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Haunted Hill

by Clay Coppedge

Haunted Hill is not what it used to be, but maybe it never was.

Wind and rain and the ravages of time have shrunk Haunted Hill by 20 feet or more since the first settlers moved here and saw it, in the words of folklorist D.B. Smith "standing out in bold relief, being black, often covered with fog while the other nearby hills show up green."

Joyce Woods Cox, a local historian based in Moody, was told when she was a child that at night you could hear the rattling of chains.

"They told us it was a volcano, and it might erupt at any minute," she said. "We were scared of it and fascinated by it at the same time."

While time and the methodology of science have diminished the hill in both fact and fancy, mystery and legend will always thrive here, science or no science. Something about the place kickstarts the imagination.

Haunted Hill rises about three miles east of Moody, overlooking the lush and rolling Stampede Valley near a point where McLennan, Coryell and Bell counties meet. It's as barren as a moonscape; nothing has ever grown there.

"You get an occasional mesquite tree that will pop up out of a cow patty, but that's about it," says Matt Hargrove, whose family owns the land that includes Haunted Hill.

In lieu of vegetation, the slopes of Haunted Hill are thick with sparkling silent crystals, or isinglass as it is commonly called.

Frank Simmons, who died in 1966 at the age of 85, wrote in 1934 about seeing the hill when he was a boy. "On bright sunny days those crystals would sparkle and gleam in the sunlight, like some great monarch's diadem until they could be seen for miles," he wrote. "On gloomy dark nights, strange dim lights are said to have appeared numerous times."

Simmons also related how the hill was drilled for oil in 1901. The drillers hit artesian water at about 1,100 feet and gave up.

The Indians who lived in Stampede Valley for centuries before European settlement had their own mythology. They told of how a loud explosion many years ago preceded an eruption of fire from the top of the hill, and how mud and water rolled down its slopes, and many people died in the fire and ashes. The Indians were scared witless of Haunted Hill.

While an investigation of the hill by Baylor University geologist O.T. Hayward in the late 1960s put a scientific face on many of the myths and legends, generations of people in the valley have grown up with stories about the hill.

Dietra Hargrove said her four-year old grandson, Drew, and some of his friends spent a night at Haunted Hill recently. Anyone who stayed there the entire night was promised their picture would appear in the Moody Courier newspaper.

"One of the little boys decided it wasn't worth it," Mrs. Hargrove said. "He decided he'd rather spend the night here in the house."

In a letter to Jim Bowmer of Temple, Hayward described how an abundance of pyrite, when exposed to air, weathers to an iron rust and produces sulfuric acid. The red-colored rocks so plentiful on the hill are cakes of iron rust limonite, which the Indians used for paint.

Despite the presence of clinker ash, which is commonly associated with volcanoes, Hayward found no evidence of volcanic activity. The ash found on Haunted Hill, he said, was probably coal clinkers created when the hill was drilled for oil in 1901.

Before we blame science for running roughshod over our favorite legends, it should be noted that science has uncovered as many stories as it has disproven.

In 1937, Baylor archaeologists uncovered an ancient Indian camp buried for generations under three feet of black prairie soil. Not far from the site was a mesquite tree riddled with bullet holes. An outlaw was hung there, yet another story goes, and his body riddled with bullet holes. But it was a long time ago and no one is sure. Maybe someone took target practice on the tree, or a deranged individual thought it was a deer.

That happened when the land was owned by the Alexander family, who owned the land for several generations beginning in 1871 when Civil War veteran John Newton Alexander settled his family there.

Like the Indians, Mr. Alexander was a firm believer in the spirits on Haunted Hill. He once said, "I don't know anybody else that saw any haints (spirits) up there, but me and my sister were always seeing them, and it wasn't make believe either."


Clay Coppedge
"Letters from Central Texas" October 5, 2006 column

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