On Senior’s Day at the recent Wayne County fair, I was busy taking orders for those scrumptious dogs and burgers at the booth operated by the Grantham Grange and Volunteer Fire Department. A customer recognizing “The Owl” asked if I was going to expose the Neuse Island’s witch again this year.
So I returned to my files and reviewed the four columns I had previously written about the witch woman, Phoebe, over past years. As I read the first, written five years ago, even I, the writer, marveled at the magical power the mischievous old witch woman had over human beings.
At first I doubted the wisdom of giving my readers a rerun, but then I got to “thanking.” “Why not? They’ve probably forgotten about it anyway. Besides, there are likely new readers of the column who could benefit from paying attention to the public warnings I’m offering. Might even save a life or two.” Here goes:
Ghosts, witches and goblins still haunt the Neuse Islands
Most ghost storytellers are primarily liars who know absolutely nothing about ghosts, goblins, witches, evil spirits and the like. Well, when I tell you a story, count on it being more than a mere exaggerated regurgitated whopper. You can take what I tell you as truth. Were it money, you could take it to the bank with not a counterfeit bill in the stack.
Journey with me but a few miles down the road — a section where haints rule the night, and sometimes the day.
Nearby Neuse Islands is a massive body of land bordering Wayne and Johnston counties triangled between Grantham, Cox’s Mill, Rosewood and Princeton, and is often referred to as “the lowlands.”
The Islands are split down the middle by the spirited hauntings of swishing, swirling sounds of the Neuse’s muddy waters. Waters that rise high and roll turbulently, growing excessively angry during certain bewitching and ghouling seasons of the year. It’s as though a thousand stage hands drew the meandering currents on canvas and placed it as backdrop for the play that I’m about to unfold.
Perhaps no other season brings out the ghostly presence of haints through those lonely stretches of woods as do the evil-lurking days of Halloween. Let’s face it, spirits know when skittish earthlings are caught up in the height of fear and anticipation, harboring notions that something is about to jump from behind every tree and haul them away, transform them into other life forms or conjure their minds beyond repair.
So, I’m taking you back in time to show why you’d be wise to stay out of there during the next several days. If you must travel Ferry Bridge, Richardson Bridge or Williford roads, do it before sundown, and even in daylight keep your windows up and the doors locked.
Yes, I did say Williford Road. There really is one so named. Take a ride and look for yourself. But I say wait until after the witching days have passed.
The south or Cox’s Mill side belongs to the wicked “witch woman,” Phoebe, who for more than 100 years, has menaced and terrorized travelers. The territory is sparsely populated, and the few who live in that flood-prone section pay but little attention to Phoebe, though oft times they are aware of her presence. A few locals can trace family connections right back to the enchantress. When living, she was known far and wide as a conjurer and sorcerer. She was born before the Civil War and lived until around 1905. In her later years, she became so evil and despised that her own daughter-in-law, Pasha, killed her by burning a brewed up concoction in the fire ashes by an old-timey outside wash pot. She never did reveal what ingredients were in the pouch.
If Phoebe had one social grace, it was that she was an accomplished dancer and loved the lively square dances held each Saturday night in Princeton which, as the crow flies, was some eight miles north of the river. It was a tiring walk, and often she pleaded with neighbors for a buggy or wagon ride, but distrust ran so strong that they always had a ready excuse in denying her. Nevertheless, when it came right down to riding time, Phoebe’s attitude was, “To hell with them. I’ll get there.”
She knew Bowden went to bed early and that on this dance night, as always, he would be going to bed “with the chickens.” She waited by a corner of the house till dark and then snuck in through the back door. With lightning speed she hypnotized and coaxed him outside. Immediately and magically she turned him into a black, sleek, muscle-bound stallion whose coloring matched the garb she wore, and together they faded into the moonlit night.
And why, Bowden? Well, why not? Lore and legend has it that he was the strongest man in the Neuse Islands.
Relentlessly she rode over the dirt road toward the westernmost bridge, only one of two river crossings out of the Islands. As they sped over the old plank bridge, galloping echoes trailed down river and were swallowed up by its hungry waters. Bowden should have been familiar with every piece of wood over which his hooves pounded, for his day job was working at the base of the bridge, and with a long pole he kept passing log rafts and barges from bumping against the pilings, thus protecting the integrity of the bridge. However, if he recognized anything at all through horse’s eyes, he never let on to anybody.
After steering her mount up to the dance hall’s hitching post, Phoebe dumped a bag of pea hulls on the ground to occupy Bowden. She patted his rump and then whispered in his ear the command to “stay.”
She drew a deep breath, tided up her hair and walked pertly through the front door to dance the night away. Inside, her soul blended with hoedown strains of fiddles, plunking banjos and the whooping of foot-stomping dancers.
After sashaying beyond the midnight hour, she remounted and triumphantly galloped over the trail that had brought her there.
There’s no way to know what was on Phoebe’s mind as she rode back over the bridge and slowed the pace near Bowden’s back door, but based on her past and the documented acts of her future, she had to be thinking of mischief that she could inflict upon some innocent neighbor. She was keenly aware that nobody liked her; not one iota. Their disdain drove her to more acts of hostility, which merely added fuel to lapping flames of hatred burning betwixt her and them.
As Bowden was changed back to human form and led into his room, what, if anything had passed through his mind during the ordeal? He was frequently questioned, but never answered.
I remind you that the south side of the Neuse belonged to Phoebe and still does, so if you’re one of those spooky-minded people whose pants are easily scared off, you’d better wear two pairs should you travel through her territory. Today is what? Oct. 28? Halloween is the 31st, right? If the pattern holds, she’s likely to be playing havoc all the way through Veterans Day.
You may be thinking that if Phoebe gives chase on the south side of the river, you’ll outrun her and speed on up toward Lassiter Road, but even if she stops at the river, you could still be in a peck of trouble, for guess who might be waiting for you on the north side?
Ever heard of Noah Cherry and his gang? After Noah was hung from the gallows in 1878 for murder, there were reported sightings of him walking through the fog around several sections of Goldsboro. What’s to keep him from wandering back over to his home territory once in a while? So, if you see some ax-wielding fellows in the middle of the road, believe me, they’re not heading out to cut timber. So, then, what will you do? Run right back across the river into the waiting arms of Phoebe?
Should you muster up the courage to travel through there anyway, be on the lookout for possums, ’coons, deer and wild boar. It has been proven that Phoebe can disguise herself in any of those forms.
Listen to this! A year or two before Phoebe’s death, her son, Perry, took a group of buddies and a pack of hound dogs on a possum hunt. In short order, the dogs treed one up a “simmon” tree. Hunter Herbert Hartley clum up the tree and shook the possum out, whereupon she, the possum, started fast-trotting toward the creek. One of the Martin boys drew bead with his double-barrel shotgun and cocked both hammers. Forthwith, Perry yelled out, “Don’t shoot, boys! That’s my mama!”
Right about now I know what you’re thinking, if not mumbling it: It’s, “Shaw! Shucks almighty!” And “git- outta-heah, boy, they ain’t a dab of truth in it!”
Well, if anybody knows what goes down in the islands, it’s yours truly and, doggone it, the Phoebe stories have been passed from one generation of truthful Willifords to another. No true-blooded Williford doubts it, and neither should you.
You see, Bowden Williford was my great-grandpa. Phoebe (the witch) Flowers was his wife’s stepmother-in-law, therefore my stepgreat-great-grandma.
The very morning following “the great ride,” Bowden struggled mightily to get out of bed. Red saddle marks covered his back from one end to the other. Now, if that fact does not convince you, here’s another evidence. When Bowden’s wife, my great-grandma Toby, came into the room, he was standing by the mirror picking them pea hulls out from twixt his front teeth, one by one by one.
At this point I have a compelling urge to calm any fear you may have of me and try to put you at ease. Notice now, that Phoebe was just my step-great-great, thus none of her blood actually flows through my veins.
So, even if you see me running and chasing after you with saddle in one hand and a bridle in the other and eyes glowing red, don’t you worry none. Besides, I know plenty of others that I can catch up to and ride bareback to the dance!
Caution: If you’re headed to Grantham or Bentonville, don’t put your life in peril by shortcutting it over Ferry Bridge or Richardson Bridge road. Instead, opt for Stevens Mill or Old Grantham roads. But if you are hardheaded enough to chance the dangerous routes, you might want to chunk a four-set pair of horseshoes down in the floorboard of your car — just in case you-know-who breaks in.
A final postscript: After reading today’s warning I say if you live within 10 miles of Cox’s Mill you might want to get out of that chair and turn the deadbolts.
Sherwood Williford writes a weekly column for the News-Argus. Contact him at 919-440-8811, Sherwoodowl@hotmail.com, or P.O. Box 175, Princeton, NC 27569.
Sherwood Williford writes a weekly column for the News-Argus. Contact him at 919-440-8811, Sherwoodowl@hotmail.com or P.O. Box 175, Princeton, NC 27569.