Farm Collector

The Haunted Engine

You leave the village on an old red brick highway. After about
two miles you turn left on a gravel road that winds through a
little valley studded with twisted corn shocks. Then you cross a
wooden bridge, and climb a crooked wooded hill — then turn left
again on a narrow, rutty, dirt lane paved mostly with dried-up mud
holes. After a dozen or so aimless turns a tall, rusty, crooked
smoke stack, peeping over the top of a matted clump of bushes,
marks the spot the HAUNTED ENGINE!

At least that’s the way it was 40 years ago. My guide who
incidently was my landlord for the winter–said, ‘You’re
always talking about steam engines. Here’s one that ought to
interest you!’

We parted the weeds and walked around the huge old portable. A
slight mound was all that was left of an ancient sawdust pile, and
a short distance away the hollow of an old pond was grown full of
cattails and willows. A couple of empty bottles and a few scattered
cigarette butts told of previous visitors. It was about as bleak a
picture as could be imagined. I remember — a cold, red sun was
setting — a fiery glow behind broken black clouds.

‘When old Alex Goetz came back from the Civil War,’ my
friend continued, ‘he bought about all the big timber in these
parts. Later he built a water-powered sawmill about two miles from
here, but his water supply was not very dependable. A few years
later he got this engine and moved it in here with oxen.

‘He and his son Vanus sawed many a thousand feet of fine
boards here. Then Vanus got married and moved away, and Old Alex,
who was always tight with his money, began to rely on his wife for
help at the mill.’

Here my story teller dropped his voice, although there was
probably no one else within a mile of the place at that time. He
told me that the old lady had not been ‘quite right’ for
several years, and with the loneliness of her life after their
son’s marriage, and her treatment at the hands of the stern,
cynical, stingy husband she became steadily worse.

‘As time went on,’ my informant said, ‘She got awful
bad. But she could still chop up the slabs and keep this old boiler
hot. Alex always watched the water level, but Mariah did all the
firin’. She hated Old Alex, but there was one part of all this
work that she liked. She loved to toot that old whistle!’

I looked up at the remains of an old dome-topped whistle on a
pipe that came straight out of the boiler top. It stood slightly
askew, and a round hole and numerous dents in its sides testified
as to the marksmanship of some deer hunter of an earlier day. Other
bullet holes were in the smoke stack.

Evidently the old lady had been kept working long after she
should have been committed to a hospital. She blew the whistle
until she ruined the nerves of everyone who happened to be within
hearing. So many off-bearers quit that Alex finally went out of the
county to get a deaf man for the job.

At first Alex had tried ‘to slap some sense into her,’
but she would only lie down on the ground and cry for hours. He
soon learned that if he was to keep her busy and ‘happy’,
he would just have to let her use up half his steam composing her
nerve-shattering music on that one-noted steam caliope. Perhaps it
was a release for some of her pent-up bitterness.

Then work began to fall off at the mill and Alex finally shut
down, and’ went into a kind of retirement. Nobody cared enough
about them to visit their home except on business. Alex had never
been popular.

Early one November morning a few years later two hunters saw a
trace of smoke coming from the old engine that they knew had not
been worked for several years. They investigated further and found
that a terrific fire had been burning in the old, dry boiler, and
there were fresh bloodstains on some wood near the fire door. The
ground was frozen but broken weeds showed that something had been
dragged toward the engine. More blood was found on the ground.

When a woman’s shoe was discovered not far away, they
decided to go tell Alex. They found him in bed with rheumatism
—unable to walk, he said. When the hunters told their story Alex
seemed awfully worried.

‘Mariah ain’t come back,’ he said. ‘She often
goes out at night and plays on that old engine, but she always
comes back by daylight. Today she ain’t come back!’

Neighbors were called in and a hunt was instigated, but Mariah
was not found. Some kind of inquest was held when more evidence
pointed toward ‘foul play’ at the sawmill. There were those
who didn’t believe that Alex had rheumatism at all. Lynching
was even mentioned.

But they had always been a cold, mysterious family, and, except
for morbid curiosity, nobody cared much about what happened to
them. Women who had met her always ‘felt sorry’ for Mariah,
but she had no real friends among them.

Gradually the excitement wore off; people became more interested
in other affairs. Vanus came back and took Alex away with him, and
as far as my guide knew, nobody had protested. The whole affair was
all but forgotten.

Then one cold midnight (when the wind was probably howling
around the chimneys ) it happened! Tom Evers who was lying awake in
his farmhouse, almost a mile from the deserted mill, heard it clear
as a bell! The old whistle was wailing just as it did when Mariah
had swung on the whistle rope and gibbered and danced in glee! He
awakened his wife who heard it, too.

Tom told his story, and many went to look, but the old boiler
was cold as the grave itself, and even then, the whistle was in a
bad state of repair.

Not long afterward, in the middle of the night, a woman in
another house heard the same mournful shrieks, and it sounded
‘just like it did when that crazy woman was tootin’ that
whistle.” More investigation by ghost hunters.

In the decade that followed just about everybody in that region
heard the ghost whistle at least once. Hunters, children, lovers —
sometimes dogs howled because they could hear the spirit whistle
that was too distant for human ears. My friend told me that even at
the time of my visit the place was usually avoided at night.

It was getting pretty dark when we left the haunted engine. I
seemed to be much colder than I should have been, and a moaning
hoot owl in the distance wasn’t making me feel any warmer.

And I was becoming aware of two of my friend’s habits that I
hadn’t noticed before. First, as he talked he very often looked
behind him (Later he told me he did that only because I was doing
it.) Second, I had never noticed before how fast he walked. When we
started walking toward the Model T to go home, I could scarcely
keep up with him. But you can bet I did!

  • Published on Jan 1, 1964
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