September 15, 2012

The Witch of Brockwayville


In 1822, Alonzo Brockway stood at the head of Pennsylvania’s Little Toby Valley and looked down. He had heard rumors of the place from the old mountain men. The Iroquois, they said, had avoided the valley for centuries. The Indians feared something that stalked the dark shadows and whispered across the waters; something, it was said, that had lingered too long in this world.

Alonzo was not afraid of stories and shadows, however; he was afraid of failing, of starving, of dying in the forsaken wilderness he now called home.


In 1884, the Ridgeway and Clearfield Railway was opened in Brockwayville, Pennsylvania. The R&C Railroad connected the tiny hamlet to the sprawling Pennsylvania Railroad, and thus to the world.

On June 21, 1885, a young woman disembarked from the afternoon train at the Brockwayville depot. She was unaccompanied. When she took a room at the nearby Kirkpatrick Hotel, she gave her name as Mary Brown.

In July of the same year, nine children were born to the families of Brockwayville. All nine survived and thrived.

Mary Brown soon took up residence in an abandoned property known locally as Allen’s Farm. She had produced papers to the local magistrate, Judge Shaffer, proving her claim to the land. She was a distant Allen relative. As September exhausted summer’s heat, Mary Brown planted a garden.

In 1886, Reynolds L. Buzard began felling the valley’s timber. He built a handsome mill along the banks of the Little Toby River. The timber was sent far to the south, to Pittsburgh, but some remained in Brockwayville. In the years to come, it would build grand homes for Buzard and his partners. 

Mary’s garden grew. The frost came and soon the snow. Poking through the white drifts, peas and turnips, onions and cabbage, along with clary sage, monkshood, foxglove, and yarrow. 

In 1887 a cube of coal weighing over a ton was brought out of the earth just west of Brockwayville. It was subsequently displayed at the Philadelphia Exposition and later housed at the Smithsonian. 

Mary Brown’s garden was laid out in a circular fashion. A lunar plot. Strips of planting beds radiated from a central pivot wherein a single vigorous rose bush bloomed in brilliant yellow.

In Brockwayville, an iron girder bridge was laid across the Little Toby Creek. The streets were paved and lighted, a new school was started, a fire brigade was formed, the telephone came.

In 1896 Norman Lane, a neighbor to Mary Brown, decided that the uncultivated land on Mary’s property would best serve the community if his dairy cows were allowed to graze there. He got Judge Shaffer to tacitly agree or at least to look the other way. After he released his cows onto Mary’s property, Lane found a single yellow rose on his doorstep. Two weeks later, half the herd was lost to sickness.

 In 1897 glass was first made in Brockwayville. For the next hundred years, glass would be made and the borough’s fortunes would be governed by its fragile economy.

In 1898 a notorious drunkard named Axel Johnson assaulted a young girl behind the hardware store along Main Street in Brockwayville. Johnson’s well-connected family coerced the woman into leaving town. Two weeks later, Axel’s mother Mrs. Johnson found a yellow rose on her doorstep. She placed it in a vase with flowers she had cut from her garden and promptly forgot it.

That same year, a coal mine was opened in Crenshaw, a short ride east of Brockwayville. The first miners underground reported being overcome by a strange sensation. One described the mine as animate, a living thing whose thoughts the miners could somehow feel. The sensation passed after a few weeks and the mine's operation was brought to full capacity. 

Later that year, Mrs. Johnson noticed the still-living yellow rose in a vase of dead flowers. She moved it to a glass vase next to the window in the kitchen.

Mary Brown was sometimes seen in town at the market or the hardware store. She bought little, but was always eager for news of the town and its people. Many townspeople would not talk to her. Her neighbors among the hill farms knew better. Some were happy to find a basket of beans or radishes out of season and unannounced on their doorstep, but others hung an iron horseshoe on their lintel.

In the summer of 1904, Mrs. Johnson relocated the glass vase with the yellow rose from the kitchen to the parlor. She forgot to refill the water for two weeks and, in the heat of August, the water dried up and the rose died. On September 5, 1904, Mrs. Johnson found her son Axel dead in his room.

In 1906 the Brockwayville Machine Bottle Company pressed its first bottle. It would go on to employ hundreds of local residents and become a Fortune 500 company.

Mary Brown said she was a widow but never spoke of her life before she came to Brockwayville. From time to time, men came to court Mary Brown. They were poor farmers or sons of poor farmers, and they came with more desire for her land than her affections. She amiably dispelled their illusions and sent them back down the sage-choked path.

In 1908 the Brockwayville Macaroni Company took over the old Kirkpatrick Hotel and turned it into a factory. They employed dozens of newly-arrived Italian immigrants, mostly women.

In 1909 Mary Brown took an orphan girl into her home. The girl’s name was Anne Hendrick. When the girl’s great-aunt Clara began bemoaning the child’s state around town, Judge Shaffer saw an opportunity. He intimated arresting Mary for kidnapping, corrupting public morals, indentured servitude.

In 1909, the north side of Brockwayville’s Main Street was the site of an unusual spectacle. For two weeks in October a murder of crows perched upon the uppermost cornices from dawn until dusk. They cawed and angled their heads to peer at passers-by as passers-by peered back. The day that no crows appeared with the morning was the day that the entire block was destroyed by an accidental fire. 

Judge Shaffer failed to bring any charges against Mary. Anne Hendrick became Anne Brown. Mary and Anne could be seen along the backroads day or night, travelling between farms, delivering their garden’s bounty or tending to the sick and needy. Mary was widely known for her skill in healing the problems of people, animals, and crops.

In 1912 the Brockwayville Macaroni Company’s factory in the old Kirkpatrick Hotel burned to the ground. Two workers, Maria Pizzoni and Antonia Scarnati, died in the fire.

The autumn of 1912 saw a veritable plague sweep Brockwayville as the managers and owners of the Brockwayville Macaroni Company were felled by a mysterious ailment. Residents shut their doors for most of the winter. Some reported seeing strange shadows on their windows and eerie whisperings across the creek water. Dead leaves and yellow rose petals billowed silently down the empty streets.

In the spring of 1913, old Judge Shaffer and his sons went to Mary Brown’s farm. They had no warrant, they had brought no charges. What they brought with them was a lifetime of suspicion and mistrust. No witness has recorded what happened, but the Shaffers left the farmhouse and its occupants untouched. It was remarked upon by many Brockwayville residents that for the rest of his life, old Judge Shaffer kept a vase with a yellow rose on his bedside table. Some thought it marked the memory of a dalliance with Mary Brown or some sort of pact kept between them. Others wondered if it marked something like a debt or a transaction. Others simply said that something taken could never be given away.

In the decades to come, Mary Brown’s garden thrived. Brockwayville grew and prospered and her children were happy. In those days, yellow roses were sometimes spied in dimly-lit rooms, in front parlors, in locked closets, roses that never faded so long as their keepers minded their care, so long as they remembered the kind of effort it takes for something to bloom in the forsaken wilderness.

17 comments:

  1. Cool Tale... I know of other tales from that era.... a century earlier , she may have been charged with "witchcraft"... The Ipswitch trails were the last "Witch trial" ...I do believe.... Great to have you back... Ireally enjoy your posts Good Sir... and look forward to more... Keep up the Great posts here at "Scary True"...

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  2. Thanks again, Dr. Theda. Witches are always fun, seeing as they sweep up history and magic and scares all in a big pile. I hope we get a Halloween story or stories up sometime this month.

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  12. Aunt Sarah HalfpennyAugust 31, 2013 at 7:16 PM

    Gripping story! I can't wait to read more!

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    1. I'm glad you got gripped. Thanks for reading.

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  13. Just a reminder for everyone, not every witch is dark or evil. Witches are people too.

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