December 13, 2013

The Gillis House ~ Tales and Remembrances, Part 4

The Gillis House, 1923-1933

The following transcript is from the recollections of Flora Kathryn Crawford Eschenburg who lived with her family in the Gillis House from 1923 to 1933.  Flora was born in 1912 and passed from this life in 2004. She was the ninth of twelve children born to the marriage of Samuel Cooke Crawford and Rachel Victoria Seal.  It is believed by family members that the scene in the above photograph was probably on a Saturday afternoon with the help waiting to be paid before going into town.
Our home was the ideal setting for Halloween parties and we made the most of it.  We would have someone dressed in sheets in the huge front yard greeting the guests as they arrived.  Upon entering the house, they were required to go up the stairway where one of us dressed as a witch would tell fortunes.
The guests were then directed down the hall and through the attic where they were greeted in the dark by someone who shook their hands while holding a cold, wet glove.  They progressed through the attic, crawling over sacks of cans and other noise makers, and exited down the back stairs.  The usual Halloween games would begin, with a favorite being bobbing for apples.
Until the time Huey P. Long became Governor, most rivers had to be crossed by ferries which ran from 6:00 a.m. until 12:00 midnight.  To get to Harrisonburg, our parish seat, we had to cross the Ouachita River ferry.  During the spring months it was not unusual for the rivers to rise and leave their banks.  
During one of these high-water times, my sister and I entertained some boys from Harrisonburg with stories of the Gillis House.  One story was about our guest room upstairs.  In that room, it seemed to be impossible to keep the covers on the bed.  Throughout the night, the occupant found it necessary to retrieve the covers that had slipped off.
Our guests were so enthralled by the stories that they failed to watch the time and it was midnight before they realized.  They had no choice but to spend the night in our guest room. They were awakened more than once during the night trying to find the covers.  They were wide-eyed when they came down the stairs the next morning and vowed that they would be more time conscious in the future.
My sister, Sophie, came home from college to teach at the local school.  She moved into the Gillis House and chose for privacy what had previously served as the guest room.  She battled the "ghosts" for the covers for two years, but took courage from the fact that our brother Dub's room was next door.
We looked forward to visits from Mr. Peck [William Smith Peck, II].  He and a friend, Dr. Gordon, had lived in the Gillis House during their bachelor years.  He told us about the room at the top of the stairs.
Anyone sleeping in that room might be awakened by a presence.  According to those who experienced it, the being appeared to be a headless woman who would walk to the mantle over the fireplace, turn, and walk quietly out of the room.  The occupant was left frozen with fear.
Mr. Peck also told us about a strange happening on the road to the Gillis House.  The road led along the banks of a lake.  The rider had to dismount and open a gate in order to continue down the road that led into the plantation.  As the rider led his horse through the gate and turned to fasten it, he would be approached by a man in disguise who seemed to look the rider over and disappear, never causing harm.
The year was 1933.  The date was December 3.  It was the year of the World's Fair in Chicago.  I was home for the weekend.  My sister Dot and I were sleeping in the front bedroom and were awakened by the calling of one of the field hands that worked for Papa.
He had been in a fight and was badly cut.  He was bleeding profusely.  Both Dot and I grumbled over the fact that we would have to clean up the porch the next morning.  To our surprise, that job was taken care of in another way.  The house caught fire within the heavily plastered walls and we were unable to reach the source.  The fire spread and the house burned to the ground ending the many good times we had there.
It was believed that a mouse may have started the fire by carrying a match into the walls.  But who knows.  Maybe the ghosts just finally got tired of trying to run us out and decided to burn us out.
The day the Gillis House burned still remains one of the saddest days in the memory of the Crawford family.  We lost more than possessions.  We lost a cherished way of life.  
I always believed that loss helped bring on what I thought to be an early death of Papa.  He died of a heart attack shortly after his 65th birthday in 1935.  He died doing one of the things he loved the best--hunting.
The house was rebuilt on the same foundation, but life there was never the same.  I remained there for two years before leaving for Texas in 1936.  I left behind my youth and took with me memories never to be forgotten.

Special thanks to Joan McLemore, daughter of Dell Crawford Meadows, for allowing me to share their family history and memories of the Gillis House on Roots from the Bayou.

Note:  Parts 1-3 of the 'Gillis House' can be found in the Tags List on the right-hand side of this blog.

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