The leaves are changing and falling to the ground, and we are well into the month that brings Halloween and the promise of spooky stories. Most of us like ghost stories. We may enjoy the delicious little shiver that runs down our spine. Or, maybe we are culturally wired to appreciate what we cannot explain.
Whether we believe in spirits or not is irrelevant when it comes to ghost stories; they stand on their own merit. We humans privilege certain fears; those we can easily walk away from.
Here in the mountains of Appalachia, there is no shortage of scary tales, legends and myths. After all, we come by our fondness for tall tales honestly, particularly if we are among the Scots-Irish who settled in these mountains and hollows. These early settlers brought their music, fierce loyalty to family and many tales haunted by witches, fairies and goblins.
Droop Mountain is no stranger to ghost stories; many spooky tales are told on this long and storied ridge that rises high above the Greenbrier River Valley. Entire chapters by some of the most prolific writers of legend and folklore are dedicated to this one mountain among thousands in Appalachia.
But why this particular location?
Ghost stories often arise from the ashes of tragedy and human suffering. After all, the Battle of Droop Mountain on November 6, 1863, claimed 78 lives and lasted only a few hours. That the battlefield is haunted by soldier spirits is a given, and a slightly spooky feeling is palpable when walking through Droop Mountain Battlefield State Park.
Shortly after the battle, stories began circulating about people seeing headless horsemen, apparitions of mounted soldiers crossing fields, and a young soldier sitting with his back against a tree staring off into a raging battle, now long over. These tales persist to this very day.
This year, I offer you a unique story that has gotten little press. Few people, even on Droop Mountain, have heard the story of the Wooden Box. It may be too scary for the tender ears and understanding of children. Or maybe it is the case that even adults would rather forget about this creepy story.
What was inside that curious box was not just spooky but pure malevolence with no other intent than wreaking vengeance. And it fell into the hands of a lonely man who yearned for his dead wife and rarely seen adult children.
A Hoarder by any other name is still a packrat
Droop Mountain, 1971
Clifton Schumacher was kneeling, pulling parsnips and potatoes from the chilly mountain soil, carefully placing them in a basket. It was late September, and this was the very last of the year’s garden produce.
As Clifton stood up, he glanced over at the now overgrown herb garden, Emma’s favorite project. Since his wife died almost five years ago, Clifton has stuck with the bare essentials of cooking: meat, potatoes, salt, pepper and butter.
He was ashamed to acknowledge his neglect of the herb garden and how little he had availed himself of the magic of the herbs she worked so hard to grow. He missed the palette of flavors in Emma’s masterful culinary skills; he missed Emma every second of every day.
Returning to the farmhouse, Clifton carried the basket of vegetables to the kitchen. To get to the kitchen or any particular room in Clifton’s house, one had to negotiate a narrow pathway through boxes, newspapers and magazines stacked almost to the ceiling.
Those who visited him, and there were fewer each succeeding year, tried to ignore the house’s condition after Emma’s death. However, Clifton had overheard comments by visitors suggesting he was a packrat. Hoarder wasn’t yet a common term in those days before reality TV.
Clifton’s daughter, Rachel, an anthropology professor at Colorado State University, called her father several times weekly to check on him. She always flew back to West Virginia for holidays, her father’s birthday and the anniversary of her mother’s death.
Rachel was sensitive to the pain and grief her father endured living on the farm alone and far from his children. While she tended to excuse the house’s condition, her brother constantly pestered Clifton about his hoarding.
Roger didn’t see his father’s continual acquisitions as a way of coping with grief and loneliness but, instead, a sign of dementia. Clifton was anything but demented, and had his son visited more often and had more conversations with his father, he would know this.
Roger had always tried to control those around him, even as a child. Recently, he was relentless in his constant verbal attacks on his father for filling the house with what he termed “useless junk.” Roger always ended each acrimonious phone call to his father: “What would mother think about her once beautiful home?”
It came to a head when Roger arrived unannounced at the family farm one weekend, driving a large moving van. Clifton knew what Roger was planning and braced himself for a confrontation. His son was there for the express purpose of cleaning out the family home.
“Perhaps Roger is right,” thought Clifton; “maybe I am disrespecting my wife, which I would never do intentionally.”
Clifton did not resist his son’s efforts and spent the entire weekend hauling boxes full of books, old clocks, big-eyed children pictures, trinkets, doodads, and knickknacks from the house to the big moving truck; much of it unopened. When they filled the vehicle to capacity, Roger left, promising to return in a few weeks to get the remainder of the stuff in the attic.
After Emma passed on, Clifton was left to ramble around the big old farmhouse alone; maybe he felt the big house was just too empty. He was much lonelier than he let on.
One day, a neighbor suggested that Clifton go to yard sales and auctions to pass the time and make a few bucks re-selling items in the Ol’ Mountain Trader. Clifton was soon spending his time and a lot of his meager income on things others no longer wanted. The compulsion to buy and hoard became out of control, and Clifton realized it.
Yet, he did resent his son’s intimations that he was losing his cognitive functions, as though he had Alzheimer’s. “If Roger came around more often or actually listened to me rather than lecture me, he would know better,” Clifton said aloud.
On a cold November afternoon a few days later, Clifton decided to tackle the boxes in the attic. These were the first items he had purchased, most from auctions, primarily packed in boxes and crates by the auctioneer. Surveying the “grab bag” purchases, he started with a box of clothes. None of the garments would fit him, and he doubted Roger was interested in any of it. Clifton decided that he would take clothing and household goods to Goodwill.
It was frigid in the attic, so he would drag each box down to the living room, where the fireplace provided enough warmth to sort through the contents of each crate comfortably.
Later in the afternoon, after Clifton had worked through most of the unmarked boxes, he came upon an old Army footlocker. The stout green container had not just one but two padlocks on it. Stamped on the top lid was Miller, Harold, USMC Base, Port-au-Prince, Haiti, 1918. Clifton was intrigued and dragged the heavy load down to the living room on a throw rug.
He poured himself a dram of scotch (neat) and sat cross-legged on the floor examining the locks. The dancing flames in the fireplace cast shadows on the walls around him, giving a spooky atmosphere to the evening’s activities.
After returning from the barn with his bolt cutter, Clifton cut both locks and placed them on the floor. He was curious about the box’s contents, but he restrained himself enough to go about the task slowly to savor the potential treasures inside.
With another dram of scotch added to his glass, Clifton took a sip and sat the glass down, carefully placing his hands on the two latches and gently pulling up. The lid didn’t budge.
‘All right, he thought, it’s been closed for decades, and a sort of vacuum seal has formed; it’s time for a prybar.’
Clifton plodded to the barn through several inches of snow that fell during the last few hours. Returning shortly with the prybar, he sat the footlocker on a table, placed the claw just under the lip of the lid, and pulled down with some force.
The foulest odor imaginable was suddenly released, temporarily dampening his enthusiasm. Clifton nearly gagged and opened up a nearby window to allow the room to air out. He thought the putrid smell was of something dead, but how could that be?
Putting on a pair of latex gloves, he slowly removed each item from the footlocker, placing them beside the musty container. Clifton removed military pants, shirts, helmet, poncho, canteen, and other things one would expect to find in a Marine’s foot locker.
Eventually, he arrived at a strange wooden box at the very bottom of the container.
Clifton had never seen anything remotely like it: strange symbols on the lid and an unbroken wax seal over the hasp of the rough wooden box. He debated for some time as to whether he should open it at all.
He sat back in a winged chair, occasionally sipping at his scotch and taking long draws from a cigarette, and staring at the box. “What in hell could be in that wooden box?” he asked himself. His choice of words was uncannily accurate, as he was about to discover.
“Well, there’s only one way to find out,” Clifton remarked, retrieving the box and setting it on his lap. With trembling hands, he broke the seal on the lid, shards of hard red wax falling onto his lap. He steadied himself and took a breath. At the moment he began to lift the lid, there was movement inside the box, and the lights in the room flickered. The liquid courage failed Clifton, and he flung the box to the floor.
In that moment of abject terror, he knew full well that he had unwittingly brought something dreadful into his life.
To be Continued: