Thursday, April 1, 2010


My recall of the Copeland Place, lower story and upper; click on any image to enlarge

During my high school years in the early 1970s, there were a couple of local spots in extremely rural Montague County, Texas which we believed to be haunted. One was a railroad trestle near Ringgold Cemetery that we called Lulabelle's bridge, which had a story involving a teenaged girl named Lulabelle and an escaped axe murderer with a hook instead of one hand. (Some things never change.)

The other locale was the Old Copeland Place. If you drove somewhat out of the way, you could approach it via back dirt roads that led over a creek with a rickety, tree-choked bridge: Hitting that bridge at high speed could bring screams from your passengers, especially if they were riding in the back of a pick-up truck, and help set the stage for stopping at the old farmstead.

You had to open a pasture gate to get there, trespassing we did as a matter of course. Nobody farmed in Montague County any more, it was all subsistence ranching and an occasional oil lease, so former farmhouses and log cabins were scattered here and there in the mostly empty blackjack and pin oak stippled countryside. People generally lived only in the few tiny to small towns that remained or on the edge of an unsupervised tract of ranchland, usually in a trailer. Except for the connectors between towns, most roads were dirt, not even gravel, and the majority of dense scrubby thickets bordering grazing land had never been cut down by human hand.

The Old Copeland Place had been abandoned for decades. It had originally been a more solidly built house than most of the left-behind structures from the era around 1900 when Montague County held a larger population than it does today. It had clapboard sides, now faded to slintering grey, and remnants of gingerbread at the eaves of its front porch. This place had never been a partial dugout or log cabin built by the first white settlers to the region, who had thought in terms of defense and gladly sacrificed windows for earthern backwalls. Nor was it a converted dog-run, common to the influx who arrived after the Civil War. This was a structure built as a real house.

Montague County had not been reliably settled by whites until the 1870s. Prior to that, it was successfully claimed by Comanche and Kiowa as part of their raiding territory. Within sight of the Copeland Place was Queen's Peak, the highest point for miles around. It had been named for a schoolteacher who one of the foolhardy first arrivals in the 1850s.

The story goes that the handful who dared settle here clustered around the peak's elevation because Comanche raiding parties would hopefully be seen approaching, and the local school was built near the southern crest. During one schoolday around 1858, a band of Comanches was spotted coming at a gallop. The schoolteacher, named either Queen or Victoria, made sure every child had run home to safety with older children or was put on horseback in twos and three to get away. By the time her students had escaped, it was too late for her and she was killed. The peak was renamed in her honor.  (A map showing Montague County Historical markers, including Queen's Peak, can be found here.)

(Cover of Texas the Empire State, land speculator tract published by Houston and Texas Central Railway in 1911)
After the Civil War, federal soldiers combined with Texas Rangers to push white land theft westward from Cooke County through the Cross Timbers into West Texas. Desperate for income -- cattle drives and oil had not yet brought any affluence to Texas -- the state set aside enormous tracts of marginally arable land and advertised it for sale at rock-bottom prices throughout the devastated South. Land developers and railway companies issued elaborate propaganda to bring immigrants to Texas.
This is when the bulk of my ancestors arrived, believing (erroneously) Montague County would offer cotton farming comparable to the blackland prairie everyone had heard about, farming which could be done by single families without slaves or large tracts of land. The county population was 890 in 1870 but went to 11,257 by 1880. After a generation or two, the children of these folks would move on westward or north into Oklahoma.
So the Copeland Place looked to have been built maybe during the 1890s, before a decline was on the horizon. It was large for the times, two good-sized rooms up and down on either side of a narrow, steep staircase built into the wall like a closet. At each horizontal end were sandstone fireplaces which would have heated all four rooms. A covered porch stretched across the front of the bottom story, and in the middle of the back was a fifth room built of stone floors and walls, the kitchen. Perhaps it was part of the original construction, perhaps it was added later, but it was clearly always meant to be a kitchen: It was of a material to repel fire, it had running water and crossdraft-catching windows, it was commodious enough for tables and farm activity, and it backed onto the garden and barn area. You went through the kitchen to access the privy out beyond the farmyard.
By the mid 1970s, most other early untended structures in Montague County were in advanced stages of collapse, the cabins and dugouts literally melting back into the ground. The Copeland Place could still be entered, even the upstairs, and despite missing doors, windows, and any wall covering, it gave a hint of what its personality once must have been.
The upstairs rooms had slanting eaves running the length of the house, and one of them -- the western side -- had large trees filling all windows save at the front, so the room was always in spooky shadow. Additionally, ascending the claustrophobic staircase was frightening on its own, so when we went to the Copeland Place after dark, going upstairs to the "haunted bedroom" was the high point of the tour.
Except in Montague County, the older folks pronounced haunt as haint, just as panthers were called painters. So it was the hainted bedroom.
During the winter break of my freshman year of college in Denton, 70 miles away, I was visiting home, along with my lover Astrid and our 3-year-old daughter. Also in town was my ex from high school, Sami, and her lover (two years ahead of me in another college); and a friend of Sami's whom I knew, a cheerful chubby dryke named Betsy Kowalski. One night Sami and I decided to take our visitors out to the Copeland Place. Also joining the expedition were our little brothers Bill and Dwayne, both freshman in the local high school, and a sophomore named Janis. We piled into cars and took the bridge route, as usual.
Unlike most trips out there, no alcohol was involved this time because our little brothers would have snitched on us. We went through the ground floor, making ghosty sounds, until my daughter began crying and we had to go back outside to comfort her. Sami then issued a dare: Each of us who wasn't chicken had to go up the dark stairway alone, come to the front window in the darkest room upstairs and wave at us to prove s/he'd done it before returning to the yard.
The younger teenagers looked green at the idea. Astrid said flat out she wasn't going to do it. Sami swore and said "Hell, it's no biggie", striding into the house. A minute later she called us cowards from the upstairs window, then rejoined us, laughing. She said "That fucking stairwell door shut while I was upstairs, it's at a tilt, and I had to come back down in pitch black,"
Everybody looked at each other, not willing to be next. Finally I said I would go. I pushed the stairwell door all the way back against the wall and headed up with a little moonlight to show the creaky treads. At the top, I heard a slam and looked back to see the door was shut again. I told myself it had shifted from my weight on the wooden stairs, the whole house was loose at its bones, and continued on into the haint room.
Which was so dark, the shadows looked like they pulsated. I peered into the corner, sure I was being watched. I heard somebody call my name from outside, and that nudged me from my terrified inspection of the inky room. I went to the window and actually looked at how far down the ground was, wondering if I could just slid over the sill and jump down rather than face the stairs again. Finally I backed out of the room and scurried down the stairs, praying nobody thought it would be funny to come hold that bottom door shut.
I must have looked as rattled as I was, because nobody else wanted to take the dare. Sami, who was a bully, began taunting her little brother about his fear. Finally he was goaded into the house, but returned right away, asking me if I had left the stairwell door shut.
"No, I had it shoved open" I said. Betsy said we could figure out why it was closing itself, it was simple physics, and all of us except Astrid and my daughter went into the house -- Astrid got into the VW to keep the kid warm and calm. We took a flashlight to look over the door. After inspection of its sorry condition, the two boys pried up a massive piece of sandstone from the shattered kitchen floor. It took both of them to carry it back, and they dropped it in front of the recalcitrant door with a crash, pinning it back to the wall.
"That fucker won't shut again" said Sami. Her girlfriend suggested we all go upstairs together, en masse, to wave from the window and look around with the flashlight. Betsy immediately agreed, and the younger kids looked relieved. Janis insisted on carrying the flashlight because she didn't trust us, and we got into a kind of conga line, led by Sami, then her girlfriend, then Betsy, then Janis, then me, then Bill, then Dwayne who still looked so scared he could barely move.
We shuffled, laughing, onto the stairs. Right before Sami reached the top, but once we were all in the stairwell -- I had looked back at Dwayne to see if he was actually going to follow us in, and he was pressed against my little brother, a couple of steps up from the bottom -- three things happened almost simultaneously: The door at the bottom slammed shut, the flashlight went out, and Betsy gave a bloodcurdling scream.
We turned and stumbled down, piling on top of each other because Dwayne was shouting the door wouldn't open and beating against it. Betsy had continued shrieking, and I could hear Janis sobbing behind me. Suddenly the door swung open easily and we scrambled into the bottom room. The big block of sandstone was over a foot away, with no scrape marks on the floor, and abruptly the flashlight came back on. Sami took the light away from Janis and shone it on Betsy, yelling "What's wrong?"
When we looked at Betsy, she had a long jagged cut down one cheek. She said something had hit her face on the stairs just as everything went dark. We exited the house immediately, finding Astrid entertaining the kid in the car. She swore she hadn't been inside, wouldn't have taken our frightened child back in or left her alone, and besides that obvious truth, she was not strong enough to have lifted the sandstone rock.
We got in the cars and left. Back at Sami's house, as her girlfriend tended to Betsy's cheek, we tried to come up with an explanation for what had just happened. An owl in the upstairs room, maybe, lashing out at invasion of its territory. The flashlight going off by coincidence or Janis's frightened hand jabbing the button without her knowing it. But nothing explained the door shutting by itself, the massive rock moving away without a mark.
We decided to put the word out that the haint in the Copeland Place was for real and not benign, and to urge everyone to stay away. I was deadly earnest in my agreement, and I never returned to the place. Betsy Kowalski never returned for a visit, either.
A few years later, I told my mother about it and she informed me we were related to the Copelands. Martha Copeland had been an Armstrong before she married Tom Copeland; her father Ike was brother to my great-great-grandfather David Armstrong, and her mother Martha Wiles was a second cousin to my great-great-grandmother Margaret Ritchie. They had all grown up together in Arkansas and caught a covered wagon to Montague County as part of a multi-family migration.
When I recently again remembered that night at the Copeland Place, I began digging to see, if it was haunted, whether it would be possible for me to put a name to whoever's spirit had remained in the house. I had to do this without benefit of actual deed records, none of which are online and are too expensive for me to have researched by another.
Using censuses, land grant maps, and genealogical records, I explored two hypotheses: Tom and Martha Copeland were the only inhabitants of that farmhouse before its abandonment, or it had been occupied by others before/since their tenure.
The design of the house was one strong clue as to the time it was built, making it definitely post 1870 and probably post 1880. Tom Copeland was still a child when his parents, C.C. and Georgia (Chandler) Copeland, moved from Smith County, Texas to Montague County in the mid 1870's. They would not have built this house then. Nor would they have needed its roominess -- they only had six children, and at least two of those died before growing up.
Tom and Martha Copeland married in Stoneburg in 1892 when they were 23 and 22 respectively. They began having babies right away. Over the next 18 years, Martha gave birth to 13 children (including two sets of twins), seven girls and six boys. The Copeland Place is tailor-made for a large farm family of the era. The downstairs bedroom would have held Tom, Martha, the latest baby and maybe an older toddler. One of the large upstairs rooms would have been for daughters and one for sons. Perhaps it was constructed by them in or around 1892.

Still, it's unusual for a young couple of that time to have had the money to build a large new house. Maybe it was handed on to them by Martha's parents or Tom's grandparents. On investigating, I established that Martha's parents, Ike and Martha Armstrong, lived nearby but not on that land and had settled their land before 1890. They did not leave for Oklahoma until after 1910. Probably not ever their place, then.

Isaac Huntley and Martha Adeline Wiles Armstrong, taken circa 1890s in Montague Co., TX, possibly outside the Copeland Place

Interestingly, however, in looking at family photographs I found one of Ike and Martha Armstrong taken outside a house which looks almost identical to what I remember of the Copeland Place. They appear to be in their 50s, which would make it the 1890s. Maybe they were visiting the Copelands when the photo was taken, or maybe their house was very similar.

I considered whether farmhouse could have originally belonged to the Chandlers, Tom Copeland’s maternal grandparents, who lived in that precinct of Stoneburg on the 1880 census. William Bailey Overton and Elizabeth (Paden) Chandler moved to Montague County from Fannin County in 1875, buying “2302.5 acres about 10 miles northwest of the town Montague on Belknap Creek.” This land description could include the Copeland place or certainly is nearby. However, the house doesn't fit an 1875 construction. Further, the Chandlers died in 1896 and 1901 respectively, and there were other grown children to inherit, so it seems unlikely to me their original farm would have been handed on in 1892 to a newly married grandson.

Back to Tom's parents, though, who lost two sons to early death and I can find no record of two more Copeland boys as adults, they may have been left with only Tom and a sister to carry on the Copeland farm. C.C. Copeland, Tom's father, died in 1885. It makes sense to me that when Tom marries a girl from next door and wants to farm the family land, his widowed mother (and perhaps her family, the more prosperous Chandlers) would have given him acreage and a loan to build a new, commodious place, in hopes of the grandchildren to come. If so, Tom and Martha certainly fulfilled their end of the bargain.

(1910 census record for Tom and Martha Copeland near Stoneburg in Montague County, Texas)

Having determined to my satisfaction that Tom and Martha Copeland's family were the original inhabitants of the farmhouse, I began looking to see who might have died there and thus be considered a possible identity for the "haint".

Here are their 13 children:
  • Hiel Ernest Copeland 1893 – 1982
  • Ethel I Copeland 1895 – 1986
  • Dora Esther Copeland 1896 – 1918
  • Isaac Hubert Copeland 1897 – 1990
  • Georgia Iva Copeland 1899 – 1995
  • Georgie T Copeland 1899 – by 1910
  • Elsie Copeland 1900 – 1976
  • Jewell Copeland 1902 – 1981
  • Harmon Arthur Thomas Copeland 1904 – 1994
  • Floyd Houston Copeland 1905 – 1987
  • Velma Copeland 1908 – 1987
  • Vera Copeland 1908 – 1976
  • Louvil Ray Copeland 1911 – 1980

Two children died while likely still living at home and possibly in the farmhouse, Dora (age 22) and Georgie, a twin to Georgia who survived (before age 10). Tom and Martha moved away from the farm by 1930 and died during the 1940s. Unless someone else occupied the place after 1930, the only two people I can verify as probably having died within its walls, then, are Dora Copeland as a young woman and Georgie Copeland as a boy.

If the house still stands, curious ghosthunters can use this information to investigate who remains under its roof.

I said earlier that I never returned to the Copeland Place. I was in the vicinity once, however, when another inexplicable and disturbing event occurred.

I was visiting my father in Denton one weekend during the mid 1990s and had decided to drive to Montague County in hopes of finding the lost graves of Stafford family members. Their land had also been between Stoneburg and Montague, north of the Belknap Hills and south of Belcherville, but I knew they had not been buried in either of the cemeteries serving Stoneburg and Montague. Looking at a topo map from 1905, near the times of their deaths, I could locate several small, now abandoned graveyards which might hold headstones. I set out late morning and reached central Montague County by early afternoon.

I thought my best bets were around the former Long Branch and Rock Springs communities, but I'd heard there was a small cemetery in between the two -- just east of the Copeland land, in fact. I headed west from Montague, immediately leaving paved roads for dirt. I planned to flag down anyone I saw and ask them if they knew about pastures with old graves in them; when I'd lived there, we all knew of such places, family plots left behind by the exodus after World War I. I wasn't worried about getting lost. I had my topo and most of it was familiar to me anyhow, in an unconscious memory sort of way.

I drove for over an hour with no luck at all. At one point I passed a man walking across a field, too far to hail from the road and with no gate nearby to enter through the fence. He didn't look my way, which was odd. In such a rural place, passersby are worth staring at.

I can't say exactly where I was when I came over a rise and saw a farmhouse in a hollow below, with barn and a plowed field adjacent. A man was in the field, dressed in very old-fashioned style overalls, the kind my father wore in childhood photographs. The farmhouse looked vaguely the same style as the Copeland Place, except it had a vivid coat of white paint on it with red trim around the windows. There was an old-style Farmall near the barn, but no car. I realized the brightness of the buildings and tractor were in odd contrast to the sense of haziness I felt in the air, as if dust was suspended in sunlight, only it was a silver cast I was looking through, not golden.

Once again, the man did not look my way. I saw motion behind the house, and a woman emerged with a woven basket of wet laundry to hang on a line. I was startled by her clothing, a dress down to her ankles and a bonnet that I hadn't seen anyone wear since my grandmother had died. I had to turn then, with the road heading away from the farm, but I kept mulling over what I had seen. The light everywhere I went continued to be silvery, lovely yet not what I remembered from living there.

I kept thinking I was going to hit the two-lane blacktop between Stoneburg and Montague. I have a good sense of directionality, and despite no longer pinpointing my location on the map, I could tell I was entering the Belknap Hills by the terrain around me. Which meant I must have crossed the county road somehow without noticing it. I kept driving, trying to angle east again yet gradually getting deeper into the Hildreth, which is genuine wilderness.

An hour passed before I found my way back to a paved road. It headed south and I was sure it must lead to Bowie, but it looked strange, narrower than I remembered and the old dark style of asphalt I recalled from the 50s, a true blacktop. I sat there at the intersection for a few minutes, looking at the map and trying to decide where else I might venture on my quest.

It was then I realized I had not passed another vehicle in at least two hours, maybe three. Which is not impossible in a place as rural as Montague County, but I suddenly got scared. This road was the only route between Bowie, the main center of commerce, and Montague, the county seat. I watched for ten minutes and no car came along. Now in a panic, I put my Honda in gear and started for Bowie at a high speed.

Ten minutes later, my desperation now at fever pitch because I still had not seen another human or vehicle, I came over a small rise and the light suddenly altered, becoming clear late afternoon sunlight. On my left was a cluster of butane tanks, making me realize I hadn't seen any of these, or oil wells, during my wanderings through an oil and gas producing terrain. Coming toward me was a Ford pick-up that wasn't brand new but less than a decade old. The driver waved at me as I passed, as everyone here always did.

I stopped at the first pay phone I saw, outside a grocery, and called my little brother. I was shaking hard and my palms were slick with sweat. I told Bill about the last few hours, hesitatingly at first and he kept laughing at me. But then he heard how I was close to being in shock, and he stopped laughing. He said "They tried to snatch you, Sis. The old folks, they almost got you." He told me to buy a Co-cola and come on home, he'd make me ribs and poot roots. I said okay; then, feeling a little foolish, I told him the exact route I'd be driving back and how long it should take me. He chuckled again and said "Nothing to worry about now, you're fine."

And I was.


Blue said...


Excellent stories. I especially love seeing Bill as a Freshman, then as a man, and your relationship.

Marj said...

Whoa indeed.

I'm so caught up in the last segment, when YOU are the "haint".

Maybe some of those old alien sightings were just Maggie in her Honda...

Anonymous said...

Great story...thank you.

I am the grandson of HT (Harmon Thomas) Copeland.

On trip from Florida we stopped at the Copeland Farmhouse, about 1976 or so. The house was abandoned. I extracted a sandstone from the exterior wall with his initials HT itched in it. It sits in my mothers home today.

Harmon married Gladys Hager from Anson, Tx They had five children and settled on their farm in Tuila, Tx.

I have seen a picture of the family in front of the Copeland Place.

Ross C. Hodges. Home: 941-794-5556

He married