A few weeks back I had the pleasure to perform at the Sangamon County Historical Society's "Spooky Sangamon." The other two presenters were: Ms. Tara McAndrew McClellan, and Mr Garrett Moffett. Ms. McClellann did a presentation about how Springfield, Il residents reacted to the infamous “War of the Worlds” radio broadcast. And Mr. Garrett Moffett spoke on the possible hauntings of the Lincolns’ Home, and on Lincoln's psychic experiences.
My own presentation was of two traditional ghost stories. As I explained to the attendees, finding folkloric ghost stories in Sangamon County - or even in Central Illinois - were as hard to find as the ghosts themselves. So the criteria for my choices were stories that could be found up to the eastern border of Illinois, and on the western border. One of the stories concerned a murdered peddler (I suspect there are more peddlers' ghosts than there were murdered peddlers). And the other had to do with a ghost who had died with things undone. Both of these types of tales are fairly classic folkloric ghost stories.
One of the things that I have noticed in some modern collections of hauntings is that there is a certain disdain of folkloric ghost stories. In some books there is a sense that they aren't "valid," since the reason behind the stories has been lost in time. And they don't register on electronic equipment.
I liked a comment I read in one book. A book that took a more balanced view. I can't remember the book's title, but the gist of the quote was that, “folkloric ghost stories are cultural artifacts, which reflect the mores and fears of a particular time.”
The two stories I told that evening fit that criteria.
Ghosts of murdered peddlers are represented in stories in just about every state, and some states have more than one. Historical peddlers and traveling salesmen had to be wary. They were often out of touch with family for long periods of time, and they often carried large sums of money, or goods.
Ghosts with unresolved issues are also incredibly common. Murder victims whose bodies were hidden often returned as ghosts. And if money was not revealed before death this offered another cause. Of course, hidden treasures are still a popular fantasy.
Now how can such common ghost stories be "valid?" It does come back to reflecting the concerns of a culture.
I recently read a history book, entitled, The Bewitching of America, by Dr. Owen Davies, which is about American witch belief after the Salem witch trials.
What was fascinating is that he was able to find, often via newspapers, an incredible number of actual witch accusations throughout the U. S.; many occurring in the 20th century. This belief was paralleled in the continued spread of folkloric witch belief, which continued to be renewed with new immigrant populations. Dr. Davies does an excellent overview of the history of the various incarnations of witchcraft in America, and ends with how the view of witches has changed.
Ghosts and witches beliefs have always been lumped together when it comes to the devoted rationalist, and in the 19th century most wanted to claim that such superstitions were on the wan. I suspect this is why there is little documented in the Midwest – because of a belief that if these “superstitions” were ignored they would wither away. However, Dr. Davies, proved, at least for witches, that neither belief, nor the folklore, had really gone away.
So I would argue, when it comes to ghosts, that a tale isn’t “just folklore” to be proved, or disproved, by modern ghost hunting. For me the tale itself is a valid cultural artifact, and should also be preserved.
Originally I had this blog all planned out, and all that was required was for me to finish my errands and write it.
However, one of those errands required I make a business call at Prairie Archives. Granted most who live in Springfield know this venerable bookshop, but for those who don't know the store I'll offer a brief introduction. It was started 39 years ago by John R. Paul, and houses an incredible array of antique books and artifacts, comics, and used books. The store is right across from the Old State Capitol.
It was already promising to be a good trip, because I found a new book of ghost stories, Stories and Legends from the Illinois River Valley, by Dan Fletcher.
But what awaited me was a true find. While talking to Mr. Paul he suddenly remembered a book of folklore that might fit my needs. (He has a fantastic memory for what is in the store, and customers' interests.) And after studying the shelves of local history he pulled out Folk-Lore from Adams County, Illinois, by Harry M Hyatt.
I didn't want to believe my eyes, since I have been hunting for this much-referenced book for years. It is one of those that is mentioned in just about any book on Illinois, or folklore, and, of course, nearly impossible to find. Yet here was a copy, and I braced myself for the price.
Then could breath; the price was within my range. It turned out that it was because it was a 1935 second edition, with library markings.
Needless to say it came home. (As did the book of ghost stories! I later learned how lucky a find this also was - little is coming up on this book on the internet searches.)
And I couldn't wait to share the story, particularly when it came from one of my favorite bookstores!
I always look forward to performing storytelling at the Elijah Iles House's Clara Irwin Strawberry Party. This year I had a little more time to help out, both before and after, the event.
Wednesday afternoon was the day for festivity preparations, and many of the volunteers were on hand to get everything ready. My occupation was to help "stem" the strawberries so that they could be later washed, cut up, and sugared. Someone had gotten creative, and came up with the idea of using plastic straws to push the stems out. It really helped to make short work of the many pounds of berries - though the table and the people were both sticky and berry colored.
The next evening was perfect - still clear, but with mild temperatures, and it stayed that way from the beginning of the party till its end.
It was as if the weather was trying to make up for many so incredibly hot and grouchy last year!
The Clara Irwin Strawberry Party ended about an hour before the city's fireworks were to go off. This time was filled with clean up, and afterwards, a few volunteers settled on the front porch to watch.
To me this was a perfect way to spend the last of Independence Day. What better way than watching fireworks on the steps of one of the oldest houses in Springfield?
Even more poignant was that one of our volunteers was an exchange student from China. And I couldn't help but wonder if there was any better way to show off our city by offering both a gentle, but fun, part of our history, and a evening of companionship to end the day?
Somehow it all made me feel as if we had been woven into a tiny part of the house's long history.
Yesterday was the Forever Home Feline Ranch's Open House, which I was definitely looking forward to. So I dutifully checked the address, checked Google, and wrote down all needed phone numbers. All of this was needed, because the truth is that I can get lost in a brown paper bag.
And off I headed for Rochester, Il.
While a hot day it was also a lovely day, and made for a pleasant drive. I made it to the older part of Rochester, and realized I may have not written the directions correctly. And the phone numbers were going to voice mail. So....
I logically stopped in one little store, Dollars and Cents, which is a lovely coin shop located, appropriately, in a 19th century bank. They weren't sure where Hobbs Road was, and sent me to the antique store.
A very gracious lady, who unfortunately wasn't from Rochester, sent me to the quilt shop next door, and they sent me to the vet's office. They, mercifully, were able to give me directions. Nor could I really complain about my little side trip through Rochester, since I learned of many interesting new places to explore.
Some further driving took me out to Buckheart, IL, and down a couple of country roads to the Forever Home Feline Ranch.
A breeze had kicked up, which made the day more pleasant, and I was situated under a large shade tree - all the better to appreciate said breeze. I had also brought one of my Folkmanis kitten puppets with me, a little ginger one, and as planned, it helped as an attention-getter. As individuals finished tours of the ranch, or finished with the games, they would come over to hear a story or two.
Popular tales of the day were "Jack and the Friendly Animals," and "Dick Whittengton and His Cat." Later I was able to go visit with the three ranch donkeys, and to try and get some photos of the ranch.
The donkeys, it is hoped, will one day be able to live at the Ranch, since they will help protect the farm against coyotes. To do this, however, ranch will need the funds to repair the barn. As I came over to their pen the donkeys vied for attention, but when I stepped back to get a picture - all three turned their tails to me. I guess they had had enough of that for the day.
The Ranch is neatly organized, and has lovely grounds. There are four small houses; three of which are homes for the cats; with two of the houses dedicated to cats who have transmittable diseases.
Mr Hugh Moore was there to perform his music, though I didn't get a chance to go over and hear him.
As the breeze began to blow harder it became apparent that rain was probably headed our way, and slightly before 3 pm folks began to pack up. However, that was at the end of successful day, since there had been a good number of visitors. Hopefully many will become volunteers for the ranch, or, at least, adopt one of the cats.
Sometime this evening I will get what pictures I have up. I won't swear to my photographic skills, but hopefully they will give some idea of the ranch.
I am a Springfield, IL based storyteller with a fascination for how folklore travels, and for history.