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Ghosts of Old Jersey Fiddlers Still Haunt the Back Woods

Whenever I walk the Tallertown road, the ghosts rise up around me. There is, to begin with, the ghost of the town itself for in these days no one seems to be sure if the village, now only a scattering of weather black houses, was Tallertown or Tylertown. Up to now, or not long ago, it had been Tylertown to me because. old men like Constant Ford and Vill and Lonzo Nichols had associated it with a long-gone family of Tylers. More recently my friends in Hermann, or Hermantown, where they used to make glass along the Mullica River and beyond Charcoal Point, from where cordwood was shipped to heat pre-coal New York, began calling it Tallertown or Tallowtown, because this was where quantities of “tallow trees” grew.

Here, then, and within the shadow of Hanover Furnace now swallowd up by Fort Dix, early Jerseyans knew how to boil what they called “tallow trees” in order to obtain a wax from which they fashioned their rude candles. I must not complain, however, for they still use the next best appropriate illumination – oil lamps. None has known that intruder, electricity, which recently spoiled the quaint interior of the ancient Green Bank Church.

For my part, I thought that I had finished with Tylertown or Tallertown, as the case may be. I went that way to Bulltown, another glass kiln, long ago, and, even in an earlier day, I traveled with Warner Hargrove along the brushy path which still is dignified with the name, Washington Turnpike. This is the road, straight as a ramrod from Batsto to Harrisville, past the cellar-holes of a little known Washington, N. J., that Joseph Wharton built with his own money across what he expected to be a Philadelphia water-shed.

It was a letter from Hoills Koster, probably written so painstakingly by the light of another oil lamp, that called me back – this time to the weird tune of phantom fiddles.

Old-time fiddlers widely known

“Hearing often of your interest in the violin,” wrote Hollis, that native of the Mullica shores whose name is known to botanists almost everywhere, “it might be well to touch upon the violin in folk lore, if you have a mind. Although we can only hope to scratch the surface, at the beginning, which is the way of most violinists, it will no doubt prove a rich subject. Relying entirely on what comes to me now, let’s talk about a few things that have happened in this section:

Many years ago, I have been told, the three taverns on the old Quaker road – Quaker Bridge Tavern, the Mount Tavern and Washington Tavern – held party nights once a week. One week the Mount will hold a party, the next the Washington Tavern took its turn, and so on. Folk from miles around attended and the region produced some particularly fine fiddlers, we are told. Their reputation, at any rate, seems to have survived a hundred years or more, Naturally, so have their ghosts.

Bill Birdsall recalled the excitement that followed when violin, music was heard in the dark of the night from the old Joe Miller place at Tallertown. Of course, Jeremiah Ford’s sons, David and Thomas, had been notable and lived nearby. I find “David Ford, Fiddler” entered in an old account book of the 1850’s, written so to distinguish him from David Ford, of Tulpehauken, and David Ford, of Frogtown. A violin heard at times in the past at Hermann was said to connect with Asa Ford. I find, however, that a later Asa Ford, who played the instrument, was indicated. But more on Asa Ford, the fiddler, later. Before Bill Birdsall died, he laughed the whole matter aside by explaining that the “music” resulted when two limbs of the trees would be rubbed together by the wind – but he always spoke of it as if he were never quite sure

Johnnie Johnson, now at Anchorage, Alaska, has been concerning himself with some of the old names along the Tallertown road – and we have exchanged a deal of correspondence. We have been trying to find out, for instance, why the king snake is known in the Pine Barrens here as a “wamper.” Naturalists had supposed that this word was a corruption of “swamper” but we felt this theory was not too strong. We soon had string of words meaning to undulate, etc., from the Scotch, Dutch, old English and other sources. We also remembered the wampum snake but feel that we have as yet proved nothing.

But Haze Wobber gave me a fine example of the manner in which words at times can be corrupted. It seems that an old-time woodchopper, having ground his blade unusually fine, tested it on a pine tree somewhere between the Mount and Tallertown. The bit broke off in the tree, that tree became known as the ax-bit pine. Many years later, Haze tells me, people were calling it the “acklby pine.”

“While we are concerned with the environs of Tallertown we might as well note Kate’s Money Tree, known also as “The Haunted Pine” and as the Haunted Stump.” Kate Ford, wife of one of the Jeremiahs, used to explore the forests with a “money spear.” And you might make a note there that the name that has troubled us so long, Aunt Bash Ford, was actually Barsheba Ford . . .”

Let me break in here to say that in company with Will Nichols and Hollis we have located the stump behind which, the legends say, an unidentified ghost is known to lurk at certain times of the year. It isn’t far beyond Tallertown and, at least by day, it appears far from extraordinary. However, it was the late Bill Birdsall, brother-in-law of Will Nichols, who said that on at least one occasion a cold hand touched the back of his neck as he passed that way. “And Bill wasn’t given to believing in that sort of thing.” Will assured me.

Money spear just pointed stick

“What,” I demanded of Hollis, as we hurried along, “was a money spear?” I had concluded that it must be some new variation of a divining rod but Hollis told me I was wrong. It was to all appearance just another pointed stick, he said. Whatever powers there were seemed to belong to Kate Ford although whether her poking about in the Jersey “desarts” ever resulted in the discovery of buried treasure is something I have not found out. It was at this point that Hollis, in the midst of an impromptu lecture on the difference between two-leaved pine, stood still as if to listen. I thought that he was about to reveal that his sensitive ears had just picked up the wavering whine confected of rosined horsehair on catgut. But it was something more important than that.

“I wanted to tell you,” he said, “that the herring are up as far as Lower Bank and that thinking of them the other night brought back an old song they used to sing here along the Tallertown road.” Hollis refused to attempt the tune but he did recall the words so that at least one more New Jersey folksong was added to my meager store:

“Looked down the river, heard the herring coming;

Looked up the road, saw the folks a-running;

Some had a saucer, others had a cup

They were all raising hell ’cause the herring was up!”

Which, while you imagine an appropriate setting full of rhythm, perhaps with fiddle accompaniment, gives me the chance to recall the occasion when a forgotten pastor of the Green Bank Church was interrupted in the midst of his sermon. A bashful member of the congregation had made his way to the platform and had handed up a note. The parson nodded and as the intruder returned to the back of the church he said: “The sermon, friends, will end right here. So will the service, however, both will be resumed this evening when, I think, we will have even more reasons to give thanks to God. The good brother has just brought me word that there are herring in the river. Go get ‘em!”

I recalled the episode and Hollis merely smiled. “As long as you are on the subject of God,” he said, “you might take note that over on the Tuckahoe River people used to answer a query as to where they might be from with ‘Tuckahoe, God bless you!’ Some say that when the herring were up and the Tuckahoe folks in no mood to tarry another word, probably profane, was substituted for bless’ . . .

“Of course,” Hollis Koster continued in his letter, “you have heard of the old statement that when the herring are about, a dweller along the Mullica River cannot remove his shirt. The explanation is, I suppose, that while the fish are in the river, every moment must be spent in catching them. As for the eating of herring, Mullica men always insist that there is but one satisfactory way in which to handle the numerous fine bones for which the species is celebrated – to forget that bones are any impediment to eating, and swallow!

“But back to our fiddlers. Asie Ford had been fiddling at the Mount Tavern one night and then at a very late hour took the ‘lang Scotch miles’ afoot down the old Quaker road toward Tallertown. Today this country is a pine barren wasteland without a dwelling for miles. Then Asa, on his way, after bidding his host, Jonathan Cramer, good-night, would have passed what was known as Noah’s Ark – this was where Noah Sooy lived alone, after separation from his wife, who in turn lived alone some distance away in what we call Polly Sooy Field.

“Asie arrived home with his face scratched and bleeding and in a generally disheveled condition. Perhaps some said, ‘Served him right to be caught on a lonely road at such an unholy hour!’ But Asie had been through a strange adventure, perhaps the natural sequel of a boast he must have made during the evening. He had said he could out-fiddle the devil any time he liked.

Challenged Asie to fiddling match

“Two or three miles southeast of the Mount, a stranger had stepped into the road, accosting Asie with words of anger. He then whipped out a violin and challenged Asie to a fiddling match right then and there. A pine log lay by the side of the road and the two sat down and commenced fiddling.

“Before long the stranger was puffing and blowing. Asie glanced at him, and in a moment deeply regretted the idle boast he had made during the evening. He had not intended to be so drawn into a contest with Old Nick himself. There was little to be done. Asie simply fiddled more furiously. Soon he noticed that the stranger had stopped his fiddling and was listening to his opponent. Asia then stopped, too.

“The devil rose from his seat gazed down at Asie, and suddenly fell upon him, striking him angrily across the face with his bow. Asia recovered in time to see his defeated opponent disappear into the pre-dawn mist which bad commenced to rise like steamy smoke from the chilled turf of the pinelands. Harve Ford’s granny said she could vouch for the tact that her brother, Asie, did return with welts across his face and with a story as startling as it was colorful.”

“To conclude with one more story of the vicinity of Tailertown – Jack Updike says to tell you that a refuge, and of the celebrated pine-robbers of Revolutionary days, was seen in flight with silver plate belonging to Joost Sooy II. The robber was shot that evening through a tavern window – perhaps one called Mount – but the silver was never discovered. Although some legends say the shooting happened near Chatsworth, the plate is believed to be somewhere near.”

Surely you can see how Hollis’s letter spilled over with unspoken invitations, I had expected to go down that way a little later when more than the shad-bush would be blooming and when I could visit with Bill Birdsall’s widow, now in her 70’s, and Abbie (Mrs. Will) Nichols, 93, in what I like to call my unofficial parish. Aunt Mary Birdsall had been ill all winter, they said, and Abbie hadn’t spoken plainly since she suffered a stroke. Now, looking back, although I will freely admit that it was the string of stories linked with the Tallertown road, especially the tale of the devilish fiddling match, that drew me Down Country, my own compensation lies in having seen these old friends.

I can never understand why people far up fading country roads are allowed to grow lonely when a call means so much to them. First time I went to the Birdsall’s you may remember, their house had burned down a few days before. Even so, the fact that nearly everything but their lives was lost failed to keep Will and ‘Lonzo home on the first day of deer season.

On the way to the Nichols’s we passed what Hollis called Molasses Hill. There’s no molasses, of course, and the hill is equally elusive now that the land back of Hermantown is so grown over. Beyond the graved hole is where, Hollis Koster says, Mary Tunis met a bear. Mary was in such a hurry to get away that the lid of her kettle slipped off and molasses dripped all over the ground. The bear, whose attention had been devoted to an ant hill until Mary’s approach, quickly switched to the molasses with evident delight.

“And just who,” I asked Hollis, “was Mary Tunis?” Perhaps, I thought, her ghost was somewhere about this Tallertown road.

“Her husband was Sam Tunis,” Hollis told me. “He was what they always called ‘a water man’ down here. That means he was a sailor. It also means, In Sam’s case, that his wife, Mary, was intensely jealous of him. Although there is no certainty that he consorted with other women, Mary always imagined that he did, especially when he was away on coasters for any length of time. She was the one, you remember, who burned her husband’s musket while be was away, just because she couldn’t show her fury to the man in person. Rare article, Mary!”

Homes for living and for dead

It was not until I sat down beside Abbie Nichols’ making believe I could understand all the things she was trying to tell me, that recalled that she Is Hazleton Birdsall’s daughter and that “Haze” who taught Sunday School in the old one-room school that has been turned into a delightful little house, was my favorite Down Jersey carpenter. “Haze,” whose name will be ever remembered In Haze’s Crossway not far down the Tallertown road, used to build houses for the dead as well as for the living. Nothing could interrupt his careful building of a house except word that someone had died.

Then he quickly brought his work to a halt, climbed down his ladder and went home to his barn to ascertain if the corpse would fit one of the “boxes” he had fashioned and put by in storage. His barn, they say, concealed coffins in all sizes, always of the best wood and Birdsall workmanship. If the measurements of the deceased required a special “fit” Hazieton’s plans would be interrupted still further. The point is, as Will Nichols admitted when Mrs. Nichols couldn’t, In spite of her smiling and chattering agreement with all I said, that from the moment someone died, “Haze” Birdsall took charge.

He prepared the body for burial on what he called a “cooling board” and he used pioneer ways to keep the body in good state until the funeral. In Hazelton Birdsall’s day even preachers were hard to find when wanted and, when a reasonable wait had been undertaken, “Haze” suggested that, in addition to driving his homemade hearse to the cemetery, the bereaved might like to have him preach the funeral sermon at the end of a service which, from all accounts, he conducted very well.

Yes, sweet Abbie, who in spite of the paralysis which has tied her tongue appears far younger than 93, remembered all that. A tear betrayed the fact that she knew all that I had said was part of familiar though fading picture. Will broke in to remember the time Al Nichols lived “up to the Housen place” and Ephraim Sooy’s horse “got scared” as he passed the haunted stump. Minutes later I had persuaded Will to desert his house long enough to travel up the Tallertown road further than he had been, by his own admission, In the last two years, “There’s the stump,” he cried, as we came upon it. “More’s rotted off since I was here but there she be, sure enough. Eph’s horse got scared when something white came out from behind the shaft of it and Eph swore neither he nor the horse knew what it was.

We had moved on to what once was Washington, or Washington Field, site of the parties Hollis described as well as the Inn where “Joe” Mulliner, the Refugee, was captured. Although I have been there many times through the years, I did not know there was ever as much of a town as Will described, “Place had its own school,” he said. “Tom Campinello was one of the last schoolmasters.” Inasmuch as Tom served as godfather for Hollis Koster, I have concluded there was a settlement in what today is a mere clearing in the heart of the pine woods much later than anyone ‘has revealed. The cellar holes are all that remain of houses still standing as late as the 1880’s, perhaps, probably the victims of a forest fire that swept all such century-old relics before it.

“People say the soil is poor,” said Will. “Not so at all. Soil’s as good as any around. I remember when this clearing was a corn field and when there were farms all around. Shreve Wells ran the Mount Tavern, then, and there was a town as big as any around here. Here where the roads meet, cutting into what was the farm, people were happy and – ” What ‘Will wanted to say was that Washington, N. J. – far from the remaining Washington in Warren County – was self-sufficient. Tallertown may have dropped from sight, Quaker Bridge may be less than an empty crossroads, and Harrisville may be but the crumbling ruins of the paper plant I’ve told you about, but there were many years in which whole families lived and moved and had their being in all of them.

There are things you can’t explain

As Will Nichols tried to hide his lost agility and moved beside me as quickly as he dared, showing me that the walls of what many have concluded were those of the tavern were really those of the barn, and then moving by me to find the deep stone-lined well that proved without doubt where the celebrated inn of Nick Sooy had stood, I tried desperately for new light on the fiddlers and their ghosts. Nick Sooy had an inn at Quaker Bridge, too, Will said, changing the subject. Then, as if in deference to me he added: “There are things you just can’t explain and shouldn’t try.”

“Lonzo’s horse, now – he’s scared along here, too. Maybe the town has dropped into a bole, or a lot of holes, and maybe it looks as if everybody but the deer has gone to glory but you just know something’s been left behind. You can just feel it. Same as over to Buck’s Point. Charlie Green used to say the Wilsons lived there and that Quakers lived on the Point before them. He remembered a time when recruiting officers came – the story had been handed down from Revolutionary days – and the women folk said there were no men. From the woods came the ringing of many axes. Demanding an explanation, the officers were told that it was only old Daddy Ford chopping down a bee tree. Odd thing is that there’s always been a bee tree, nigh onto every summer, on Buck’s Point, and that when the nights are particularity still you can hear the ringing of Daddy Ford’s ax even now. By this time he musta chopped a lot of wood, we always say.”

Uncle John was sexton of the Green Bank Church, Hollis added, remembering that still another ghost of the Tallertown road has a part to play in the mystery of the tremendous coffin, shaped like a boat, dug up unexpectedly in the 1800’s. “Body was over-size too,” Hollie said, “and the crazy thing was that the giant, whoever he was, had two full sets of teeth.”

It was, I can assure you, a shivery journey, even though I encountered neither Old Nick nor phantom fiddlers on the Tallertown road. The ghost arose from the shadows all around us, however, and it was something of a relief to return to Hermantown and see something more tangible, a violin they say was by the fiddling Fords. The instrument was proudly displayed by Nick – for Nicodemus – Ford who swore, as country musicians usually do, that hero was a true Stradivarlus. “Play it,” Nick suggested. Although I was trained, long ago, to nudge Fritz Krelsler from his throne, I demurred, pointing out that the bow that was proffered had no hair.

“Don’t need none,” Nick declared. “Hair on bows went out with horses. Fiddlers down this away never seemed to mind. When a tune was wanted they rosined the wood and played. See? Like this!” Without further preliminary, a full-bodied tune emerged, melodic in spite of the scratches required, and rhythmic as well. I knew at once that the limbs of trees, rubbed together by the wind, could never make a sound like this and that the Devil, who came upon Asie Ford In the long dark of the road toward home, could have welted Asie’s face with ease – and with such a hairless stick.

First published in the Newark Sunday Star Ledger, May 9, 1948. Reprinted with permission. Transcribed by Ben Ruset. The Star Ledger requests that you do not copy, retransmit, or link directly to this article. Please link to our homepage at https://www.njpinebarrens.com