call it the Brush Arbor.
“It’s a stretch of country nobody lived in,” is the way retired
railroad man James A. “Toodler” Rials put it.
Unoccupied land, especially when the trees stand tall and thick
and only thin light filters through, tends to attract spooky legends
like hen houses do chicken snakes. This still-forested spot in Anderson
County, according to local lore, provides habitat for wildlife
and the occasional ghost.
Apparitions reported are both human and animal, Rials said.
Far better known in this part of East
Texas simply as Toodler, Rials died Aug. 4 at his home near
at the age of 72. They buried him in the Myrtle
Springs Cemetery, not far from the Brush Arbor, three days later.
A good storyteller who would have had more tales to tell if his
own book of life had not been cut short, quipped when interviewed
in January that, “Anything worth repeating is worth adding on to.”
For anyone who appreciates a good story, true or not, that makes
a pretty good epitaph.
This is what Rials had to say about the Brush Arbor:
who lived in this part of the county back when depended on Dr. John
Harper Paxton for their medical care. Like most sawbones of his
time, the doctor made house calls, traveling from patient to patient
in his buggy.
In making his horse-drawn rounds, the doctor cured those he could,
comforted those he couldn’t and delivered babies to keep the circle
of life going.
In a dark, dreary spot on the old dirt road cutting through the
thicket (ghosts don’t much care for daylight), Dr. Paxton is said
to have had more than one deceased former patient fade through the
trees and hop on his buggy. Ladies seemed particularly interested
in hitching a ride out of the dense woods.
Paxton practiced in Elkhart
for a long time, some 50 years. Everyone in and around Palestine
“Daddy bought his first tractor from him,” Rials recalled.
Born in Natchez, Miss. In 1866, Paxton studied medicine at the University
of Louisville in Kentucky. He moved to Texas,
practicing briefly in Houston
County before coming to Anderson
County in 1894. When he died in 1954, the Palestine Herald-Press
noted that at least 25 babies he had delivered were named in his
How word spread that some of Dr. Paxton’s deceased patients returned
for a second opinion on their diagnosis can only be speculated on.
The story spread well enough for Rials and others to have heard
it, but the only person who could have been around if someone tried
to hitch a ride with the doctor was the doctor. Maybe the doctor
had found that a scary story was a good way to get a kid’s mind
off a pending tonsillectomy.
old Paxton home was between Myrtle
Springs and the Davis, or Redneck, Cemetery, Rials said. Not
far from there lay the Brush Arbor thicket.
The arbor is a thick stand of hardwood on high ground covering a
couple of hundred acres. A whitetail deer might occasionally wander
through it, but basically the arbor is squirrel, raccoon and possum
Squirrels were considered good eating, ‘coons were sought for their
fur and possums cooked with sweet potatoes could get a family through
In the 19th century, and maybe even the early 20th century, the
arbor might have sheltered a black bear and wild turkeys, but both
species had long since been hunted out in this part of East
That’s why young Redger Daniels, out squirrel hunting with a .22
rifle sometime in the early1930s, got the shivers one day when he
heard a turkey gobbling in the woods. On top of that, he heard the
tinkling of small bells.
According to Rials, Daniels (his uncle) concluded that he had encountered
a ghost turkey. While there surely must have been some other explanation,
a back-from-the-dead turkey is just about as unique as any tale
of haunting can get.
ghosts exist has long been a matter of scientific and theological
debate, but it is irrefutable that ghosts flit about all over Texas
folklore. A less-common sub-set of our state’s folklore includes
stories of animal spirits. In fact, tales of animal ghosts span
Elliott O’Donnell (1872-1965), an Irish writer who specialized in
books about ghosts, wrote of animal ghosts in 1913. On this side
of the Atlantic, Texas writer-folklorist J. Frank Dobie embellished
South Texas tales of
ghost mustangs. Most often animal ghost stories involves cats or
dogs, with the next-most popular category being horses and occasionally,
a wolf. But the internet fails to reveal any other tales involving
a ghost turkey.
So who knows what young Daniels heard that long-ago day in the Brush
Arbor? Assuming the notion of it being a ghost turkey merely rose
from his youthful imagination, maybe that distant gobble came from
the last Tom in that part of East
Texas, his lonesome call for feminine companionship forever
unanswered because only he had managed to survive.
© Mike Cox
- August 20, 2014 column
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