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Keeping Legends Alive

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The Gurdon Light

When I first pitched the idea of “Once Upon at Time in Arkansas” at AETN, I discussed the story of Witch’s Hollow just outside of Cave City in the small community of Cushman, Arkansas. Near the end of Sandtown Road, there is a cabin in ruins where, supposedly, a local witch once practiced. It’s said she killed her husband there when she found out he had been untrue.

These are the only details I have.  Despite growing up in Cave City and knowing the story since I was nine or ten, I don’t know much more. Many people have written the story off as nonsense – and it may well be.

Many other locals know the story but are slow to tell it. Growing up, there were only a handful of adults willing to share the story with kids for fear of inspiring a doomed trip to Witch’s Hollow.

The fact is, despite the story’s age and unlikelihood, it still holds power in the region.  Some people are still afraid of Witch’s Hollow. Cave City has treated the hollow just as Pine Bluff treated the Sawdust Bridge. The town has worked hard to put the story behind them.

A Legend the Refuses to Fade

A machine cuts the inscription for a sign along the Gurdon Light trail.

The Gurdon Light is the most widely known story of our first season. It has been covered countless times both locally and nationally by media, including “Unsolved Mysteries.” More than with any of our other stories, we were covering well-trod ground.

As we began the interview process, I noticed something different about how people discussed The Gurdon Light.  With things like the White River Monster, King Crowley or The Sawdust Bridge, the stories were told with an air of hesitation. This also gave them an air of excitement.

This wasn’t so in Gurdon. The interviews in Gurdon were delivered with absolute frankness and very little drama. The people of Gurdon recount the tale of “The Light” with the same matter-of-factness they might use to discuss Friday night’s football game or Sunday’s sermon.

I think the White River Monster and The Sawdust Bridge are often met with laughter and doubt, “You’d don’t really believe there are ghosts out there do you?” And I think even the most fervent believer is slower to tell the story because of this.

At this point, very few doubt the existence of the Gurdon Light. Across the state, it is accepted as fact; meanwhile, in and around Gurdon, searching for it is a rite of passage for every local. Across the nation, it is infamous.

Is It Really Worth Remembering?

The gritty history of Witch’s Hollow is what Cave City would like to forget. Like I said, it is believed, in the end, the witch murdered her husband. Why would a small town want to remember a murder? This is another aspect of the Gurdon Light saga that fascinates me.

Reenacted crime scene of Will McClain’s murder

The light’s origin story is centered on the gruesome murder of railroad line crew foreman Will McClain at the hands of disgruntled employee Louie McBryde. While the history of Witch’s Hollow or The Sawdust Bridge are hazy and unprovable, the murder trial, conviction and execution record of Louie McBryde are all still intact.

To me, this is where The Gurdon Light truly becomes a modern phenomenon. Gurdon isn’t simply keeping a ghost story or tall tale alive: they are actively, collectively commemorating a crime of passion — something a lot of towns would never do.

Would it not be better to just forget the story? Why keep the memory alive?

The Power of Truth and Belief

Featured thrill-seeker Brandon Mize shares his thoughts

My good friend Brandon Mize really sums it up best:

“We grow up with all these stories, myths and legends.  These stories get told by so many people, they become ingrained in the culture of that community.  And people will attach part of their identity to that story, because it is a common thing that everybody in that town can share – like a rite of passage for the people that live around here. That sort of thing is important to keep people together …

Those stories are just a part of the human experience, like a continuation of that story that we’re all trying to tell about each other.”

Early on, I wrote about the “ownership” of legends and the power of belief for small communities. This is why the Gurdon Light is the perfect tale with which to end our journey. For generations, the people of Gurdon have understood that a dark spot on their past was not something to destroy or run from. Instead — for almost 88 years now — the town has used the phenomenon as a beacon, lighting their road forward.

And, as Mayor Kelly embarks on her mission to commemorate the legend permanently with a walking path, I can’t help but appreciate how a little bit of lore will live just a while longer, and thank her for her efforts in not letting Will McLain’s memory fade into nothingness.

Even though Halloween is over, take time to consider the local stories that have shaped the truths you live by, and if you haven’t heard those stories told in a while, share one with a co-worker or a child.

History is a living, breathing thing, and it is on us to keep the conversation going, keep it moving forward.

LEARN MORE:

“Once Upon a Time in Arkansas”