When we lived in North Texas, and before I started to school—I must have been five or six years old—there appeared in what was called “The Bottoms” – some land belonging to a man named Wilson (some people inelegantly called it “Wilson’s Bottom”) – a man well past middle age. He had curly, gray, bushy hair that reached almost to his shoulders, and his face was almost covered with a bushy gray beard.
This “bottom” land was along a creek, thickly wooded by tall trees and underbrush, with wild roses climbing over them.
No one knew who he was or where he came from. This Bottom land adjoined ours on the East—with only a patch of clover and a small field between. The first we knew of him being there was when we heard chopping of trees and hammering coming from the Bottoms. Mr. Wilson was a friend of Dad’s and when he was asked if he was clearing the Bottoms, was the first he knew of the strange man being there. He went to investigate. The man told him his name was Cole and he was going blind and wanted to build himself a little cabin.
Mr. Wilson told him he could go ahead and cut logs for the cabin and live there free of charge as long as he didn’t bother anyone.
So he built a one room log shack and he and an old brown hound dog lived there.
He called the dog “Mr. Brown.”
Soon, one evening, he came to call on us, bringing along his violin. He played beautifully—anything he was asked to play. It was plain that he was an accomplished musician. Even I, young as I was, realized he was a well educated man with “polished” manners. This made it even more strange for him to be living alone in the “Bottoms.” During the course of conversation, Dad asked him where he was from—he merely answered “many places” and changed the subject.
After this he often came to visit, always at night, bringing along his violin and “Mr. Brown.” I heard Dad tell Mother that the violin was a fine and expensive one. He asked Dad if he would “be so kind” as to get the supplies he needed when he (Dad) was going to town. So Dad took his lists of needs and got them for him. He always paid Dad in cash. He never had anything to do with any of the other neighbors. He never went anywhere or received any mail. When we asked him if he had any family, he just said “I’m alone,” and nothing more.
Most people called him “Old Man Cole” – but we were instructed to call him Mr. Cole by Dad and Mother.
He wore dark, almost black glasses. Since he always came to our house at night, he never carried a lantern and returned to his cabin around midnight. I was terribly concerned about him being bitten by copperhead snakes or cottonmouth water moccasin snakes—both almost as poisonous as rattlesnakes (there were no rattlesnakes in North Texas—winters are too cold there for them). We children were constantly warned about copperheads—he sat me on his knee and explained to me that day and night were all the same to him—both were dark—and that the reason that he always brought “Mr. Brown” with him on a leash was because “Mr. Brown” walked ahead of him and would warn him if there was any danger. I felt better about it after his explanation.
We always had several milk cows, so had plenty of milk and butter. Every day it was my chore to churn—we had a big crockery churn with a hole in the crockery lid through which the handle of the “dasher” fitted—the “dasher” was like a broomstick with a “cross” of wood paddles attached to the bottom of the stick or handle.
Of course, in those days we didn’t have electricity or ice delivery—we lived two miles from town—Trenton– so milk, butter, etc. were kept cold in a hand dug well about three feet from our back porch—which was really a side porch. We didn’t use the water from that well for house use. The ground was a sort of cream color clay and water in this well was always very cold. Food, milk, and butter were let down in the well with ropes and pulleys in airtight tin buckets that were really honey buckets for we had two big bee apiaries.
Old Man Cole was very fond of buttermilk (I’d lost my fondness for it after the sunburn experience), so late every afternoon Harry and I were sent down to Old Man Cole’s cabin with cold buttermilk, butter and eggs for his supper.
Part of the trail leading through the Bottoms was overgrows with “horseweeds” – these were 8 to 10 feet tall—and the juice in these strange weeds was blood red– I’ve never seen them anywhere else. They grew so thickly it would have been impossible to make ones way through them—there was just this narrow trail or path. We always ran through this part—it was really scary. Aunt Em declared it was “hainted” by the ghost of a woman that once lived in a little house that had long since burned down—on the edge of the Bottoms.
It seemed she was demented and had fell or jumped in the well there—all wells in that area were hand dug ones. Her name was Becky Jones. She hadn’t been found for some time, so when she was found, the well was just filled in with soil and she was left there.
In the Spring there were marsh daisies—white, pink and purple ones, purple, white and yellow violets—I’ve never seen yellow violets anywhere else—in the deep shade under the trees and pink wild roses blooming on the vines climbing over the trees and brush.
Harry complained mightily about how I delayed him because I was always stopping to pick flowers. Sometimes I gave them to Old Man Cole, he always thanked me and seemed to enjoy them. He would put them in a coffee cup on his crude home made table.
One afternoon it looked so stormy Mother sent Harry and I to take the milk, etc. to Old Man Cole early—when we walked up to the open door and knocked, Old Man Cole was almost waist deep in a hole in the floor– it was an earth floor.
He suddenly stood up—and he wasn’t’ wearing the dark glasses—his eyes looked white—he had been digging and bending over so his bushy hair was standing almost straight up and he didn’t have a shirt on—he really looked like a ghost.
He didn’t say a word—I don’t think he could see well enough to see us or know who we were—he looked wild and scared. We didn’t say anything—we were too shocked—and scared, too, just sat the milk pail down and ran.
We told Dad and Mother about it and Dad said it was strange he would be digging in the floor, but he had a right to if he so wanted.
Old Man Cole never mentioned it, and we didn’t either.
It was a few months later—along in the Fall, we were awakened one night by the weird, mournful howling and wailing of the hound, “Mr. Brown.”
School had started and Ralph, Harry and I had to walk the two miles to town to school, and it was too late when we got home to take the milk to Mr. Cole before dark, so he usually came after it at night. He hadn’t come to the house for several nights, tho.
Dad got up and dressed and told Mother something must have happened to Old Man Cole, as that was a “death howl” of the dog. He took a lighted lantern and went to see about him. We all stayed awake until he came back.
He found Old Man Cole dead. So he called our doctor—Dr. Thompson (related to Bettie Thompson Falls). Since the doctor had to come by horse and buggy the two miles out from town, it was nearly daylight before he got to our house. Then he and Dad walked on to the cabin in the Bottoms—there was no road in that part of the Bottoms.
Dr. Thompson said Old Man Cole had died of pneumonia.
Dad got some of the neighbor men to go with him to the cabin to search for names of Old Man Cole’s family so they could be notified—but none were found. Also no money was found, though the dirt floor was soft where it had been dug up, they dug down to hard earth but found nothing. They figured he—Old Man Cole – had hidden his money under the dirt floor, but knowing we had seen him in that hole, had removed his money—he always seemed to have plenty of cash—and hidden it somewhere else in the Bottoms. So far as I know it never was found.
So Dad paid his burial expenses, casket, etc. and had him buried in the Burns Cemetery.
People started remembering odd happenings just before Old Man Cole appeared in the Bottoms, and putting two and two together to make four.
There was much whispering that we children were not supposed to hear. It so happened that a short time before Old Man Cole appeared, a mail carrier had been killed and the mail robbed of a large amount of money—cash.
There had been a fight at a country dance between this mail carrier and a grandson of an old lady that lived about ten miles from us—he was one of twin boys. Their parents had died of typhoid fever when they were three years old, and the grandmother had raised them. This mail carrier and the grandson had a fight over who was to take a girl home after the dance. The girl had been going with the grandson, and had come to tho dance with him but had “fallen” for the mail carrier and he was going to take her home. The grandson had threatened to kill the mail carrier, and a number of people had heard the threat. The grandson was accused of the murder, tried and convicted on circumstantial evidence and hung at Bonhana County seat of Fannin County—Trenton being in Fannin County.
Many people believed Old Man Cole had been the one that robbed the mails, but it was only guesswork. None could prove it—or disprove it.
And there were many that didn’t believe the grandson had killed the main carrier. And there was lots of hard feelings against the jury that convicted him, especially the foreman of the jury, he was a neighbor of the grandmother.
Her house was down in sort of a valley and the foreman’s house was a couple miles away on a hill or “rise” as it was called. A few months after all this took place there was a tornado at night.
The funnel traveled along, rose up in the air over the little valley, touched down on the hill, destroying the house of the jury foreman, killing him, his wife and three children. People said it was an act of God in retribution for convicting the grandson of a crime he didn’t commit. Of course, what happened was the nature of tornados. It’s normal for them to pass above valleys and dip down on higher ground. God didn’t have anything to do with it even if Aunt Em firmly believed in it. She said “I knowed it! I knowed it! He done got his punishment! Chickens sho’ do come home to roost sooner or later!”
The grandmother’s house wasn’t damaged at all.
Dutch wrote recently that Ralph had been checking the National Census records of the time Old Man Cole lived in the Bottoms but the closest record would have been 1910 and there was no one that was listed in that area that could have been him.
Anyway, no census taker would have gone into the Bottoms, even if he knew someone lived there. But Ralph thought Dad or Mother might have listed him. I don’t think Old Man Cole was there in 1910.
I imagine Old Man Cole’s blindness was due to cataracts on his eyes—his eyes looked so white, they probably were grown completely over his eyes. Back then operations were not performed to remove them as is now done.
And Cole probably was not his real name.