I wish we had digital cameras 60 years ago. So many things have disappeared without proper recording. The Swamp House is gone. Ronald Tipton’s home on the corner of Chestnut Street and Boot Road is gone. Stuart Meisel’s grand stone house on Lancaster Avenue is gone. The East Ward School we attended as boys is gone. History has a way of disappearing. The physical places fall or are torn down. The images of past times become only memories in the minds of old men and women. The old people die and everything is gone.
Even the ghosts are evicted eventually.
There were ghosts and devils on the country roads around Downingtown. Ronald and I rode our bikes to many haunts. Sometimes Stuart Meisel (left) and Gary Kinzey (right) came along. Sometimes invisible things joined us.
Ronald (right) took the photo at the top of this chapter. The location is atop an area called Harmony Hill in the mid-1950s. Skelp Level is the name of the road. I am looking ahead, considering what may be over the rise. At the time of the photo not much was there except woods. Today that area is full of houses built around cul-de-sacs. What we found there as boys has been plowed beneath the earth to make way for a development of cloned homes. Our haunted houses are gone.
Beyond that rise in 1952 was a rundown farm. The grounds were overgrown with weeds and the outbuildings were crumbling from lack of care and paint. The main house had dead eyes, many windows broken out, the front door half off its hinges. When we walked inside we stepped carefully, which was wise. Part of the living room’s floor had caved in leaving a wide hole in the center of the space.
It was a deserted place with a history of desertion.
Louis Bergdoll was a German immigrant and a brewer. His lager was once one of the nation’s most popular beers. His main brewery was across Girard Avenue at 29th and Parrish Streets in Philadelphia. In 1893, Louis had a son. The son was Grover Cleveland Bergdoll and he was an early pioneer of aviation. He bought from the Wright Brothers a Wright Model B biplane in 1912. Keep in mind that the Wright Brothers didn’t begin selling their invention until 1909. He flew 748 flights and then stored the plane away until 1936, when the Franklin Institute acquired it. He paid around $5,000 for it. This amount would be worth around $125,000 today. But this was not to be the source of his greatest fame.
Grover Cleveland Bergdoll became the most notorious draft dodger of World War I. He was arrested in 1920, but escaped to Germany. Police finally brought Bergdoll back to America for trial in 1939 after some disastrous attempts to kidnap him. He spent five years in prison. He died at age 72 in a Richmond, Virginia mental hospital. His death was in 1966.
It was rumored he left behind a hidden fortune. People came and searched, even ripped open the walls, but never found the $105,000 they believed he hid somewhere on the property. Ronald and I didn’t find it either. We didn’t even know whose place it was when we explored it several times during our childhood. We learned its secrets later.
We brought Stuart Meisel to the place. We brought Gary Kinzey to the place. We told Gary ghost stories about the house and while one of us took him inside, the other two made noises and banging sounds. Gary ran from the house in terror, jumped on his bike and pedaled off. He would never go back.
These were curiosities, but the real shocker lay down at the bottom of a gully. We came through some brush and saw a house down inside the gulch. The hillside was rather steep and thick with undergrowth. We started down. Gravity pulled upon me and I went too fast and fell. I tumbled down the hill and came to rest in a thicket of stinging thistle. Ronald stood above me laughing. Ronald does have a sadistic sense of humor. He sometimes finds humor in other’s discomfort.
He helped me to my feet and we continued down to where the house was. There was a rapid stream weaving through the low land. To the one side were the remaining two walls of a barn. We could see some blackened beams lying on the ground. We found out the story later.
There was talk that more than just a barn burning occurred, possibly even a lynching. What the truth was is hard to say. My grandfather and some of the men he knew told me this story. It was never clear to me if it happened during World War One or Two.
Ronald and I knew nothing of such tales when we came upon the place. We followed the stream, which wended by the home and disappeared beneath the rear of a springhouse in the yard. The home itself had certainly seen better days. All the window glass was gone. The front porch roof sagged badly to one side.
We crossed the porch hoping the roof would hold. We found the front door locked. We went to a window and peered inside. The room looked empty through the half closed window. Even without the glass the cross stile of the lower sash barred our climbing through.
“Can you open it?” Ronald asked.
I put my hands beneath the stile and pushed upward. The old paint flaked off in my hands, but the sash didn’t budge. Time had frozen it in place.
Ron moved beside me and we both tried, but even our combined strength wasn’t enough to raise that window. We stepped back.
“We should close it,” Ron said.
That made sense. It should be easier to push down than up. Without any pane there would be a large enough opening for us two skinny guys to climb through. We put our hands above the stile and pushed down with all our might. The window did not budge.
We stepped aside, about to try the other window, which was in the same half-mast state. As we took a step back the window slowly raised itself completely up.
Looking down from the top of the gorge…
Yes we ran. I don’t remember running, but we must have run because we were back on top of the hill looking down.
Did a ghost raise the window?
Maybe we had read too many EC comic books.
Mysterious lost graveyards, haunted houses, old quarries, what else lurked in our environs?
Well, there are the Gates of Hell on Sawmill Road and the Two Tunnels of Valley Creek.
There are a series of tunnels on Boot Road and then these two just off of it on Valley Creek Road. My grandfather drove me through all these tunnels many times while blowing the car horn so it echoed off the walls. That was a blast (just punning). Riding through the Two Tunnels on bicycles, even in the daytime, was spooky, and I had done that as a boy, but no way would I ever walk through there at night.
The tunnels are long. There is a break in the middle where daylight streams in with eerie effect. Otherwise you are in darkness. There are all sorts of stories about the tunnels, none of them very nice. You can hear at night the death rattle of a man who hung himself in the center break, for instance.
I don’t think some of these tales existed when Ron and I traveled through the tunnels, especially the one about the Biker gang. But one story did precede us.
An angry citizenry drove a young woman from Downingtown for having an illegitimate baby. This occurred in the late 1800s or early 1900s. She carried her baby to the top of the hill above the tunnels where the split is and hung her self. She was holding her baby the whole time, but when the rope tightened about her neck the infant slipped from her hands and fell to her death in the tunnel. It is said when you walk through the tunnel at night you hear the baby cry and sometimes see its ghost.
Ronald and I didn’t ride through at night. We didn’t see or hear any spooks.
and a fenced in area where mysterious lights have been reported. Some claim to have been chased away by large dogs.
Not all the surprises or scares in my young life came while exploring with Ronald. One came in my own home and it probably frightened me more than anything else I encountered that year, as we shall see soon.
EXERPT OF "MY GHOST STORY"
From the collection, Tales of a Chester County Child, 1970
Like a top off a string, I tangled in the vines and spun. I landed atop a thatch of thorns. The sharp spikes went through my shirt like nails. Roger managed to stay on his feet and stood below laughing at my situation. He was the hawk enjoying the sight of the trapped mouse. “Rik-rik-rik,” he giggled. He offered a hand to pull me free, but before I regained my balance his fingers slipped and I dropped down again. The thorns stabbed me. I could feel the pricks widen into red circles. My back was beginning to itch. I knew if I scratched the welts they would sting. Meanwhile I was helpless. I howled and flailed my limbs.
Controlling his laughter not well, Roger freed me, despite my threats of instant mayhem to his body parts.
We continued cautiously coming to a tiny stream. We lost the summer sun behind the hill. It was cold in the gulley. It smelled of dampness and dead leaves. We had entered the beginning of autumn rather than the end of late summer.
From here we could see the battered wall of a fallen barn, brown rock piled atop brown rock encrusted with lichen. We hopped the stream and moved to this wall. We ran our hands over the rough surface and saw black smudges on the borders. Overhead a piece of charred beam jutted from the top like a black and bony finger pointing in accusation.
We knew the story.
We had heard piecemeal over the years about a barn burned down before the Second World War. It was a tale of men in homemade hoods that came in the dark of a moonless night, guided by dim and distant stars. They groped their way down this very slope and torched the hay in the barn loft. They stood watching the orange smoke and listened to the futile shouts of the owner. They might have murdered the man if cooler heads hadn’t prevailed. They did what they came to do and left. The victim got little symphony. His son was a famous draft-dodger and the farmer himself was a Nazi sympathizer. They called him the Little Hitler of Harmony Hill.
Now the barn was a ruin and the house was empty, a grim ruin baring witness to a sordid past. We stood by the barn rubble staring at the home. The shelter of any Nazi must be haunted, not by ghosts, but by evil. We told each other there must be torture devices in the parlor and leg irons in the basement.
We followed the little stream that twisted and turned, as cursed streams do. We circled the building and came to a grove of stubby weeping willows waving they whip-like branches above a half-buried springhouse. The stream disappeared underground at the wall of this small structure. A deep mossy odor wafted from its caved-in door. It was dark beneath the willows. The grass was yellow, spotted with auburn splotches and broken by an occasional gnarly tree root. We didn’t stay in this place long. A breeze curled its invisible web about us and we felt an unpleasant chill. We backtracked along the stream to what was once a front yard, but now only another weedy field, full of chicory and locust. Insects hopped before us, spreading fans of dull green and tan above their backs.