I’m not saying that I believe in ghosts, but I’ve seen some weird stuff in my time.
I’ve documented the inexplicable happenings around my visit to the old carriage house near the mysterious wetlands of Bull Swamp Creek. I’ve only shared with a few people – how after watching The Conjuring – I was awakened at exactly 3:07 a.m. by something grabbing my leg and pulling me halfway out of my bed.
But until now, I’ve never told the story of my journey to the Devil’s Footprint.
Some egghead scientists would simply say the Devil’s Footprint is a rock formation near Lancaster, South Carolina caused by millions of years of compression, expansion and erosion. But if you’ve seen it with your own eyes, then there’s little question that it’s a footprint – a cloven footprint – embedded in stone. There’s even a hint of a devil’s tail and chains imprinted in the same rock.
Legend has it that the Devil himself came to South Carolina and sat down to rest on the rock, leaving his footprint there. It’s unclear if he was on his way to Georgia while he was looking for a soul to steal.
Not the most exciting ghost story I’ve come across, but as a young reporter in South Carolina in the 1980s, I thought it was worth checking out. My colleague and friend Joyce Milkie – who also worked at The Times and Democrat newspaper in Orangeburg, S.C. – and I were working on a book of haunted tales of the Palmetto State at the time.
One autumn Saturday afternoon, Joyce and I hop in my car and set off on our 100 mile journey to Lancaster. A brisk wind is blowing, and the clouds are dark in the sky. We decide to take the scenic route on State Highway 21 instead of traveling via the interstate. We pass fields and fields of corn, dried and broken, ready to be harvested and turned into animal feed.
We laugh about our experience in the old carriage house, where ghosts had rendered our cameras and tape recorders useless. For this ghost adventure, we double-checked our batteries, our tape and our film. Everything seems to be working just fine.
“We’re ready for anything,” Joyce says confidently.
With that, the right front tire explodes, followed by loud “whup, whup, whup” sound of a flat tire straining between the car and road. I pull over next to an old wooden shotgun house that hasn’t seen a coat of paint in 70 years. The front yard is decorated with scarecrows. Elaborate scarecrows with terrifying faces painted on burlap. Some with hands made of withered branches. But one – the largest one – is completely different. It has the head and feet of a goat.
On the front porch of the house sits an elderly black man. He’s 80 if he’s a day. He is also extremely short – no more than five-and-a-half feet. His face is weathered, covered with a white beard. And his eyes are the most mesmerizing shade of blue that you’ve ever encountered.
“Sounds like you’ve got trouble,” he says to me as I got out the car to look at the tire.
“No big deal,” I reply. “I just need to put on the spare.”
He offers us a glass of water and some boiled peanuts. We say yes to both.
“Where y’all headed?” he asks.
I explain that Joyce and I were headed out to see the Devil’s Footprint.
“Now why would you want to be messing around up there?” he asks.
“We’re working on a book of South Carolina ghost stories,” Joyce explains with a smile.
“Well y’all be careful wandering around up there. A lot of the local folks don’t like strangers messing around that spot.”
“Oh, we’ll be careful,” I assure him. “One of the locals is showing us around.”
I finish getting the spare on the car and drain my glass of water. We say our thanks and head on our way. In no time, we meet Sam, our local guide. Sam’s family owns the land where the Devil’s Footprint resides. He is in his 50s, a no-nonsense guy who favors khaki shirts, khaki trousers, work boots and a sidearm.
Sam leads us up the hill to the rock formation. As we approach the Devil’s Footprint, we could see four people all dressed in hoodies huddling around a small fire. One of them sees us and they quickly douse the fire with water and sand and head in the opposite direction.
“Get out of here!” Sam yells at the four hooded strangers. He then stuns us by pulling out his revolver and firing it in the air.
Sam runs up to the fire and begins stomping out the remaining flames and smearing the ashes. As Joyce and I catch up with Sam, I can just make out a drawing of a five-pointed star – a pentagram.
“What’s all this about?” we ask.
“Trespassers,” Sam says shortly. “This is private property. They should not be up here.” Sam is clearly not in the mood to give long explanations.
Sam quickly shows us the Devil’s Footprint. I snap some pictures, Joyce makes some notes and we are on our way. It starts to rain and it’s getting dark. We thank Sam, get in the car and start back toward Orangeburg.
The rain lashes the windshield as we roll down Highway 21. We talk intently about our day, wondering whether devil worshippers were really setting up shop in Lancaster County.
And then we heard an all-too-familiar sound: “whup, whup, whup.” Another flat. And we’ve already used our only spare tire.
Amazingly, we spot a neon Budweiser sign of a local roadside bar. My car limps into the parking lot and we dash through the rain to get inside to use the phone. Remember, this was in a time before cellphones. I ask the bartender if I can make a collect call to my father so that he could come rescue us.
As I place the call, my eyes were drawn to a 20-year-old newspaper clipping, framed, hanging on the wall. There was a picture of a much younger version of the bartender and the old black man that we had met earlier today. The headline reads:“Local Man Rescues 95-Year-Old From Fire.”
The story continues…
“A 95-year-old Lancaster County goat farmer, Solomon Gregory, is counting himself lucky after being rescued from his burning house by a local business owner.
John Etheridge, owner of the Lancaster Lounge on Hwy 21, said he was driving to work when he saw flames erupting from an old house. After pulling over, he heard the distressed cries of Gregory. Wrapping himself an old blanket from his truck, Etheridge entered the house to find Gregory huddled in the corner of his bedroom.
Etheridge picked up Gregory and carried him to safety.
“At 95, I’m not sure how many more days I have left,” Gregory said. “I’m sure grateful that Mr. Etheridge came by when he did.”
The fire also spread to Gregory’s barn next to his house. Six goats died in the blaze.
I blurt loudly to Joyce: “This is the guy we saw earlier today.”
“No way,” the bartender interjected. “I can promise you that you didn’t see Solomon Gregory. He died in his sleep not a year after I rescued him.”
“It was him. Five-and-a-half-feet tall. Burning blue eyes,” I stammer.
“Right description, wrong guy,” John the bartender said flatly. “It was 20 years ago.”
We drop the conversation and move to a table in the back, waiting for my father to arrive. It’s a happy moment when he walks into the bar. As we’re heading out the door, four guys walk in, smelling of smoke and sulphur.
I change the tire – for the second time today – and start putting away the jack and tire iron in the trunk. I hear someone yelling at us from the tavern: “And don’t come back!” Sinister laughter follows.
I jump in the car, my hands gripping the wheel to stop from shaking. I drive through the rain, with the memories of Solomon Gregory, Sam’s revolver, mysterious strangers and that laughter echoing through my head.
This was the last ghost adventure that Joyce and I went on together. In just two trips, the spirits had flattened our tires and knocked out our cameras and tape recorders. If only the Travel Channel had been around in those days. We could have pitched a successful TV show.