Editor’s Note: Of all the stories I have told, my mom says this is her favorite. So, as a kind of tribute to her, Olveria Frances Smith, I’d like to share The Ghost of Frenchtown Creek with Mountain News readers.
The summer of my twentieth year, I worked on a horse farm near Baptistown, New Jersey, in what may have been the most rural area within a hundred miles of my New York City home. I got the job through my friend Rob, who also worked there, and he and I lived on a neighboring farm rented by Rob’s brother and family. We weren’t a hippie commune – just a big family in farm country.
Although I had always wanted to live in the country, this was the first time I actually did so. I reveled in it. I loved breathing clean air and seeing black-eyed-Susans while walking to work. I loved the hard, earthy labor of the horse farm, and felt a deep satisfaction seeing my body grow lean and strong, my mind purring all day long with calm and clarity.
One evening, Rob and I decided to go to the local hot spot, The Tavern, in the neighboring village of Frenchtown. Rob had to take care of some lengthy chores for his brother first, so we agreed that he would take the car and do the errands, while I, after doing the dishes and cleaning up the kitchen, would walk the three miles downFrenchtown Creek Roadand meet him at The Tavern.
I eagerly agreed to our plan because the road followed the beautiful, small valley of Frenchtown Creek on what I believed to be the last remaining dirt road in New Jersey. It would be a luxurious ninety minutes in the bosom of Mother Nature. Primal, quiet, and private. All downhill, too.
I walked the first mile in the luscious warmth of a clear summer evening. In the second mile, low hills closed on my left, stopping a hundred feet from the road. They provided Frenchtown Creek and me plenty of sunshine, so I was very surprised when I walked into a cold spot of air, colder than the walk-in cooler in my last job as a summer camp scoutmaster.
“Whoa, this is chilly,” I said out loud, but kept on walking. Three steps later I was back in warmth; the experience of cold finished before I was fully aware of it. Hmmm. Wonder what caused that cold spot? I thought, continuing onward. Frenchtown Creek was on the right side of the road and I knew how bone-chilling cold it could be to swim in, but… chill the air thirty feet away? Wow, that’s some mighty cold water, and some pretty strange air current to create a cold pocket like that…
I continued for another half mile, my thoughts drifting in reverie. I was celebrating the pastel orange of an approaching sunset when I was shocked by another cold spot.
Wow, this is wild. I’ve never felt these before. I’ve felt cold spots in the water, especially in the ocean, but never in the air. These pockets have to be twenty, thirty degrees, maybe even forty degrees cooler. They’re amazing! Nature is so amazing… I continued on to Frenchtown.
Just as my thoughts began to drift away from the phenomena of the cold spots, I hit another one. I hesitated, and then stopped. I looked around. I began to wonder, is something going on here? These cold spots are too weird, how can they be here? The sun’s still shining and there’s even a slight breeze. The creek’s not that close to the road, so how can the cold travel? Why is it cold only in spots, why not whole sections? My mind lost its sweet summer calm, and a familiar, nervous anxiety crawled up my back and perched on my shoulders. I slumped.
I looked ahead and began to walk. My anxiety grew. I headed into the deepest part of the valley, more like a large ravine where the hills came right up to the road on the left, and the creek butted on the right. The trees overhung the road, too, making the twilight darkness eerie. I began to whistle for assurance.
Moments later I came around a bend, and was surprised to see an old man walking fifty feet ahead of me. I felt the urge to call out, “Hello,” because truthfully, I needed the companionship. I was about to open my mouth when he turned and faced me. Looking me in the eye, he held up his right arm like a traffic cop, and signaled me to stop, which I did.
He had a peaceful-looking face, with a wispy, white beard. He wore a long, grey riding coat, and a plain white shirt underneath. Suspenders held up his clean, black trousers; black riding boots covered his feet. Although his clothes were simple, they looked elegant and reminded me of a gentleman farmer; one who owned horses and rode them often. But, oddly, they appeared very old-fashioned, older than what a normal seventy or eighty year old person would wear.
We looked at each other for a moment, and then he closed the fingers on his out-stretched hand. A second later, he re-extended his pointer finger. Then he raised a second finger and then a third, as if he was counting one, two, and three. He smiled wistfully at me, then turned and walked away. I wanted to run after him, and ask who he was and why he stopped me, and especially what he meant by the finger counting. But, I felt rooted to the ground. After he disappeared around the next bend, my confidence returned and I started jogging after him, but not too fast. I didn’t want to come right up on him since he didn’t seem to actually want to talk to me, but I moved fast enough to catch him before we got to the outskirts of Frenchtown, a half mile away.
But, when I got around the bend, the old man had vanished. How could he have disappeared? The creek is on the right, down a ten-foot drop, and the ravine slope is too steep for an old guy, even a farmer, to climb that quick. He couldn’t have gone down the rest of Frenchtown Creek Road because I’ve got a clear view of the next two-hundred yards and no old guy in a long riding coat can run that fast.
I searched the ravine and down into the creek. I even peeked behind a few of the larger boulders in the riverbed to see if he was resting or hiding. But I didn’t find him, and to this day I have never seen him again.
I walked the last half-mile without incident, and in fifteen minutes entered The Tavern, where Rob already had a pitcher of beer waiting. “Rob, have I got a story to tell you,” I said.
My excitement was so strong that my voice carried throughout the entire billiards room where Rob and I were sitting. While telling him about the cold spots and the disappearing old guy, two older locals on the other side of the pool table got up from their chairs and came over to us.
“Excuse us fellas,” they said, “but we couldn’t help overhearing you say that you saw the Ghost of Frenchtown Creek tonight.”
“Nah, I didn’t see any ghost, it was an old guy wearing really old clothes. He reminded me of an Amish farmer from the Pennsylvania Dutch country.”
“That’s exactly what we’re saying. The Ghost of Frenchtown Creek looks real, not like a ghost in the movies or TV. And you’re the first person we’ve heard of to see the Ghost since the fifties, too. He looks real, we know, but he disappeared on you, didn’t he. And the cold spots? They’re inexplicable scientifically, and always occur when the ghost is about. You felt them strong tonight, didn’t you?”
“A ghost?” I replied. “You’re kidding. The old guy was a ghost? Well, ya gotta sit down and tell me about it. ”
The two older guys slid into our booth, and we poured them a round. They continued with their story.
“The ghost used to appear frequently many years ago, particularly around the turn of the century. As time goes on he appears less, and like I said, you’re the first to see him in almost fifteen years.”
“Don’t know for sure, but the ghost has always appeared to men, never women, and always on the dirt road alongside Frenchtown Creek. In the old days though, he appeared occasionally in Baptistown, in the area of the old Stoltzfus settlement.”
“Well, who is he, or was he? What’s his connection to me and Baptistown?”
“Well, we think it’s the ghost of the Reverend Isaiah Stoltzfus, of the old Plain People settlement. Stoltzfus led a group of Amish away from Pennsylvania over a religious dispute, and they came back east to the Baptistown area around 1858. The bone of contention with the Pennsylvania Dutch was over how much contact to have with the outside world. Stoltzfus and his followers wanted to keep the old ways of religion, but interact with the outside world in ways of farming and business. They became very successful selling dairy products in Philadelphia, and in fact were one of the major shippers in Frenchtown when it was a river port. During the Civil War their products were very much in demand, and that spelled their demise.”
“How so,” I asked.
“Their success gave them more contact than they could handle. But the straw that broke the camel’s back was quite simple; the Reverend Stoltzfus’ son George, fell in love with a Frenchtown girl. George was nineteen in 1864, and was one of the crew that hauled the butter and cream from the farms in the settlement down to the barges at Frenchtown, and delivered them to Philadelphia. That put him in touch with a lot of new ideas, and one of them was the idea of having a girl friend outside of the faith.
“That drove his father crazy and they fought over it. Eventually, the Reverend forbade George to work on the shipping crews, or ever go to Frenchtown and see his girl.
“One night, after a particularly heated argument, George stormed out of the house. His mother tried to talk some sense into her husband, but her efforts were interrupted by shouts and people running, and she and the Reverend went outside to find their church on fire.
“They all ran to the small wooden structure and found George inside, tearing up hymnals and throwing them onto a giant bonfire he had built with the pews.
“The people formed a bucket brigade, and the Reverend started to enter the building, but couldn’t, or wouldn’t go through the door. They say his brother, George’s uncle, shouted at him, ‘Go in! Get George. We’ll douse you with water to protect you. For the love of God, Isaiah, save your son.’
“The Reverend eventually got inside the church, but by then the flames were too strong and both he and George perished. That devastated their community, and it broke up. Some moved away, and the others affiliated themselves with the more secular people in the area and built what is now known as Baptistown.
“Several years later, young men started reporting that they had met the Reverend Stoltzfus on the Frenchtown Road, or up in Baptistown. He never talked to anyone, but did as you saw tonight. He’d stop them, gesture with his hand for them to stay back a bit, then count one, two, three on his fingers, and then disappear.”
“Why?” I interrupted. “What does it all mean? What do the fingers, one, two, three mean?” I asked.
“Well, nobody knows for sure, but I can tell you what George’s uncle, the Reverend’s brother, said it might have meant, and it makes sense to me.”
“Tell me, please.”
“The uncle said he thinks the Reverend had an insight at the end. That regardless of the value of one’s religious beliefs, they shouldn’t keep people apart to the point where they become destructive. People should be bigger than their need to believe in a religion.”
“But what about the one, two, three?”
“Well, the uncle figured it was his brother’s way of saying, ‘If your son makes one mistake, give him a second chance; and if he makes a second, give him a third.”
Rob and I went home early that night, and driving up Frenchtown Creek Road I felt deep in my heart that the uncle had gotten it right.
Forty years later, I still do.
BTW: Mom, 86, is hale and hearty in New York, and had a great time today with loads of extended family. The photo of mom was taken today and emailed to me by my surrogate daughter, Lauren Heller.
© 2011 The Mountain News