The Headless Cobbler – Episode One


        This year marks the fortieth anniversary of the publication of THE HEADLESS COBBLER OF SMALLETT CAVE:  The Origin and Growth of a Douglas County, Missouri Legend.  It was written by Walter Darrell Haden of the University of Tennessee with pen and ink illustrations by the author.  It was published by THE KINFOLK PRESS, of Nashville, Tennessee in 1967.

        Walter Darrell Haden was born and reared within “hollerin’” distance of Smallett Cave.  A graduate of Ava High School, he studied at Missouri University and at Southwest Missouri State College for his B.S. degree and at Northern Illinois University for his M.S. degree.  He taught grade school one year in his home community, high school English nine years in Sterling-Rock Falls, Illinois, and college English for one year at Belmont College in Nashville, Tennessee.  He has done graduate work beyond the M.S. degree at Illinois Stat Normal University, Purdue University, and at Vanderbilt University.  He was a professor of English at the University of Tennessee at Martin until his retirement last year.  His prose has appeared in the Tennessee Philological Journal, the White River Valley Historical Journal, the Secret Place, and the Douglas County Herald;  his poetry in the Denver Post, the Chicago Tribune, Springfield (Mo.) Daily News, Colorado Springs Free Press, and Towers Magazine;  his songs recorded and published by major companies in Nashville, Tennessee.

        Mr. Haden has graciously given his permission for excerpts of his book to be published in the Herald over the next few weeks in commemoration of the fortieth anniversary of its publication.  The book also ties in nicely with the Sesquicentennial Celebration of Douglas County particularly as Halloween approaches.

        So it begins:  “On a dark night a strange light is seen and a tapping echoes from the depths of an Ozark cave.  The observer with imagination and a sense of the past is returned to tales and times of the American Civil War in the Missouri Hills and to the hardy race whose superstitions created a “hant,” the Headless Cobbler of Smallett Cave.

        Beginning in its second century, the legend this book follows depends for its existence upon what is probably the most mysterious geographic feature in Douglas County, Missouri’s Springcreek Township, Smallett Cave.  The legend is a local invention based upon real persons and historical happenings,  but it may also be a reworking of elements from older folk tales, both indigenous and imported.

        Theories concerning the origin of folk stories in general, as well as the reasons for their evolution, are studied in order to determine why the Headless Cobbler Legend has grown when and where it has in Douglas County, Missouri.

        The author is asked sometimes how far back into the cave he has explored.  His “Not beyond the mouth” is something more than a pun.  It may be further evidence with which Mr. Haden supports a central thesis of his book:  that those who first told the Headless Cobbler Legend intended the tale to last.

        Next week look for the first of several installments of The Headless Cobbler of Smallett Cave! 

And the tale involved a staccato tapping from within the cavern coming from the hammer of a phantom shoemaker—the “Headless Cobbler.” 

The Headless Cobbler – Episode Two


        The Headless Cobbler is rumored to have made his first appearances at the Smallett Cave during the American Civil War.  Allegedly, passersby could hear sometimes during the early hours of the evening a distinct staccato tapping like that of a hammer bradding tacks through leather on a shoe last.  Superstitious reporters of the cave spook have held that the apparition never appears before the dusk of the day, if not later in the evening, tramping along the roads and banks adjacent to Springcreek.  The Cobbler is reported to have for a head only a dangling clump of shoes.

        One of the earliest and most prevalent stories bout the Headless Cobbler originated with the writers great-grandmother, Mrs. Rezin Moten (Frances Indiana [Kay]) Haden, who died January 3, 1932.  Her eldest son, and the writer’s late grandfather, Walter D. Haden, recounted the following story in an interview at his home in Ava, MO, December 22, 1960:

        Ma and a renter’s wife—Mrs. Hall, I believe—were on their way to sit up with a woman who was dying with consumption—Mrs. Cloud, I think.
        The two women were walking up the road from alongside Springcreek and the old cave across from it.  Ma told us later that just about “dusky dark” a man without a head stepped out into the road in front of them.  On one of his shoulders he had a Bible.  As the two women and the headless man met, he didn’t say a thing, Ma said, but the women lit out, and the strange man walked on in the opposite direction.  They hurried on east to the Cloud home, where later that night the sick woman died.  Mrs. Hall, M, and her sister, Aunt Julia Sellers, laid out the corpse for burial while the menfolks started work on a casket.  It was a hot night, so the womenfolks, when their work was done, sat down in some cane-bottom chairs to cool awhile in the yard of the home.  Ma had leaned back in her chair while she smoked her clay pipe.  All of a sudden from between the back of her chair and the side of an old earthen cellar, a commotion began.  At first she thought that it was the headless hant.  I reckon for a while there was almost another woman to be laid out.  But then she found out it was just her chair mashing a calf that had been dozing alongside the cellar.  The calf lit out, and so did Ma.

        This is just one of the numerous accounts of the ‘hant’.  The folk legend is quite alive even in these days when sensational entertainment is everywhere.  Folk tale collector, Mary Hill Arbuthnot, says that the magic of the folk tale casts it spell and spells and enchantments are accepted as casually by children as airplanes and television.

        Mr. Haden goes on to say that it is probable that children in the distant future may hear folk tales about lunar exploration and laser beams.  The vitality of the folk story points to the continuing cultural importance of our oral literature. 

The Headless Cobbler – Episode Three


        “In an interview at Ava, Missouri, December 22, 1960, Walter D. Haden, grandfather of the author recalled his experience hardly a half-mile from the cave:  Teen-age Walt Haden and his double-first cousin Porter Haden were riding their horses home up a bridle path northwest of Springcreek and the Smallett Cave.  The time was ‘late at night.’  Their path veered to the right at “a spring under a big white oak tree, a nice one—butt cut would’ve made eight to ten posts.  My horse stopped, pricked up his ears, and stood stock-still.  Something like a man was in front of us.  Porter’s horse didn’t move.  Then the thing began to float away like it didn’t have a foot on the ground.

        “’What the hell was it?’  Porter asked me.  I couldn’t tell him and can’t to this day.  But when it moved, I knew it wasn’t another horse or brute.  I popped the spurs to my horse, and we went up that hill.  We didn’t hitch any horses either when we got to the house.  Pa had to do it for us.

        Walt’s father, Rezin M. Haden, asked the boys what they were excited about, but neither could answer.  Porter had intend to ride on home alone, but he decided to spend the remainder of the night with his cousin.

        “Recalling in this interview a related incident involving his father, the Late Rezin M. Haden, the writer’s grandfather continued:  “Paw as coming down the creek road one night just before he got to the country road.  His stallion, ‘Popcorn,’ stood sixteen hands high.  That horse began to shay ant to wan to sidle the other way as Pa rode under a tree.  Something was flapping in the treetop above his head—an eagle maybe.  Whatever it was flapped out of the tree and on toward the cave.  Pa came back the next morning, but he couldn’t find any trace of what had scared his horse.

        On December 28, 1962, at his home in Ava, Missouri, W\G. W. Owen Haden, brother of the writer’s grandfather, spoke of how “Uncle” Jimmy McHolland and a neighbor riding horseback from a revival meeting at Springcreek Church had heard the hoof beats of a horse approaching from the opposite direction.  Before the men could get their horses over to the side of the road, they were met by a strange horseman who cantered between the two riders, passing so close that his two witnesses could see that he lacked a head.  This appearance allegedly occurred along the old road which followed the course of Springcreek.

        “Another sighting of a Smallett Cave ‘hant’ is told of James Gray.  The man had been a way from his home near Smallett for several moths during the mid-1920’s.  Returning late one night to his home on the hill above the cave, he though he saw an apparition between him and his father’s home:  Jim was coming home late a-foot one night.  He got down there to the cave on his daddy’s place when he saw something white moving back and forth between him and the house.  He’d go one way, and this thing would too.  Jim kept monkeying around till he got scared.  So he finally gave up and spent the rest of the night on the back steps of Doc Osborne’s office at Smallett.  Next morning he found his dad’s old gray mare grazing where he had seen the ghost the night before.  ‘That’s Nell!’ he said…….’.She’s jumped in Dad’s oats!’” 

The Headless Cobbler – Episode Four


        Hunters have been among the most frequent reporters of strange sights and sounds about the cave.  One night early in this century (the 20th), the Sellers brothers—John, Ernest, and Edgar (all now deceased)—went possum hunting back into Smallett Cave.  Soon their dogs came piling back toward the mouth of the cave, howling a retreat:  “The dogs were just raving.  The men saw something, too, back in the dark, but they couldn’t make out what it was.  Whatever it was keep its distance, and their rocks seemed to go right trough it.”

        Mrs. Byron (Anna Phipps) Cory of McClurg, Missouri, in an interview at her home December 26, 1962, said that her brother-in-law, Bert Hodges, and his son Bill were possum hunting near the entrance to Smallett Cave one winter night a year or more before the interview.  Mr. Hodges and his son reported hearing repeatedly in the distance the clopping of horses’ hooves in the gravel bar of Springcreek, but no horse or any further indication of a horse ever appeared.

        Because of its isolation and a good deal of lawlessness over the years, Douglas County sometimes has been called, unofficially, “Booger County.”

        Since Civil War times the Smallett Cave has been the focal point for many strange sights and sounds, generally reported through the years to have occurred either at dusk or shortly thereafter.  Although this research has brought to light oral accounts of one suicide and two murders within the radius of one-half mile of the cave, no reports of any violence within the cave itself have been found.  The writer has observed, though, that many of the community’s stories of violence and the supernatural tend to converge upon the Smallett Cave and give its locale an atmosphere of the dread and mysterious.

        Generally any story recalled concerning Smallett Cave is connected with the unknown or the unexplained.  As recently as June 10, 1965, Orloff P. Haden, son of the late Porter Haden, mentioned an interview at Ava, Missouri, that as a boy he had often heard that a headless man had been seen near the entrance of Smallett Cave.  He remembered, as well, a rumor of about a dead man’s (head) being found back in the cave at one time, although he had never heard the details.

        According to the late Rev. C.V. Turner—who was ninety-three at the time he was interviewed December 23, 1960, in his suburban Ava, Missouri home—one James Turner (no relation) was murdered some ninety years earlier in the vicinity of the Smallett Cave.  The murdered man had lived in a double-log house with an “entryway” between its parts, situated near the present site of the Smallett Store and former United States Post Office on a hill approximately a quarter mile west of the cave.  Bystanders heard the gunfire and guessed that someone had been shot.  “Someone must be drawing his rations early,” one remarked.  Rev. Turner recalled hearing that those who ran to investigate found brains blown against the wall and Turner lying dead on the floor.  The informant could not recall who had murdered the man or what the motive for the crime had been.

        The writer’s grandfather explained during the interview with Rev. Turner that the murdered man’s first wife was an Indian half-breed who had left, among other offspring, a blind daughter.  He remembered hearing as a boy that those who had seen this girl at her home near the cave allegedly had described her as “crazy.” 

The Headless Cobbler – Episode Five


         “After the evening service (the writer’s father ) and his girlfriend had accepted a car ride with another young couple to the home of his girlfriend.  After seeing the young woman home, it was then his not so pleasant task to walk a quarter mile back from the county road to the then-deserted church, retrieve his horse, and ride home.  Just as he started to untie the reins from the fence, his horse began to shy and snort.  His hat seemed to rise, the writer’s father recalls, as his hair stood on end.  Without seeing what had frightened his horse and himself—quite possibly an animal or the white glimmer of a gravestone—he mounted his horse and rode one of the fastest miles he had ever made horseback from Springcreek Church to his father’s barn.”

        Factual basis for the Headless Cobbler Legend came from “Aunt” Mary (Hunt) Pratt, in an interview at her home between Smallett and Rome in the mid1940’s.  “An ‘old man’ Evans sometime during the Civil War moved his shoe leather and cobbling gear back into the Smallett Cave at the foot of his property.  Cobbler Evans has his reasons for making shoes back in the cave:  he had a good-sized family to feed and keep shod, and neither he nor his leather and tools were safe from rebel soldiers and bush-wackers outside the cave.  So, safe from discovery, the shoemaker worked through the daylight hours back in the Smallet Cave, often returning to his home after dark.

        “Mrs. Pratt, who died in 1957, could not recall cobbler Evan’s given name, but later the writer’s mind the name of “Uncle” George Evans; whose eccentricities have colored stories told around Smallett until this day.  Alleged by some to have been a recluse, George Evans is said to have worn his shoes on the wrong feet on alternating days in order to prolong the life of the leather.

        A direct descendant of the cobbler Evans, Earnest Evans, corroborated the story given several years earlier by the late Mrs. Mary Pratt.  “He said that as a boy he had more than once heard his grandmother Margaret Barnes laugh and say that there was no truth in the old stores about a headless man’s being in Smallett Cave.  Margaret Evans before she was married to Earnest’s grandfather Barnes, she had said the cobbler was her own father.  During those troubled days in Douglas County, Wesley Evans had gone back into the cave to work until nightfall, because rebel guerrillas were taking pot shots at any man not for the Confederate cause.  Ernest Evans recalled hearing that his great-grandfather did not move around much outside except under cover of darkness.  The cobbler’s great-grandson supposed that there were not many rebels who would have wanted to go back into the Smallett Cave even had they known that a Union sympathizer was back there.

        “The writer finds it not difficult to understand how superstitious travelers, passing along the creek road near the Smallett Cave at twilight or during the early hours of evening, might have mistaken the shoe-burdened figure of Wesley Evans for that of a headless cobbler.  Loaded down under the weight of leather, tools, or perhaps the work of several days’ cobbling, his strange silhouette could understandably have appeared headless.  It was probably not difficult to associate such a sight, coming as it apparently did from Smallett Cave, with the dark, the dread, and unknown.  Thus, witnesses needed to believe in the existence of a headless shoemaker in order to explain such an irrational sight as that of the benighted shoemaker, but their belief depended upon an already existing tendency of the folk mind toward superstition.”

Exploring Mr. Haden’s book has been a pleasant undertaking from which readers of the Herald have benefited.  Look for a copy in the Douglas County Library:  THE HEADLESS COBBLER OF SMALLETT CAVE:  The Origin and Growth of a Douglas County, Missouri Legend, by Walter Darrell Haden.