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The Ghost Towns: South Washington County is filled with haunting stories

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October 30, 2011 by wcobserver

By Timothy Dennis

The leaves crackle and the smoke pours from the chimneys of many farmhouses. Although October brings the first visible signs of fall, it is also a month marked by the haunting of wandering spirits.

One haunted hovel in the area is the former home of Herman Chapman on Sugar Mountain east of West Fork.

As the story goes, Chapman’s wife succumbed to tuberculosis several years ago, at a time when the disease was simply referred to as “consumption.” In her time of dying, she requested that she be buried atop the hill behind the house so that she could continue to watch over her many children. Shortly after the mother’s death, the infant Chapman also died and was buried atop the hill next to the mother.

Through the years, hunters and other passers-by have claimed to hear the mother soothing her infant’s cries in the night. Others have claimed to see the mother’s ghost drift up the hill from the cabin to the gravestones where both mother and child were laid to rest. Even some poor souls who have been caught out on the mountain in the middle of a storm and sought shelter on the porch of the Chapman cabin have claimed to see a ghost descend on the cabin from the top of the hill followed by a knocking at the door.

Some say that the knocking sound is just the wind blowing the old creaking boards and that the wispy apparitions are just the clouds moving in the twilight, yet others believe that these strange sights and sounds are the ghost of the Chapman mother coming to carry her child to its final resting place at the top of the mountain.

Prairie Grove is home to tales of unsettled spirits as well. This is unsurprising, as more than 2,500 Union and Confederate soldiers were killed during the battle that took place on Dec. 7, 1862.

As many historians have told, several wounded soldiers sought refuge from the cold during the battle in haystacks out in the fields. As night set in, Union General James G. Blunt, oblivious that wounded soldiers were in the stacks awaiting medical care, ordered his men to light the stacks on fire to make the Confederate soldiers easier to see in their grey and brown uniforms.

As the haystacks were ablaze, the smell of burning flesh filled the air, attracting wild hogs to the battlefield. Some soldiers were partially eaten by the wildlife before they could be given medical attention or, in some cases, buried.

To prevent the pigs from devouring more bodies, soldiers took down nearby log fences and rebuilt them around piles of the dead bodies.

After the battle was over, the wife of a soldier fighting in the battle went looking for her husband among the decaying and mutilated corpses. She found not only the body of her husband but also the remains of her two brothers.

“Union soldiers over a mile away across the Illinois River going back towards Farmington could hear here screaming and her curses,” said a park ranger who recently led a tour of the battlefield after dusk. “Supposedly, she comes out here at night, wandering the battlefield looking for her dead husband and brothers.”

To this day, people visiting the park, at night, claim they can hear the woman’s screams in addition to the sounds of horses and soldiers travelling through the fields, the battle forever being fought. The other danger lurking in the dark? That would be trespassing after-hours at a state park.

But no record of ghost stories within Washington County is complete without giving attention to the infamous Tilly Willy Bridge.

There are a few different stories concerning the supernatural occurrences at the bridge near Wilson Hollow Lake. The most popular story goes back to the 1950s, when a family of three was crossing the bridge late on a rainy night. When the infant in the car started crying, the mother was asleep so the father turned to tend to the babe. While he was distracted, the car veered off the one-lane bridge, killing all three.

For years, the site has been a local rite of passage. Teens visiting the spot at night have reported seeing the ghost of the mother twirling in the nearby field. Others claim to have heard a baby’s cries in the night. Others who have stopped on the bridge on cloudy nights witness that they saw infant handprints appear on fogged car windows while crossing the bridge in twilight.

Although Tilly Willy is the stuff of local legend, it may soon be relegated to the folds of history since the bridge itself was recently replaced. A group on Facebook, however, is devoted to the preservation of people’s memories of the bridge.

“I went when I was a teenager with my now husband and another couple,” said Dana Shen in a post on the page. “It was at night and as we started across the bridge, the hair stood up on my arms and I began to panic, got a cold feeling as we crossed. It was really something thought didn’t see a thing, but [it] scared the hell out of me.”

“There were always rumors that this bridge was haunted,” said Liz Forsbach in another post. “In High School, we would drive out to the bridge late at night to see if it was true. Pretty sure we all got too scared and left pretty quick! [sic]”

The old crumbling bridge is gone in the name of greater public safety. The question is: will the ghosts simply vanish in time, or will the spirits haunt the new bridge as a reminder that they are forever restless?

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