport” of cricket spitting was invented by a Purdue University professor named Tom Turpin in 1996 as part of the university’s Department of Entomology’s Bug Bowl.

In 1998, Dan Capps was at Purdue’s Bug Bowl with his exotic insect collection and decided on a lark to enter the cricket spitting contest. He blew away the competitors—and the existing world record—but Guinness wouldn’t recognize it because it was outdoors and might have been wind-aided. They did, however, invite Capps to try to repeat it indoors on national television.

“They flew him to Hollywood,” Jeff says.

As noted, Dan’s TV cricket spit of 32 feet, one-half inch established a record that apparently still holds, though it’s been bettered unofficially.

Jeff Capps himself shattered the record at a Jefferson County Fair when he spit a cricket over 42 feet.
“It was wind-aided,” Jeff said. “My dad likes to say it was tornado-aided.”

Jeff said there are a couple tricks to successful cricket spitting, including making sure the cricket exits headfirst. In any case, Jeff maintains, it’s no big deal for him to put a cricket in his mouth.

“I’ve eaten 30 scorpions,” he said.

Doug Moe is a Madison writer. Read his monthly column, Person of Interest, in Madison Magazine.

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