October 28, 2005
Spook Lights on the Prairie
Spook lights figure prominently in America’s ghost lore. Michael Norman and Beth Scott, writing in “Historic Haunted America” say that spook lights are “mysteriously illuminated orbs that have been reported in dozens of sites around the United States.” Spook lights were often thought by early homesteaders to be ghosts—sometimes the spirits of Indians who used to occupy the land, and sometimes the tormented souls of unlucky travelers to came to a bad end at the hands of the local natives or bandits.
Geologists reportedly attribute the lights to earthquake or volcanic activity, and sometimes underground deposits of oil or gas. The area around Thunder Butte is not seismically active, and hasn’t experienced volcanic activity in millions of years. It does, however, have deposits of coal near the surface. Often coal seams are associated with underground sources of methane. Could this be the source of the spook lights? Both spirits and methane seem unlikely sources of the lights, but one never knows for sure.
According to Jackie Birkeland, “We saw them many times in the breaks east of Cherry Creek on the path to the L/Y Ranch and more frequently on Little Cottonwood Creek north of the Sam Eagle Chasing residence. Our friends were very much afraid of them and would ride miles to avoid a light that happened to appear.”
Reportedly, the lights could be the color of a light bulb, or an auto headlamp, or changing colors of red, green, and yellow. Their behavior wasn’t predictable. Says Jackie, “They would appear from very near the ground to a height of ten feet or so and did not seem to follow any predictable” path. “One might be riding along horseback after dark and suddenly within two or three hundred feet or further, one of these lights would appear and dance over the terrain, bobbing up and down.”
One night, a local Indian was out on a horse and encountered a light that would not let him pass. Each time he turned the horse, the light got in his way. Finally, he just closed his eyes and rode as fast as he could.
A blizzard covered the area with deep snow in November 1931. Jim Frame was only ten, then, and was helping his dad run a team of horses back and forth the twenty miles from their place to Dupree to get grain for the livestock. On one of the trips, “He was still several miles from home when a "spook light" appeared about 100 yards to his right,” according to the tale told by Jackie Birkeland. “Its appearance brought terror to the heart of this young lad for it seemed to be alive and playing sinister games with him. Sometimes it would come quite close, then skip over the frozen snow-bound prairie, and be almost out of sight. Then back it would come, float down into a draw and once again appear to follow him at close range. This ghostly companion kept Jim company for about a mile.” Unfortunately for Jim, his team of horses couldn’t be hurried any faster along the trail. He must have driven those horses in terror all the rest of the way home.
October 22, 2005
A Strange Visit in the Night
In September 1977—about 1,300 miles from Thunder Butte—I was studying at a university in California not far from where I grew up, working on my undergraduate degree. That fall, I was living in a group house—a rented house with two other guys. I always held part-time jobs in college. As I came home late one Friday or Saturday night from one of those jobs, the house was dark and no one else seemed to be home. I washed up, closed my bedroom door, and got into bed—leaving just a bedside lamp on to read.
Suddenly, I heard footsteps coming from the bathroom at the opposite end of the hallway from my bedroom. “That’s odd,” I thought to myself. I had thought no one else was home. As the footsteps approached my door, I tensed up. Who could this be? What was happening? Then, whoever it was stopped right in front of my bedroom door.
This was an older house. It had the kind of doors inside the house that are framed with thick wood, but that have just a thin plywood panel in the center. As I watched in horror, the center panel of the door began to bend inward as though someone was leaning or pressing in on the door. The hair on my head felt as though it was standing up as I shouted out, “Who’s there?”
Total silence. There was no answer. I shouted again, “Who’s there?” Still, there was no answer. Then, I grabbed the bedside lamp in one hand as the nearest available weapon, jumped out of bed, and threw on the light switch next to the door with the other hand. There wasn’t a sound. I threw the door open and no one was there.
Let me tell you, I searched every room of that house from top to bottom. I checked the front and back doors and every single window. I checked the access panel for the attic and the locked basement door. The place was shut up tight. And, no one else was there.
Spooked, I got back into bed and tried to resume reading. Eventually, I went to sleep. But, I only dozed fitfully until the phone rang at about 8:30 a.m. the next morning. No one ever called me THAT early in the morning. My very first thought was that someone had died.
I lifted the phone off the hook hesitantly. It was my mother. She had called to tell me that my uncle, Neal Crowley, had died in the hospital in Presho, South Dakota, the night before. He had been ailing for some time with cancer.
Neal was the only one of the Thunder Butte Crowleys to stay on in South Dakota after 1940. He had married and lived most of his remaining years in Faith, where he had raised two kids and had been the chief of the two man police department for some years. At the end of his life, he was happily married for a second time and managing a tavern with his wife, Chubby, in Presho.
I always felt a lot of affection for my Uncle Neal. Ever since I had first met him on his occasional visits to see us in California when I was a child, he was my favorite uncle. He had fired up my imagination from a young age with tales of Thunder Butte country and promises to take me back there with him some day. Neal never did take me back to South Dakota with him, but I’m sure he would have if he could have. Had he come to pay me a last visit on that September night?
Sometimes we poke fun at things that have happened to us, almost as much for levity as to put our minds at ease about the things we don’t understand. I started teasing my roommates, telling them that the house was haunted. Uncle Neal had always loved a good joke, and he probably would have enjoyed my trying to spook the neighbors, too. When Halloween night came the following month, I turned out the lights, put Pink Floyd’s “Umma Gumma” album on the stereo and cranked up the volume for all the neighbors to hear one of Floyd’s most utterly bizarre tracks—“ Several Species Of Small Furry Animals Gathered Together In A Cave And Grooving With A Pict.” (“Umma Gumma” is arguably Pink Floyd’s oddest and most experimental album.) The eerie and shrill cries of cave creatures on the track made the house feel haunted for Halloween, and surely gave the creeps to the neighborhood kids who came trick-or-treating that night.
October 16, 2005
On Thunder Butte Creek, about three fourths of a mile from the house and on Knocker Creek, was a spring of the purest, cold water. This spring was at the base of a cliff, but above the water line of the creek. It was a pool about the size of the average bath tub. The water was crystal clear and cold as ice on even the hottest day in summer. We carried all of our drinking water from that spring to the ranch house. Sometimes my father would hitch up a team of horses to a stone boat, tie a large barrel on to the stone boat and bring home a barrel of drinking water at one time.
When he was away, working, one of us kids carried the water in buckets. It wasn’t all bad, as there were lots of buffalo berries, choke cherries, and currants along the way. So, getting the water was also feast time in the summer.
There were many adventures connected with that spring. It was also popular with rattlesnakes—not for the water, but for the coolness around the spring. When I was real young, a skunk ran out in front of me. I thought it was some kind of pretty kitty and started to chase it. Well, that was a sickness one doesn’t soon forget.
October 15, 2005
The South Forty
One of my earliest memories was helping with the threshing of the bean crop. My father had planted the entire plot in Navy beans. When the beans became ripe, my mother, Cece, and whoever was available would gather the dry bean plants and pile them on blankets and tarps. The tarp would then be folded over the beans and we would run and play on the stack. After a while, we would uncover the pile of plants and beans. We would pick out the major portion of the plants, and then four of us would take the four corners of the tarp and toss the beans into the air. The wind would catch the plant material and, as it was lighter than beans, it would fly away in the wind, leaving nothing but beans in the tarp. We would pour the beans into a sack and begin all over again. One year, it seemed like everybody in the country received a sack of those beans and we still had an adequate winter supply.
On another forty acre plot, in another bend of the creek to the east of the bean field, I remember my parents planting potatoes on the entire plot. My father would plow up the field with a pair of horses and a single plow. I would follow in the furrow made by the plow, with a sack of potatoes over my shoulder and drop a small slice of potato every eight to ten inches in the furrow. My father would then plow a furrow alongside the first furrow, covering the seed potatoes. This progressed until the entire plot was plowed and planted. I don’t remember what happened to the potato plants during the growing season, but I have distinct memories of the harvesting of them in the fall. At harvest time, my father would repeat the same procedure as at planting time, only this time when he plowed a furrow the length of the field he plowed up thousands of potatoes, which we picked out of the fresh dirt and placed in gunny sacks (burlap bags). When we had a half dozen bags full—fifty or sixty pounds—I would bring one of my horses or ponies from the ranch, and we would tie the sacks of potatoes over both sides of the pony and lead him back to the ranch where we would unload the potatoes into a root cellar.
A root cellar was a cave dug in to the side of the hill, equipped with a storm proof door. These cellars were also used to store beer and other perishables because the temperature inside the cellar remained cool and constant throughout the year. I also remember many times running for our lives to get inside the root cellar to avoid a terrible wind and storm. It was always safe, dry and secure in the root cellar, no matter what conditions were like on the outside.
The potato field also was a treasure trove for me. When the drought and depression hit the country, the wind literally blew away any soil that had been plowed or tilled. When the wind blew soil away on the potato field, it left rings of stones where Indians had weighed down the sides of their teepees. Also revealed were the sites of the campfires and work places where the Indians had fashioned arrowheads out of flint. In that area, I found hundreds of arrowheads, mauls, spear heads and other implements. Apparently, that plot of land had been a campsite of major proportions.
When my father planted grain on these plots, the prairie chickens and pheasants used to make themselves at home, nesting and feasting. Of course, they supplied us with many nourishing meals.
October 11, 2005
West of Glad Valley to Southwest of the Butte
Further west, about [six to] ten miles west of Glad Valley was an intersection of country roads and the farm of Charley Hall and his family—his wife Grace, and daughter Lois, and sons Ray and Forrest. I remember staying all night with the kids, as Lois and Forrest were about my age. I also remember very well when the Halls would visit my parents and play bridge and whist. Also, I clearly remember, when I was about four years old, Lois and I took the old gray mare and went for a ride, bareback, of course. A mile north of the house the old horse shied (ducked sideways) when a jackrabbit jumped in front of her, threw us both off, and I broke my collar bone. Then, the horse ran away. I well remember that trip home, Lois supporting me with one arm, while picking our way—barefoot—through the cactus patches. All the way home, I was crying my eyes out.
The Hall place was straight north of the butte, eight to ten miles. Somewhere on that stretch of road lived Dave Trainor. He was so fond of my brother Neal that he named one of his sons after him. I believe Neal Trainor still lives around Faith.
At the foot of Thunder Butte, on the east, was the homestead of the Syfie brothers. One of them sent back to Syria for a woman. She was somewhat of the gossip of the country because she wore the arabic style of clothing, head covering and all. People used to think they were crazy to dress like that in the South Dakota heat. I believe it is probably a lot hotter in Syria, but we didn’t know it then.
Directly south of the butte, a couple of miles on Stove Creek, “Raggy" Simmons used to live. Raggy was a hermit who lived in a hole dug in a bank of the creek. He was none too clean. He used to come snooping around our place, looking for food, I suppose. I remember my mother running him off the place with a shotgun, one time.
Southwest of the butte, a couple of miles, was Joe Shockley’s homestead, my mother’s brother. I remember going along with my dad when they took teams of wagons to an old, abandoned house about ten miles to the north. One day, they jacked up that house, ran the wagons under it, and with about four wagons and as many teams of horses, pulled that house down to the Shockley claim.
October 09, 2005
Coal Springs and Glad Valley
After the town of Brayton blew away in a windstorm sometime after 1921, Coal Springs also became the nearest post office for many of the families living around the Thunder Butte. According to John Crowley, “The Coal Springs store, which was our post office address for all of the time I lived around Thunder Butte, was built and operated by Sherill Cazar. They had two children that I have lost track of.” The Northwestern Gazetteer and Business Directory for 1916 lists the grocery’s proprietor as “A. W. Cazar,” so the Cazars must have been running the Coal Springs store for several years before John Crowley was born.
The Glad Valley store, about seven miles northeast of Thunder Butte, “… was operated by the Elfrink family the last I recall,” says John Crowley. “This was the store where my parents did most of their casual grocery shopping, and took their cream and eggs to sell. They went to church on the hill above the store on Sunday, and chances are that they danced at the open air pavilion on Saturday nights. The pavilion was just a dance floor constructed out in the open air near the store.”
Glad Valley, in an earlier incarnation, was known as Pickerville, when it was established about 1910 by William Picker. The then proprietor of the grocery store moved the establishment to his own claim in 1914, and Glad Valley became the name of the settlement. The Elfrink General Store operated in Glad Valley until 1956, when it was purchased by the Wittes, who ran it until about 1982.
The Chance Store and the Randals
My parents came to California [about 1940] with the Randals in the Randals’ car, but the Randals went on to Burbank where Herschel worked in an aircraft plant. Jack had me out to their home near San Diego later. That was the last I ever saw of the Randals. I heard later that Jack became manager of an aircraft parts factory, but that he later died of cancer soon after the war.
Chance is still there, incidentally.
Editors Note: Chance is about seventeen miles north of Usta and about twenty miles northwest of Thunder Butte.
October 08, 2005
Usta and the Mulloys
The Mulloys did a great business during these celebrations. Don and Laura Mulloy built and operated the grocery store at Usta. I don’t know who named Usta. I suppose Don Mulloy did. They had a flock of kids, all little girls. I used to think they were the skinniest kids with the dirtiest faces in South Dakota. And, Mulloy wasn’t even their real name. You see, Don and Laura came from Wisconsin, and Don fessed up to the locals years later that he thought he had killed a guy in Wisconsin. Seems that Don hit the guy and he looked like he was dead, so the McNamara (their real name) family lit out for the wilderness—South Dakota—and changed their name to Mulloy.
The Mulloys were a class act. Don used to buy his groceries mostly from the grocery in Faith, tag on a few cents, and resell them at Usta. It is a known fact that he sometimes passed up his profit entirely for some of the poor folks in the area. Come to think of it, I don’t remember any other kind of people. Everybody was poor then.
One of my outstanding memories of Usta was the pet coyote that belonged to the little girls. The closest I ever came to playing with the kids—Nona, Patricia, Shirley and Mary Lou—was when they would show me how the coyote would do tricks. Sure enough, that darn Coyote would do almost anything for those kids. Somebody brought it to them as a little pup. When people were around, they kept it chained to a log. But, as soon as the store closed, off came the chain, and the coyote ran and played with the kids. They used to try to get me to play with them. We would all run down to the river where they played in the mud. I was disdainful of that kind of behavior so our play sessions didn’t last very long.
When World War II came along, the Mulloys—the McNamaras then—closed up Usta and moved to the Los Angeles area where Don found work. He stepped off a train one day and was hit by another train and killed. We all resumed our friendship when I discovered that we were all living in Alameda, California, twenty some years later.
Incidentally, Usta was the white pronunciation of “huste” (sounding something like “Who-Sh-Teh”) in Sioux, meaning "lame". Ed Lemmon, who founded the town of Lemmon, was called "huste" because he had a crooked leg from when a horse fell on him.
October 07, 2005
One of my best memories was that of the teacher, a young man, nice looking, clean and neat, with very thick glasses. This teacher was a real strange duck, though. He was about thirty and very gullible. I used to play around the outside of the schoolhouse when classes were in session. My brothers—not being the world’s greatest students—while looking out the windows, would signal me to come to a rear window. When I came up to the window, they would pull me inside, install me in a vacant desk at the rear of the room, and give me paper and a pencil to draw with. After days or weeks at this pastime, the teacher would ask the class, "Now who is the child in the back?” The kids would then start up a clamor about something totally unrelated and the teacher would forget all about me.
My brothers Joe and Neal were the natural leaders of the students. One trick they played on the teacher, I thought to be pretty amusing. At recess time, they would start up a clamor and pretend to be chasing some animal. The other kids would all join in and, although everyone was wise to the game, the teacher never caught on to what was happening. Someone would yell, "There he goes!" and start running in a certain direction, yelling, and waving arms. Someone else would say, "Here he is—git him!" and the chase would erupt in another direction. Well, teacher got in on the chase and the poor man, being half blind, would think that he saw the rabbit and run off with all the kids. Soon they had him running over the hill and out of sight of the schoolhouse. By then, most of the kids would tire of the game and either go home or return to their studies.
Although my sister Cecilia never got far in the academic world, I always felt thankful to her for getting me started. Night after night, Cece would drill me on the ABC`s and finally had me reading at a primitive level. Since I was attending school regularly then, via the window, the teacher supplied me with a first grade reader and even had me up in front of the class, reading.
This poor guy, the teacher, had a lot worse problems than his bad eyes. One day he sent all of the kids home to get kerosene. Since everyone used kerosene for their lamps then, it posed no special problem. The kids filed back to school with buckets and cans of kerosene. The teacher, in those days, lived right in the schoolhouse. He usually had a cot behind the stove and that was his home. Part of his equipment was a big washtub. When the students came back with the kerosene, this teacher poured the kerosene into the washtub, disrobed and proceeded to bathe himself. The kids all ran home in a panic and told their parents. The father’s got together, tied up the teacher, and delivered him to the sheriff. The poor guy was later committed to an asylum for the insane.
October 06, 2005
A Gentle Old Cow
One night, when they were finished milking one old cow, she went off to a corner of the pen and lay down. I walked around her, and petted her. She paid no attention to me. So, I sat down next to her belly, inside her crossed legs. It was so warm and cozy there that, soon, I slid down and fell into a sound sleep.
From then on, every night when my parents started milking, I would find a gentle old cow, curl up between her legs and her belly, and sleep soundly. Since they didn’t have to listen to my whining, I guess my parents were all for it.
October 05, 2005
Gunslingers, Desperados, and Other Sorry Strangers
The two dismounted in our front yard, ground hitched their tired horses, came into the house without knocking, and told my mother to fix them some grub. She told them she didn’t have a thing in the house that she could fix in a hurry. The uglier of the two then told her to go kill a chicken. He then picked up a stick and ordered me to go get chips and firewood, shaking the stick at me to emphasize what would happen if I didn’t. My mother was visibly shaken and I was scared to death, but we did as the guy ordered. She soon had a chicken frying, fried up some potatoes, and had the two desperados fed. They ate the food without another word. When they had finished, they burped, wiped their faces on their dirty sleeves, mounted their horses, and rode off into the sunset. No one [in the area] ever heard of them before or after that incident.
Not long after that unwelcome visit, my parents and my brothers were all home when a nice young cowboy stopped for supper. He had just come from the river (the Moreau), where he had picked up a horse that had strayed from where he worked up on the Grand River. He was pleasant company, clean cut, and about twenty years of age. My folks urged him to stay the night because he would have to ride the entire night to get home, and maybe not make it then. But, he was determined. He said he owed it to his boss to get back with the horse and get his work done. He saddled up, thanked my parents for the nice dinner, and started out. By this time it had gotten dark.
A half hour or so after he had left, we heard horses out in front. We went to look and it was the two horses the young cowboy had just left with. Fearing that he had been thrown somewhere and hurt, my father and brothers started searching for him. There was a box canyon behind our house with a trail skirting it on the left. Well, the cowboy had gone on the right of the canyon and tried to climb a cut bank. The horse he was leading had pulled back or reared. Tied to the saddle horn, this pulled the cowboy’s saddle horse over backward on top of him, crushing him to death.
October 03, 2005
More Strange Occurrences
One time, we had just come home from town. It was just getting dark. We, my mother and I, entered the house where she found the box of matches. She reached toward the lamp, a kerosene lamp, on a high shelf, and before she touched the lamp, the globe (chimney) exploded into many pieces. Both of her arms were cut severely by the flying glass. I was right beside my mother and not a piece of the glass touched me.
Another time, I was right by my mother’s side when she walked past a large mirror, which hung in the living room. This was a heavy plate glass mirror. It shattered into what seemed like thousands of pieces and very seriously cut my mother’s arms and face. Again, not a piece of the glass touched me.
My mother was always afraid at night when we lived on that place. It was a fearful place in the darkness. The forest of trees along the creek and the canyons caused the darkness to be more intense. You could never see at night.
In the summer, our front door was always open for ventilation and the screen door was secured by a hook on the inside of the door. When someone wanted to come in from the outside, they would hit the screen door with the palm of their hand and the hook would fly up and out, allowing the screen door to open.
One night, my mother and I were alone, and my father and brothers were out on the range or working cattle. We had just gone to bed, the lights were out, and it was pitch black in and out of the house. Suddenly, we heard a loud slap on the screen door. We flew out of bed, my mother finding matches and lighting the oil lamp. We went into the front room to find the screen door swinging wide open. My mother secured the door again and tied the hook with a string and we went back to bed where we slept very little for the rest of that night. No one ever knew who or what slapped our door open that night.
October 02, 2005
Strange Happenings At Thunder Butte Creek
Some of my first memories of Thunder Butte Creek were when the creek was in flood stage. At that time, it was probably a half mile wide in places. This was an all year creek. Usually, even in the heat of summer, it ran all year. But, in flood stage this creek was a spectacle. Our ranch house was less than 50 feet from the high water bank of the creek. As a small boy, probably no more than three years of age, I was fascinated by the swirling, roaring, muddy stream, lapping at the banks and within one or two feet of the top of the bank. I used to crawl on hands and knees to the bank, fascinated by the flooding water. Sometimes, I felt a force dragging me toward the water. I could only resist the magnetic pull of the water by using every bit of will power to drag myself back, away from the edge. Fear gripped me then, and when free of the pull of the stream, I would run terrified to the house. I didn’t tell anyone. I was always afraid they would make fun of me, or laugh at me. So, I kept quiet.
The creek was always a mystery, even in the dead of winter when the ice was frozen to a depth of from two to four feet thick. I used to lie awake at night listening to the night sounds coming from the thick woods and the creek. The most unusual of these sounds was a terrible groaning and moaning like tormented souls, in my mind at least. These sounds, coupled with the screaming of wild animals—bobcats, cougars, and various others—were enough to cause a small boy to lose sleep on many nights. The moaning sounds came from pressure on the ice in the stream. Sometimes the ice broke with a sound not unlike a cannon shot. Later in the spring, when the thaws started and the stream started to swell with water, the ice stacked up into huge ice jams, which actually blocked the water flow and caused the creek to swell out of its banks. These ice jams caused a variety of crashing, grinding, explosive sounds.
After a month or so, when the ice had all melted, the creek would continue to swell. The stream could only be crossed by the most daring. My brothers, Joe and Neal used to swim their horses entirely across the stream from one bank to the other. They would have to slip off the back of the horse and hang on to his tail to keep the horses’ head above water.
Another happening on the creek was the cutting of ice. My father and brothers would use a large cross-cut saw and cut up huge chunks of ice, which they would haul to a cave dug out of the side of a hill. The ice chunks would be stored in this cave, and would be used for keeping foods chilled all summer.
As the floods receded and spring turned to summer, I would explore more and more of the creek and woods. One day I was playing near the lower crossing, back of the house, when a huge monster emerged from the creek crossing and started up the trail toward me. I had never seen anything like it before and was very curious. But, when it started chasing after me, I turned and ran like a rabbit.
When I reached the house, I called to my mother that I was being chased by a giant bobcat. That was the only thing I could think of at the time. My mother got a .22 rifle out and asked me to show her the bobcat. So, we started down the trail toward the creek where we discovered the animal, which also started to chase my mother. It was a giant snapping turtle, eighteen to twenty inches across the back. My mother shot him in the head many times before he would stop. I have seen many, many snapping turtles in my lifetime, but I have never seen one that large. I have never seen or heard of one chasing people.
The turtle was hopping mad. My mother finally got an axe and chopped his head off. Even then, he kept crawling. The end result was a fine turtle soup. My mother gave me the heart and I kept it in a jar of water, where it continued to beat for four or five days. I don’t suppose that was paranormal. Or, was it?
There is no doubt that I would have been seriously hurt if that turtle had caught me.