Travelling a rural road with few sign posts can take you miles out of your way. Be forewarned: it’s not all peace and quiet and bucolic scenery out there. Iffy cell service, animals on a collision course with your bumper, and a frisson of fear at the thought of breaking down in the middle of nowhere ferment in your gut. Country driving is straight out of a B horror movie. Cue the creepy music. If I were you, I’d turn around.
On your way to nowhere in particular you expect to see farms and fields, a few cows, and long stretches of dust. But not much else. But there’s one road, a Class Four dirt road tucked into the recesses of eastern Rensselaer County, NY, where you might come across the unexpected: the heads of two devil babies. It’s a touch of the macabre in the pastoral countryside. The two heads are part of two columns at the end of an overgrown dirt track running off a dirt road. How did they get there?
According to the locals at the mom and pop a couple of miles down the paved road, the devil babies have been there for at least a hundred years glowering at passersby and scaring the daylights out of children. But no one knows who put them there. There’s never been a house on the property. Are they telling the truth? Do the locals know more than they’re saying? If you can sniff out a story, this might be a good one.
Consider it a dog with a bone kind of thing but I checked in at the local post office one town over and it wasn’t the same story. This time the postmaster mentioned a house built by a stranger who shunned local company but entertained several times a year with giant bonfires and eerie music the locals could hear through the trees. One night at the end of October, 1912, the house burned to the ground. What started the fire, so the story goes, remains a mystery. “The house just burned to the ground in a coupla minutes,” the postmaster verified. “The owner and his guests were long gone. All that’s left out there are the two devil baby columns and a cellar hole, unless you count the round patch further out in the woods where nothing grows.” Was the postmaster having me on?
Sometimes it pays to ask a few more questions, but that depends on how friendly the locals are. Locals tend to regard any passersby as snooping in their business or worse: working for the government. Back at the mom and pop, and with a few more purchases laced with some questions about the house in the woods, I was shut down. No more information would be forthcoming and scoot.
It was late afternoon and the woods were falling into shadow but curiosity has a way of getting the better of good judgement when you’re talking two devil baby heads. There was just enough daylight to snap a couple of photos of the heads glowering at me in the fading light. Every kid knows that no good comes of stumbling around in the woods in the dark. The eeriness of the site and the chance to revisit when the sun wasn’t going down put me back in my car and down the road before you could say Old Scratch.
Two weeks later on an ideal weather day of sun and a light breeze, I was back at it. Finding a dirt road off an unmarked dirt road is no small trick when you didn’t pay much attention the first time. After an hour of backing out of driveways and heading in the opposite direction, I found the turn off to the smaller dirt track. Calling it a road would have been too generous and if I had any thoughts about calling for help, a quick check showed I was in a cell dead hole.
Putting yourself in a pickle on purpose is foolishness. There were choices to be made. Folly or not, I made mine. Covered with bug spray I set out for the cellar hole and the mysterious barren circle. Unless you count the two leering beat up devil babies, I was alone.
I hadn’t succeeded in convincing anyone back home this was a good idea. “If the locals say “scoot” that must mean they don’t want anyone tramping around back there,” it was reasonably pointed out. While I was lacing up my boots, there was a quick as a wink moment when I asked myself if maybe my lack of common sense and poor impulse control was going to finally catch up with me. But operating on the “you only go around once” principle of risk taking, I set off.
A few minutes later, and a short walk into the woods on a partially overgrown track, I found myself staring down into a cellar hole I was sure marked the foundation of a sizable structure. The stacked stone foundation had small trees and shrubs poking through and stones in one corner were charred from high heat. What had happened here? If I was a betting woman, I’d put my money on the story the local postmaster told me. The next step was to find the strange circle in the woods.
I’m not superstitious but being alone out there made a tiny prickle run up the back of my neck. After a half hour traipsing over an overgrown path and hopping around poison ivy, I found a clearing. If I was going to direct one of those cheesy devil movies with people standing around chanting in black hooded robes with torches burning off the darkness, I’d chose this spot for the location.
The clearing was barren, except for a ring of tall scraggly pines with peeling bark and dusty barren earth beneath. The lack of vegetation and a deep bed of rusty red pine needles didn’t explain the symmetrical pile of stones in front of me. I have a pretty good imagination but the closer I got the surer I was they hadn’t been stacked there a hundred years ago. It looked as if they had been piled up to look tumbled down. Someone was having me on.
The temptation to fool with local folklore, or to invent a whimsical scary story, is irresistible. If someone goes looking for something and it doesn’t exist, it’s hard to pass up the chance to accommodate their desire for a good story. Plus you can never under-estimate a person’s desire to be fooled. Some time between my asking questions and taking a walk toward the clearing I was led to believe would be the scene of devilish shenanigans, I’d talked myself into the veracity of everything I was told. Two conflicting accounts only made it more mysterious, more enticing.
Should I go to the local post office and mom and pop to thank them for the fun or should I get back to the point: why were there two columns with the heads of devil babies in the middle of nowhere? Was there a story out there or not? Should I let it go? Or should I do what I ultimately did: go to the area historical society and the town assessor’s office and ask questions. I wanted to believe in something otherworldly but after an hour of toggling between the two offices I learned the real story was more prosaic.
It turned out the devil babies were a later design feature installed by a guy from Brooklyn with a weird sense of humor who loved a good party on Halloween. Having a couple of devil babies on posts beats tying balloons to the mailbox when you want your guests to find their way. A little more investigating and I discovered you can find those devil baby heads at a concrete statuary dealer. The same place you can buy your garden gnomes with pointy red hats. I have to admit I’m a little skeptical of devil babies as a stock item but so much for mystical mystery.
There is, however, a word of caution here about the willingness of even the most cynical to believe in something improbable. It’s easy to create a tall tale. What do you want to be today? What ghost story do you want to believe? What fairy tale? What do you want and who do you want to make life a whole lot better? Religion or politics? Food or alcohol or drugs? A special someone to love or elect or deify? Americans have an amazing gift for naivete turned to sour tears at the glass slipper not fitting.
I’ll admit I was let down by the way this turned out. I might not be Fox Mulder but I’m no different than anyone else: I want to believe. Maybe I’m just being wistful at missing a good story, a tall tale to tell. I sure don’t need devil babies to scare the hell out of me these days, I just have to listen to the news.
It would be wonderful to have something magical hidden in the woods you can stumble upon accidentally on a meandering drive through the countryside. Do people really do that anymore: go off on an unplanned backroads adventure hoping they’ll find the unexpected? I’ve decided I won’t tell you where the devil babies are. But they’re worth the trip. They’re out on a dirt road off a dirt road headed nowhere in a rural county headed east. Those are the only directions I can give you. You get to imagine the rest.
Photo credit: The Author took this picture and she still won’t tell you where it is.
I read your story about running a local yarn shop and you mentioned Joseph Horne’s. It brought back a lot of memories, my mom took my sister and I downtown in the early 60’s and we always stopped at Horne’s so she could check out the yarn. (Could not figure out how to comment on the Union)