A Halloween Story
Watoga Park Foundation
Many folks who have grown up in rural areas will remember someone in their neighborhood who was labeled a witch. It usually turned out to be some unfortunate elderly woman who had lots of cats and didn’t mow the weeds around her two-story unpainted house. Of course, the house was set back from the road at the end of a long overgrown lane.
This scenario is a magnet for young boys, particularly around Halloween, when there would be dares and double-dares to sneak up on her rickety porch and peek in the windows. The prime age for boys engaging in such behavior is between 10 and 13 years old – before they discover girls.
When I was that age, we had such a witch in the hills of southern Ohio. Stories about her were passed down by the older boys who had moved on to impressing girls. These tales ranged from being shot at by the witch to one boy seeing the old lady through a window stirring a pot on her stove in which a human hand was sticking out.
The boy who had allegedly witnessed this macabre scene also said that a high school ring was on one of the fingers. Any prepubescent boy with such an eye for detail must be telling the truth, or so we thought.
The older boys warned us that if the witch caught you, she would put a curse on you that you could never get shed of. Things like big hairy warts on your nose. Being somewhat vain at the time, this scared the bejeezus out of me. I don’t remember ever making it as far as her porch, even on a triple-dare with a Snickers bar thrown in.
I often wonder if the “witch” wasn’t just a lonely old woman, perhaps a poor childless widow. Nevertheless, she was tortured by several generations of kids. I would imagine the same thing went on anywhere an older woman lived alone and hadn’t the means nor the ability to maintain her property to local standards.
But the Witch of Kennison Run in what is now Watoga State Park is another matter altogether. Here we have something sinister, something so dark that you know that it is best not to venture too far into the lair of evil.
Some know from painful experience that if you open certain doors, you cannot control what comes through those doors.
I first heard of the witch from a local fellow while hunting for morels over at the primitive campground along Laurel Run. He could only offer scant details about her, only saying that he heard as a child that there had once been a witch living up Kennison Run.
He added, “A fellow went up the hollow fixin’ to harm the old hag but returned home permanently bewitched and addled for his troubles.”
He had no dates or names associated with the story. And, at first, that’s exactly what I assumed it was, just a story. That is until I happened upon a book in the Franklin Library up in Pendleton County.
The book by the German historian and writer Finn Henckel tells the history of nearby Germany Valley. It recounts how German immigrant farmers settled in the valley in the late 1700s.
In one chapter devoted to folklore and superstitions of the area, it stated, “These settlers brought the familiar custom of placing hex signs on their barns to ward off evil spirits.”
Hex means witch or witch’s spell in the German language.
The conclusion to this chapter recounted an incident in the mid-1800s in which a young childless widow named Gertrud Schroder fell under suspicion of being a witch – the first and only time in this quiet community.
Farmers began complaining that Gertrud had been seen vandalizing their hex signs and gazing down their wells as if in a trance. And she had stopped attending church after her husband’s death, some two years before.
It had been more than 200 years since the Salem Witch Trials, but an accusation of witchcraft was still a serious matter – witches were not the trivial characters of Halloween that they are today.
In a community meeting called to discuss the matter, it was unanimously decided to remove Gertrud Schroder, not only from the valley but as far away as possible. She was exiled from the German community in Pendleton County.
Mrs. Schroder rode in the back of a buckboard wagon out of Germany Valley and down the old turnpike to Huntersville in Pocahontas County, where the driver unceremoniously abandoned Gertrud to her own devices.
She was near the headwaters of Beaver Creek some days later, carrying a burlap sack over her shoulder. Then she disappeared into the wilderness area surrounding Laurel Run.
That was the last report of Gertrud for a few years until hunters began telling stories about a crazy lady living up in a deep hollow near Kennison Run.
According to these reports, she had long scraggly hair and seemed to know when interlopers were in the area. At this point, her name, Gertrud Schroder, was lost to the winds and replaced with “The Witch of Kennison Run.”
Hunters often reported feeling a bit spooked when they traveled in the vicinity of the witch’s hollow, as though she was aware of their presence.
Those brave enough to continue into the hollow said she lived in a lean-to and had strange looking herbs growing in a small garden. They didn’t stay long, though, saying that the silence was that of a tomb, and it raised the hair on the back of their necks.
Over the years, she became a legend, and young folks eager to demonstrate their bravado would venture up into the hollow, claiming to have seen the witch. They often spoke of seeing her gazing down into her well, seemingly mesmerized.
In the 1880s, a fellow named Howard Beamus swore that he was going up into Kennison Run and put an end to this witch nonsense.
Beamus was a bully who frequently found himself in the Pocahontas County jail for viciously beating up anyone who even glanced at him the wrong way, including his wife and children. He was suspected of several ruthless murders, but there was never enough evidence to convict him.
The newspaper, in reporting such escapades, referred to Beamus as “Not a man who was generally liked.” That was quite the understatement – Beamus was feared and hated.
As the story goes, Beamus headed up Kennison Run one afternoon carrying an ax handle. When he didn’t return for two days, several men living along Beaver Creek reluctantly went looking for him.
What they found wasn’t the man they reviled, but a pitiful creature crawling in tight circles around a hand-dug well, mumbling “Don’t look in the well.” For the remainder of his life, Beamus was a shell of a man. It was as though something in that well snatched his soul and carried it down into its waters.
Whether you call her Gertrud Schroder or a witch, what she practiced was something that goes back thousands of years. Homer’s Odyssey refers to a pit or well in which Odysseus gazing into its waters, made contact with his dead mother.
Archaeologists have uncovered many such structures, called psychomanteums, throughout Greece. I think that we can assume that Beamus did indeed look down into the witch’s well. And the souls of his tortured victims laid claim to his own dark soul.
I spent last week doing an extensive search of the area and came upon a dark and forbidding hollow carved by a small creek that flows into Kennison Run.
I was about ready to give up my search for the witch’s home when I noticed an area between the stream and a rock face where a number of unusual herbs are growing. It is highly unusual to see sage, mandrake, wormwood and nightshade all growing together in the wild.
The slightly overhanging rock would have perfectly supported the witch’s lean-to. By walking a grid pattern, I finally uncovered a hand-dug well no more than 30 inches in diameter. This must be the location of Gertrud’s home.
You might be asking yourself about now if I dared look down into that well?
I must admit that I got down on my hands and knees and very slowly eased over for a brief peek. Horrified at what I saw, I quickly withdrew, swearing that I would never return to this site again.
My warning to you, dear reader is thus: If you should choose to go up Kennison Run and follow the first stream on your right up a dark hollow where silence reigns, beware.
If you should take this dreadful task upon yourself, and if you should find the well: Please, never, never, ever, look down into it.