Spooky sycamores known as ‘Ghosts of the forests’
In my childhood memories of trips from Canton, Ohio to Webster Springs, West Virginia, I remember many things. I recall clutched hands at my stomach from the occasional motion sickness and a great desire to sleep away the trip if at all possible. This was back before seatbelt laws when kids could assume any position in a fast moving car and be permitted to do so! My ears would begin popping as soon as we started climbing the mountain roads through Braxton County on a ribbon of highway then crossing into Webster County and the descent off Miller Mountain and into the small town of Webster Springs. I also remember the drabness of the winter colors and the starkness of the mountains dressed in white shades of snow and ice. The trees always seemed to welcome me in a familiar way, and the mountains beckoned to me like a warm hug from my Grandma Brake.
One odd thing about this barren winter landscape always struck me as a bit creepy. Some of the trees I would see from the car appeared as if they were ghost-like with mottled bark and gnarly limbs looking as if they belonged on the Wizard of Oz set – right before the flying monkeys swooped down. I soon learned that these stark looking trees were the great American Sycamores.
Platanus Occidentalis is the scientific name for the variety we are all familiar with. These mammoth trees can sometimes reach heights of over one hundred feet tall and the trunks are often hollow in the giant specimens. The most well-known Sycamore trees in West Virginia history would be the Big Sycamore Tree on the Back Fork of Elk River in Webster County (which toppled in 2010) and the Pringle Tree near Buckhannon in Upshur County which housed the Pringle brothers for several years from 1761-1764.
What makes these trees stand out from other trees at this time of year? The bark of the tree flakes off in irregular masses leaving the surface speckled in white, gray and greenish brown colors causing an almost camouflage look to appear. As the tree grows, the bark splits and becomes almost ghostly in its color. No wonder there would be so many legends about this spooky looking species.
The Native American Indians called these trees the Ghosts of the Forest. Probably the most notable Sycamore Indian lore stems from along the Little Kanawha River valley near Freeport. The Wyandotte’s spoke of twin Sycamore trees that stood along the old Indian trail near the Hughes River. As legends states, the great chief of the Evil Spirits became angry at two of his followers and cast them out along the water. These two evil spirits that had been cast across the water ended up colliding against two stately sycamore trees. All at once, the evilness spread into the trees causing them to become deformed with the limbs becoming grotesque. The Indians always believed these two trees were inhabited by the evil spirits and would be very careful when passing by. When settlers arrived and heard these tales, they would often laugh. That is until one of the settlers was found dead under one of the trees with the horrified look of having been scared to death frozen upon his face. Occasionally a defiant settler would scoff at the “haunted” trees and brag that he would cut them down for firewood. Usually after these threats were madeill misfortune would occur to the unlucky boaster. One of the last known attempts to cut the evil trees down was made in 1840. This gentleman grabbed an axe to hack into one of the vexed trees and missed. The axe glanced off the tree trunk and ended up lodged inside his leg. An artery was struck causing blood to spew at the base of the trunk where he promptly bled to death.
Legends such as these are embedded in West Virginia’s frontier history. As you travel along the highways and back roads, look out your window and see if you can spot the spooky limbs of the Sycamore. They do look unusual!
Sherri Brake is a paranormal researcher, author and Haunted Heartland Tour owner. You may email her at SherriBrake@gmail.com or visit her website at www.HauntedHistory.net