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Texas | Columns | "Texas Tales"

Ghost Turkey
Hitchhiking Spirits

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox

Old-timers around Elkhart 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 Elkhart 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:

People 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 knew him.

“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 honor.

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.

The 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 habitat.

Squirrels were considered good eating, ‘coons were sought for their fur and possums cooked with sweet potatoes could get a family through hard times.

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 Texas.

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.

Whether 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 the globe.

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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