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The Skewarkians. Weird Tales of Martin County. Junior Historian Club. Bear Grass School, Williamston, NC, 1980.
So, remember the student compilation of statewide folklore from 1990, Whispers from the Past, that I reviewed a week or so ago? Well, this is a decade older, was done by a students’ club in a school two counties over, and is confined to just one county (though being a bit longer). They’ve also done a history of tobacco in the county. Personally, I like this one better. Not that Whispers from the Past was bad, but it lacked the focus of this collection and was stage-managed by adults in state government.
It’s weird to think that the kids who did this compilation are now my age and that most of the community elders they interviewed are probably now dead. But this is part of the value of these collections. The most amusing part is the rant in the introduction by one of their teachers about how a book like this is necessary in a day and age when kids are distracted by modern technology and don’t listen to their elders, anymore. Oh, those darn TV sets! Some things never change.
This collection has a big focus on “forgotten” history, beginning with the history of “Bear Grass” as a name in the county. The story is that the name is for the Yucca plant, which grows abundantly in Martin County. Local Native Americans used it to cure bear meat – hence, Bear Grass (the town) and Bear Grass Swamp as place names for the local community now.
Since Martin County is so near to the coast (and is part of the Coastal Plain region), much of its folklore has coastal motifs. There are several stories about witches and conjurers, including one about a witch cat. Ghosts, of course, appear in several stories. Slavery is also a recurring theme.
There is a ghost light (Swinson’s Light) in Bear Grass Swamp. The students trace it back to the 18th century and claim it is the oldest legend in the region (mmm … maybe, but wouldn’t the name “Bear Grass” be older?). The light is traced to an early settler named John Swinson who received a land grant from the Earl of Granville in 1761. The legend is that Swinson buried a treasure somewhere on the land and the light is now his ghost guarding it. Charles Gritzner cites the book and its version of this legend in his book, North Carolina Ghost Lights and Legends.
Then there is the Legend of the Screaming Bridge (which I first heard about from local author Jim Lee – thanks, Jim!). This dates back to the Civil War. A young girl from a prominent family named Yarrow was drowned near or under a bridge that crossed Sweetened Water Creek. The mystery is that it’s unclear if this was an accident, suicide or muuuuuurrrrrder. But sometimes, during a New Moon, people can hear her ghost near the bridge, screaming, or sitting nearby. The story is headlined by a photo of the bridge as it was in 1980, in Griffin’s Township.
There is also a story that connects 19th century horse racing (which generally occurred on Sunday) with the Devil. This one is called “The Phantom Rider.” In this one, the Devil (or a prankster dressed up in a dark coat and hat) appears at one such race, wins, and disappears with a “fiendish” laugh without collecting his winnings. Unless you assume, as some of the spectators did, that he came to collect their souls.
This legend did not actually stop horse racing in Martin County. Or ghost story telling, it seems. This one’s online (I put a link up top), so go ahead and check it out. The kids done good.
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