The Girl in the Blue Calico Dress

Something a little different for this week’s History Corner:

It’s that time of year again. Autumn is here and with Halloween approaching, memories of old ghost stories are sparked by the winds that whistle gently through the falling leaves during the chilling evening hours of early October.

There are more than a few of these old tales floating around Easton & Redding. Some are based on actual facts, while others are likely pure figments of the imagination. The Girl in the Blue Calico Dress story I created was ably read last October by Leif Smith at the Lonetown Barn during the Redding Historical Society’s Halloween event. While the locations are real, the story is a mixture of old tales, rumors, and at least a little bit of fact. Since almost everything we’ll be presenting this season will be virtual and digital, we thought we’d start off the Halloween season by sharing that story here. We have a few more hauntingly good Easton legends that we’ll be sharing with you over the next month or so.

The Girl in the Blue Calico Dress

Gracie Hawley had recently completed her studies at the Danbury Normal School when the letter arrived informing her that the Town of Redding had accepted her as the new teacher at the Foundry District school in the Aspetuck Valley. At twenty years of age she was both excited and apprehensive about the prospect of leaving her parents’ home in Easton to begin a new life on her own. It was early July of 1909 when she met with Jonathon Sanford at the town office on the Redding Green.

“Have you found a place to live?” the head of the school committee asked.

“Not yet. I was hoping you could offer a suggestion. I have a dog and a horse, so I’ll need a place with a barn or a lean-to to keep Whiskey out of the weather come winter, and I wouldn’t even think about leaving my dog behind. My father says that I needn’t expect to find someone anxious to rent me a room under those conditions. I was hoping to find a cottage or perhaps a small house near the school.”

Sanford rubbed his chin while he thought. He turned to the town clerk across the room, “Avery, you know anyone in the hollow with a place to let? One with a barn?”

“Mister Driggs has that old cabin. It’s been empty since…well, you know. I’m sure he’d be happy to have someone living in the old place and it’s only a ten-minute walk to the schoolhouse.”

Sanford wasn’t so certain that the young woman before him would be interested in that old cabin. After all, it hadn’t been lived in for nearly eight years. And then there was the story that went with it. Even Mrs. Driggs had refused to set foot inside once she heard the history of the place after they had bought the property in ’05.

“Does it have a barn?” Gracie asked.

“A small one,” replied Sanford. “But the cabin is old and built from logs. It’s dark and gloomy. The old stone fireplace would be your only source of heat,” he continued, not wanting to mention the real reason he thought the cabin to be the wrong choice.

“If it’s only a ten-minute walk to the school and it has a barn…and if I can afford it, I’d like to see it,” said Gracie.

**********

Mister Driggs had been more than happy to rent his lonely cabin to Redding’s newest schoolteacher. He gladly tailored the rent to fit Gracie’s needs. He even had his caretaker spend an entire week sprucing the place up and putting up enough firewood to take the young woman half-way through the first winter. There was no mention of the cabin’s past life. Gracie hadn’t asked, and Driggs hadn’t offered. She’d hear stories at some point, but they were only stories and the past occupants were mostly just a memory in most folks’ minds at that point.

Gracie’s best friend was a bulldog named Napoleon. The cabin she was renting from Mister Driggs wasn’t a particularly inviting place and it was certainly off the beaten path. The Driggs resided in a larger log structure just to the east, and there was only a single large lodge-styled home on the old dirt road between Gracie’s cabin and the schoolhouse. But both the Driggs’ place and the other house were only occupied during the summer months. Gracie would be the only resident on that end of the road for several months at a time, and the main reason she agreed to take the place was Napoleon. His fearless demeanor made her feel perfectly safe wherever they were.

It was early August when Gracie Hawley opened the door to the old Foundry District schoolhouse. The building had been closed since early June when the final classes had been held. The Foundry District had once been a thriving community. There had been three working button factories, a carriage maker’s shop, a blacksmith shop, a grist mill, a sawmill, and a very prosperous iron foundry where steel plow blades had been manufactured. But one-by-one, most of those businesses had closed. By the summer of 1909 only the old sawmill at the foot of Meeker Hill was still in operation. Emory Sanford lived on his father’s old homestead and was using one of the old button shops as a slaughterhouse for his meat business, but most of the other commercial structures were either sitting sadly abandoned or had already been demolished. The school where Gracie would be teaching had seen its enrollment drop from nearly thirty to a projected nine for the upcoming academic year.

It was about 10:00 AM when Gracie turned around after washing down the chalk-board behind her desk. She was startled by the shadowy image of a young girl standing in the open doorway, the sunlight silhouetting her from behind. Napoleon was laying near the woodstove, but he never so much as raised his head nor let out a growl to announce to his mistress that they had a visitor.

Gracie gasped, “Why, hello. You startled me. Napoleon usually announces any visitors. He must be tired from chasing squirrels this morning. My name is Gracie Hawley and I’m the new teacher. What’s your name?”

There was no answer.

Gracie walked towards the door. The girl’s face was still obscured by the shadows.

“Are you a student here?” asked Gracie as she moved closer.

There was still no answer, but the girl did appear to nod her head in the affirmative.

“You needn’t be so shy. And you needn’t worry about Napoleon. He obviously doesn’t see you as a threat.”

The girl backed up just a bit as Gracie approached. She was now outside, and her image bathed in sunlight. Her face was pale and gaunt, her eyes seemed sunken and surrounded with dark circles, her hair matted and unwashed. Her faded blue calico dress appeared frayed and her feet were bare and covered with a layer of dirt. Her frame was emaciated in appearance. Gracie wondered how long it had been since she had eaten a good meal.

“Are you okay?” was all Gracie could muster as her eyes scanned the frail child.

Again, there was a simple nod from the girl.

“You look hungry,” offered Gracie as she turned to retrieve part of the meal she had packed for herself.

When she reached her basket, she turned to ask the girl another question, but she was nowhere to be seen. Gracie ran to the door and scanned the school yard and the road in front in both directions, but the girl was gone.

**********

The mysterious girl was a fading memory in Gracie’s mind by the time school started. She’d half expected to see her that first day of school but when the girl never appeared, Gracie somehow wondered if she even existed.

It was late in September when an early autumn thunderstorm rolled through the valley as Gracie and Napoleon walked the lonely dirt road back to the cabin one afternoon. The lightning grew in intensity and the thunder rang louder as the storm approached. They had barely made it onto the front porch when the rains came roaring down. Just as Gracie opened the door, a bolt of lightning struck a large hemlock tree just to the east of the cabin, splintering the wood as the simultaneous ear-piercing clap of thunder echoed through the valley.

As she closed the door behind her, she was startled by the small voice, whispering softly to her left.

“Don’t be scared. He’s gone and he can’t hurt us.”

Gracie screamed as she turned. It was the girl who had been at the schoolhouse many weeks ago. She was sitting quietly in a corner chair holding one finger over her lips as if she was cautioning Gracie to lower her voice.

“Oh, my Lord! You gave me such a fright!”

Napoleon was just as stoic as he had been at their first encounter. He looked up at his mistress as though she was the only other living creature in the room.

The girl sat motionless in the shadows at the corner of the room. The light was dim except for the occasional burst of lightning as the waning storm moved quickly into the distance, but Gracie was positive the girl was wearing the same faded calico dress as before.

“Please tell me your name?” implored Gracie as she started to move towards the girl.

There was only silence until a final bolt of lightning struck nearby, startling both Gracie and Napoleon as they both quickly spun to catch a glimpse of the white light through the window. When Gracie turned towards the girl once more, she was gone.

**********

There was a knock on the door early the next morning. Napoleon barked as Gracie opened it and greeted Mister Driggs.

“That was quite the storm yesterday,” he greeted her. “I saw the splintered hemlock out here and wanted to be sure you were alright.”

“We’re okay. Just a little shaken by the intensity of it all,” she replied. “Do you know the name of the little girl who lives near here? She appears to be eleven or twelve years old and looks sickly and ill-kept.”

Driggs’ face lost a good deal of its color. There were no children at that end of the valley, but he had heard of that girl more than once before.

“You’ve seen her?” he asked. “Spoken to her as well?”

“I’ve seen her twice. Once at the school before classes started and once yesterday during the storm. She was already inside when we got home. I figured maybe she wanted to get out of the rain.”

“She say anything to you?” asked Driggs as if he already knew the answer to his question.

“She told me not to be scared, that he was gone and can’t hurt us,” Gracie told him as the final hues of the color of life drained from his face.

“You need to talk to Mister Darcy. He runs the sawmill down by the old millpond. He can tell you more than I can. Everything I’ve heard is mostly made-up tales and great exaggerations… But if you’ve seen her, maybe some of it’s true. Maybe even all of it.”

**********

Anson Darcy appeared to be at least eighty years of age. Stoop-shouldered with leather like skin and sporting a long gray beard that bore tobacco stains at each corner of his mouth, Darcy was a throwback to the nineteenth century. He was sitting quietly by the old wood stove while he looked Gracie over with a curious grin as she entered the dimly lit sawmill at the foot of Meeker Hill.

“Ya lost, young lady?”

“Mister Driggs said I should ask you about a mysterious young girl I’ve seen roaming around the valley…” she offered as he held up his hand to stop her in mid-sentence.

“Needn’t say no more. If Driggs sent ya, ya must be the schoolteacher renting his old cabin. Take it nobody’s told ya the story, heh?”

Gracie smiled, “I was hoping you could.”

“Ya might not like what I got to say.”

“That doesn’t mean I don’t want to know.”

“Reckon the girl some folks claim to see is Alice. Looks half-dead and wears an old blue calico dress. She used to live in that cabin ya’s a renting.”

Used to? When was that?”

“Been about eight or nine years ago now. Disappeared the same time as her folks died. She’d a been about eleven, maybe twelve back then.”

“The girl I’ve seen isn’t any older than that now.”

“That’s what folks claim. Real age would be closer to about twenty today.”

“I’m twenty and she’s a lot younger than me. You said her folks died? You mean her parents?”

“Yep. Her mother’s name was Charlotte. She jumped off that bridge into the chasm below,” he told her as he pointed through the sawdust covered window in the direction of the bridge about a hundred yards away. “Seen her do it myself. Just climbed up on the railing and jumped. No hesitation at all. Never seen nothing like it. By the time I got down to the bridge, I could see her body a floatin’ down the rapids, bangin’ off the rocky sides. They pulled her ashore just above the next millpond about two hours later.”

“What about her husband? You said he died too? The same day?”

“Yep. Didn’t just die though. Got him an axe laid right through his skull. Damn near perfectly centered between his eyes. Hardly even no blood neither, just a trickle down the side of his nose, across his cheek and onto his pillow. Must have been sleepin’ when she whacked him.”

“She? You mean Charlotte?”

“Or Alice. Nobody knows which one. But it had to be one or the other. After we knew it was Charlotte in that river, Sheriff Banks went to the cabin to tell Vic…Victor Marsh was his name. It was snowing. Fresh that morning, about two inches by the time Banks got to the cabin. No footprints, in or out, no smoke comin’ from the chimney. Banks knocked on the door and there weren’t no answer. I guess the Sheriff figured Vic was workin’ that day. When there was still no answer at that door two days later, they shoved it open and found Vic layin’ there stiffer than old oak log. No sign of Alice neither.”

“And Alice was never seen again? Except for maybe people like me?” asked Gracie.

“Seems that way. Most folks figure she just ran away. Makes more sense if it were her what laid that axe into Vic’s head.”

“But why would Charlotte have killed herself?”

“Charlotte was a little touched in the head, she was. She talked to herself a lot, but hardly ever said nothin’ to nobody else. Some says she was possessed. Vic was mean. Drank too much, and when he was drunk, he took it out on Charlotte and probably little Alice too. Like Ah said, coulda been either Charlotte or Alice who finally had enough of Vic. Either way, it was probably more than poor Charlotte could handle.”

**********

Gracie never saw the little girl again. At least not alive. It was after a drenching tropical storm in late October when Napoleon plopped down on the porch with a large bone in his mouth. He was gnawing away at it when Gracie bent down to take a closer look.

“What do you have there, old boy? A leg bone from a deer?” she asked as she took a closer look. Gracie didn’t know much the skeletal anatomy of a deer, but she remembered her human anatomy class well enough to recognize what she was seeing. Napoleon had unearthed a human tibia.

“Oh my Lord, Napoleon! Where did you find this?”

Gracie left the porch and started searching for the answer. It took her about fifteen minutes. The creek that ran behind the barn had started to recede after the storm but there were newly exposed rocks along the upper banks as a result of the erosion. There she spied the partial skeletal remains of a human. A rather small frame with partial remnants of faded blue fabric intertwined amongst some of the bones. It was calico.

Sheriff Banks and the two men who had accompanied him carefully unearthed the remains later that day. The skull was crushed.

“Looks like we finally found Alice,” he said as he looked up at Gracie. “We’ll see to it that she gets a proper burial this time. Guess that answers the question of who killed Vic. It had to be Charlotte. Wonder which one of them killed little Alice?”

“Does it really matter?” asked Gracie.

“Guess not,” was his reply. “Guess the important thing is that she can now finally rest in peace.”

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