Pine Mountain Settlement School
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Old Pioneer Tales A Night of Horror …


Old Pioneer Tales: “A NIGHT OF HORROR: A Boy’s Experience in Ye Olden Tyme”
Special to the Three States newspaper, Balkan, KY, June 28, 1921, Page 13

TAGS: Old Pioneer Tales, ‘A Night of Horror. A Boy’s Experience in Ye Olden Tyme, Balkan Ky, 28 June 1921, special to Three States newspaper, alchemy, farming, foodways, fishing, Jake Gabbard, Black Mountain, gold, ‘Philosopher’s Stone,’ pioneer life, eagle coins, tall tales, storytelling, folk tales, Freemasonry, ethnic population in mining camps, counterfeiters

Tales of woe, horror, demons, and witches abound in the oral literature of Appalachia. Each telling of the story often expands or contracts to suit the storyteller. This newspaper clipping, collected in an early scrapbook that belonged to an unknown staff member, captures a piece of one of those “tall tales” that some writer felt to be worthy of a newspaper article. “Worthy” or not, it makes for an interesting story even as a fragment.

Balkan, Kentucky, is a small unincorporated town in Bell County, deep in the Eastern Kentucky mountains. Formerly a mining town established in 1912, Balkan today has melted back into the earth like so many early mining towns and the nearby area has been strip-mined leaving few traces of the small coal town. The Kentucky Atlas tells us that the name “Balkan” may derive from the population of miners that had their origins in the Balkans region of Europe.

Many miners of many nationalities came with the mining boom in eastern Kentucky and with them came the folk tales and stories that were central to their cultural heritage. Whether this tale has its roots in the local narratives, or in some long-forgotten story of an early settler, or Kosovo, or some Balkan area town, it has all the hallmarks of a “tall tale,” and no doubt encouraged more subscribers to the newspaper … not unlike today’s pulp-fiction and sensational news headlines that are used to build readership.

The other striking echo is one that calls to mind the highly secret orders of Freemasonry in the Lodges that were sprinkled across rural Appalachia. The secret rituals of the Freemasons were often topics that many liked to expand upon. To those outside the Masonic knowledge circle, the myths grew and became a means of persecuting the secret society and taking revenge against suspected political and religious rivals. The persecutions and suspicions eventually led to violent raids on the Freemasons in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Another more insidious sideline to this newspaper account is that attached to fears of the large ethnic population of the mining camp of “Balkan” in Bell County.

See: David Harrison. “Freemasonry and the Islamic Mystical Movements of Balkan Philalethes, in The Journal of Masonic Research and Letters …” https://www.academia.edu/68828731/Freemasonry_and_the_Islamic_Mystical_Movements_of_Balkan_Philalethes_The_Journal_of_Masonic_Research_and_Letters_Vol_74_No_2_Summer_2021_pp_67_71 



LOCAL HISTORY ALBUM A Night of Horror “A Night of Horror.” newspaper clipping, June 28, 1921. Clipping: [scrapbook_local_history_horror_002.jpg] Fragment: [local_history_album_013.jpg]


A NIGHT OF HORROR: [1st column]

Balkan, Ky., June 28, 1921. Special to Three States.

A century ago the Appalachian region of South-eastern Kentucky was sparsely populated. Here and there in the narrow valleys that lay along small mountain streams pioneer settlers had built cabins and made small clearings, but the forests, filled with game and the streams teeming with fish, afforded the chief sustenance of the inhabitants. A small clearing or truck patch large enough to grow a few bushels of corn, which was generally made into meal by pounding in a mortar, and also a few potatoes, beans, cabbage and pumpkins, was all that was necessary to supply the wants of the pioneer. If dissatisfied with the location first chosen, it was a small matter to pack up the household furnishings and seek a new home. Even at that early date there were many abandoned homesteads and cabins lacking tenants.

During a night spent with Uncle Jake Gabbard in his cabin in a little cove in the Black Mountains, I was greatly interested in the stories he recounted of pioneer life a century ago, stories first told by his great grandfather, who was one of the first settlers in the mountain country. I was much interested in a true tale he told of the experience of his grandfather when a boy. It was a time when the fairies and demons still dwelt in the forests and caves of the mountains, and emissaries from the infernal regions occasionally made their appearance upon earth.

In one of the wildest and most inaccessible coves to be found in all the mountain region, there stood in the year 1820 an abandoned cabin that had been uninhabited for many years. It bore the reputation of being haunted, and there were gruesome stories of murder having been committed afloat, so that it was shunned and allowed to remain silent and tenantless. Hunters who happened to pass within its vicinity at night told fearsome tales of fantastic greenish-colored lights that could often be discerned shining through the crevices of the cabin, and strange noises and moanings could be heard by those brave enough to linger in the vicinity. It was whispered that the victim of the murder had concealed a large amount of gold and that his spirit haunted its hiding-place.

Uncle Jake’s grandfather when only a boy of sixteen was renowned as one of the most expert hunters and trappers in the mountains and possessed of the most daring recklessness and bravery. It was said that he feared neither man nor devil, and in order to retain this reputation, he determined to visit the haunted cabin and investigate the source of all the wild tales told regarding it. Taking no one into his confidence he, one afternoon, took the trail to the cabin. It was long, lonely, and almost inaccessible, and it was nearing sundown when he arrived in its  …… concealing himself in the ….

A NIGHT OF HORROR: [3rd column]

…vicinity. Con…  little thicket of pine that grew upon a knoll overlooking the deserted cabin, he awaited the darkness and — he knew [not] what. His journey had tired him and before he knew it he was fast asleep.

When he awoke he found that night had fallen, and to his horror and great terror he found that he was enmeshed in a net, like those used for netting quail, and his struggles to release himself only served to fa[s]ten the net more firmly around his body. While trying vainly to free himself from its meshes he discovered four silent figures, grotesquely garbed, silently grouped around him. In perfect silence they picked him up and proceeded to carry him to the cabin where he was unceremoniously laid upon the floor, unable to move hand or foot. His captors without a word retired to the adjoining room of the cabin, and the terrified boy could hear them debating as to what disposition they should make of him and how to dispose of his body. One of the four, however, appeared to be more merciful than the others and proposed that an oath of secrecy be administered and [then he be] set free. His comrades objected on the grounds that the oath would not be kept, and one of them said, “Dead men tell no tales,” and insisted that the boy be immediately killed and his body disposed of. In deadly terror the boy listened to the debate regarding the disposition to be made of him and regretted the foolhardiness that had brought him to his present condition.

Finally, the one inclined to mercy appeared to have brought his comrades to his way of thinking, and it was decided to swear the boy to the most inviolate secrecy and let him go. Two of the men entered the room where the boy lay and remov…

A NIGHT OF HORROR: [2nd column]

ing the net which had fast bound him, raised him to his feet and assisted him to pass into the other room where a strange sight met his view. In one corner was a furnace from which streamed a brilliant light while crucibles and retorts [laboratory vessels] occupied a large table. The boy had heard strange tales of alchemists and others who devoted their lives to the pursuit of the “philosopher’s stone,” and at once concluded that his captors were men in the pursuit. The oldest of the men, a striking figure with a long gray beard and sharp black eyes that appeared able to look through one and see what lay beyond, told the boy that he had come into possession of a secret that was not lawful for the uninitiated to know, and that death was the punishment generally meted out to those who discovered it. but on account of his youth and the good name he bore in the mountains, they were going to make an exception in his case and allow him to go free in consideration of his taking the most solemn oath to preserve inviolate the secrets which he had that night discovered and never reveal them until released from his obligation by those who would administer the oath and his captors then set food before him, and as soon as the day began to break, started him upon his homeward way.

For more that six months the boy kept silent regarding the perilous adventures he had passed through in that lonely mountain cabin, although at times the story burned on his lips and it seemed that he must tell it; but honor and the fear of what might follow in the wake of a disclosure kept him silent and the story remained untold. One evening more that six months after the night’s adventure, the boy was sitting with the rest of his father’s family in the yard before the cabin door when a stranger rode up and called the boy to the gate. He said no word, but silently handed him a packet, then putting spurs to his horse, galloped off into the fast-gathering darkness. 

Hurriedly the boy entered the cabin, tore the packet open and examined it by the light of a pine-knot. It contained ten double golden eagles, also a short note which said: “This comes from the four gentlemen who put you in such a fright in the mountain cabin, We have finished our business and our orders compel us to depart. We thank you for the preservation of the secret. You are now released from your oath and may tell your story, and we may tell it ourselves.”

A NIGHT OF HORROR: [2nd column of fragment]

The story told caused many comments and many were the opinions expressed regarding it. Many held that those who occupied the cabin were denizens of another world who had been allowed to take on mortal shape, but a few of the wisest claimed that the cabin had been occupied by a band of counterfeiters, and when later the cabin was searched, evidence was discovered in the way of a furnace, broken crucibles, and retorts that proved the latter opinion to have been correct. — M.L.


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