Friday, January 11, 2013

The Ramapo NJ house and the Legendary Ghost Story

The Ramapo Saltbox Environmental Education Center, recently opened on Torne Valley Road, is a reconstructed c. 1800 ironworker’s dwelling. It is also associated with a famous local ghost story.
 Ramapo Saltbox Environmental Ed. Ctr  Ron Dupont

North Story by Ron Dupont

There are many types of ghost stories: ghosts that haunt houses, ghosts that haunt battlefields or mansions, ghosts that move stuff around (poltergeists), and more. But the single most common type of ghost story, found all around the world, is that of the hitchhiking ghost. And one of the oldest recorded examples of the hitchhiking ghost story comes from just over the mountains in Ramapo.

This all came to mind recently, on Jan. 1, when my family and I joined my friend archaeologist Ed Lenik and a group of hardy souls for Ed’s annual New Year’s Day hike. Ed’s been doing this for 31 years now, and this year’s hike was to the hamlet of Ramapo.

The hike started at the Ramapo Saltbox Environmental Center on Torne Valley Road in the village of Ramapo. This is a brand-new (yet very old) facility. Let me digress: in 1795, the Pierson family took advantage of waterpower on the Ramapo River and iron in the nearby hills to establish an ironworks here. It was soon a flourishing industrial enterprise, making nails, screws, cotton cloth, and spring steel. It operated until the Civil War years, and along with many industrial buildings, there was a small village of worker’s housing. This is now the hamlet of Ramapo—little else of the Pierson works survives, except the old stone cotton mill (now a warehouse) and the Pierson’s old mansion and estate.

About a decade ago, one of the more untouched of the old workers’ houses—they were generally all saltbox-style cottages, mostly built in the late 1700s to early 1800s—was dilapidated and falling to ruin. The local fire department was going to burn it down. Local resident Chuck Stead, a professor at Ramapo College and an ardent local environmentalist, historian, and poet, championed the cause of dismantling the old worker’s house to preserve it, which was done.

It sat in storage for a decade, until this past year, when the Town of Ramapo provided a place for it to be re-assembled in cooperation with the Cornell Cooperative Extension, to serve as both a little museum and an environmental center. Chuck Stead guided a collection of young people from Rockland BOCES and Ramapo College in rebuilding the historic home. Recently re-opened, the reconstructed saltbox house is a unique reminder of Ramapo’s industrial past.

So what does all this have to do with ghosts? Let me digress again. In 1949, New York State historian and folklorist Carl Carmer wrote a book called "Dark Trees to the Wind," a collection of regional history and folklore. One story he included was "A Girl Named Lavender."

In a nutshell, it tells the story of a young lady named Lily who lived in the Ramapo Mountains in the early 1900s. She was beautiful but poor, and she transfixed all the local boys. Once, when a batch of donated clothing was passed around at a local church, she got a beautiful sequined lavender evening dress, and wore it from then on. But the flimsy thing did her in—she froze to death in it one night while walking the mountain roads to a dance.

Fast forward a decade: two college boys are driving to a dance at Tuxedo Park, and see a girl in an evening dress hitchhiking. They pick her up and ask her name; she say it’s "Lavender, because I always wear that color."

She decides to join them at their dance, they have a nice evening, and they drive her home. She borrows one of their overcoats because it is so cold, and directs them to a ramshackle cottage back in the mountains where she lives, and bids them farewell.

Only after leaving do they realize the girl still has the overcoat. They go back the next day to the cottage and ask for Lavender. The old woman answering the door asks if they are old school friends of the girl’s, and they say they are, not wishing to get her into possible trouble. The lady informs the young men that Lavender ("Lily was her real name") has been dead for over 10 years, buried in the cemetery up the road. They guys go off confounded, and just for the heck of it stop at the nearby cemetery.

There, on the mound in front of a tombstone marked "LILY," they find the neatly folded overcoat. End of story.

Now, you’ve heard this story before, although the details are different. Variants of it are found throughout the country, and around the world. This either means a) there are a lot of hitchhiking ghosts out there, or b) it’s cool enough that people keep re-inventing and re-telling it. Supernatural or anthropological explanations—you decide.

But the interesting thing is that most American versions trace their origins back to this one, which Carl Carmer himself picked up in the Ramapo Mountains from local residents in the 1940s. The story moves westward over the decades, changing names and locations, until it ends up in California in the 1960s.

And this has what to do with the Ramapo Saltbox Environmental Center? In addition to being an interesting, 200-year-old example of an ironworker’s dwelling, and a unique example of historic architecture, longtime Ramapo residents also said one other thing about the ramshackle cottage being dismantled--they were all in agreement in their recollections: this was the house where Lavender lived.

For sure, if you see photos of the cottage in its original location, it fully fits Carmer’s description of "a shack . . . down dusty woodland roads . . . so dilapidated that it would have seemed deserted had it not been for a ragged lace curtain over the small window in the door."

What is the origin of these hitchhiking ghost stories? New York State folklorist Louis C. Jones explained it thus: "Why do these girls wander along our highways, waiting for the driver who will stop? They are lonely, wet, unhappy; they want to go home to the warmth and protection of their mothers. But they don’t quite get there; instead they go back to the grave. But they return—next week or next year—to embarrass or sadden the living. They are not yet at rest."

Lily/Lavender may not be at rest yet—but at least her home survives, dedicated to a new role preserving the environmental and historical legacy of the Ramapos.

Source: North

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