Footsteps of a family

| 21 Feb 2012 | 10:48

    On a gray afternoon, a sharp wind was push-ing from the northwest across brown fields shrouded in fog. A good setting for a ghost story.. .where witches and spirits roam? Read this story..then decide. On March 12, 2002, eight shoes, some more than 170 years old, were discovered in a wall of an old stone house on Acres Road at the borderline of the Towns of Monroe and Woodbury. The old home, which lies within the confines of the Etzel property known as Ace Farms, was undergoing renovations at the time of the discovery. This mysterious find, which lay resting behind century-old plaster and lath, led to a whirlwind of intrigue and historical research. Prior to more modern methods, old homes often concealed various extraneous materials as forms of insulation to keep the elements at bay. However, when the old shoes ranging from children's to adult male's, curled with age and torn from use, were the only such ar-ticles uncovered in the wall of the old home, eyebrows were raised in question. Were these shoes, with years of dust rest-ing on rock-hard leather and dirt still clinging to the soles, some sort of "time capsule" that had been deliberately placed in the wall for some mysterious reason? This question led the writers to begin corresponding with those educated in the field of what is known as "Concealed Shoes in Buildings." One primary source of information was Brian Hoggard who runs a premier website in England devoted to the subject of ‘Folk Magic.' He works very closely in the area of concealed shoes with June Swann, curator of the Boot & Shoe Collection at Northampton (England) Central Museum for many years, founder of the Concealed Shoe index there, and arguably the world's leading expert on the subject. Much of what was learned about this hoard of shoes comes, either directly or indi-rectly, from these two individuals. Concealed shoes are a highly significant find and many people who have discovered such shoes hidden in buildings feel very strongly about not removing them. Perhaps this is because shoe concealment began as a ritual dating back to the 1300s in England, whence comes the earliest reference to the use of shoes as a ‘spirit trap.' Its origins can be traced back to one of England's unofficial saints, John Schorn of Buckinghamshire, who served as rector of North Marston from 1290-1314. It seems Schorn was reputed, at one point, to have cast the devil into a boot. Shoes, being very expensive in earlier times, were repaired as much as possible be-fore being discarded. By the time a shoe was no longer fit to wear, it provided a unique record of the wearer's individual foot. It was believed that such a shoe, if placed in an out-side wall (or other means of entry into a house, such as a chimney or over a door), would trap any witch-spirit by luring it into the shoe. The footwear retained enough of the human to entice the witch into a dead end forever, thereby preventing it from entering the inside of the actual dwelling. It was a commonly held belief at the time that witches were unable to travel backwards and thus could not retreat from the shoe. Brian Hoggard in Worcester, England, re-ceived news of the discovery, along with a precise description of each of the shoes by e-mail. He responded the following day, refer-ring to this find as "a very interesting group indeed! It is by far the largest group of shoes I have come across from the U. S. so far!" At his request photographs of each of the eight shoes were forwarded to him. He, in turn, sent these pictures and the shoe descriptions to June Swann in order to get an accurate date on the collection. Her response was ex-tremely expedient. Meanwhile, the writers had begun their own investigation of the history of the house on Acres Road and its past inhabitants, who once wore these shoes. The report on the age of the shoes coincided with the information already developed on the family who once lived in the house. According to June Swann, the shoes were placed in the wall over a period of time begin-ning with an adult male shoe dating back to the 1830s. The addition of other family mem-bers' shoes contin-ued through the 1870s. At first, the loca-tion where the shoes were discovered was confusing for they were found in an in-side wall. However, nearly all the litera-ture on shoes con-cealed in walls as witch traps indicates that they are found in an outside wall facing northwest, the direction from which the pre-vailing winds blow. Upon close inspection of the basement, it was determined that the current structure had been enlarged at some time by actually add-ing another house to the existing one. In fact, the portion of the basement that contains the oldest (hand-hewn) beams lies below the original structure. As a result, the wall in which the shoes were concealed was, indeed, a northwest-facing, outside wall of the origi-nal structure. It was only when the second house was added to the northwest side that it became an inside wall. With the generous help of the Woodbury, Monroe and Orange County historical societ-ies, the writers were able to follow the foot-steps of the family who lived in the house on Acres Road and who wore the shoes that were found there. The dates June Swann placed on the shoes, without any knowledge of the family that lived in the house, corre-spond perfectly with what was discovered about the family. The association of the family with the shoes begins in the 1830s when William H. Owens, Sr. married Ann Rider, the daughter of prominent Quaker landowner King Rider. They lived in the house on Acres Road and operated a farm. Over the years they had three sons: King Owens (1840-1916), Israel Owens (1843-1906), and Will-iam Owens, Jr. (1845-1913). The dates at-tributed to the shoes span the same time period as the marriage, births and home life of this Owens family. The eldest son, King Owens, was a butcher and broom maker. He married Lavinia Mapes on November 10, 1869. They lived in a home near William, Sr. that can be seen on an 1875 map of the area. It is believed this is the same structure that was later added to the father's home on Acres Road. The second son, Israel Owens, married Mary Hallock in 1871. The couple lived south of the Methodist Church in Highland Mills. Like King, he was also a butcher and owned a meat market, which he later moved a short distance south into Highland Mills. As an interesting side note to our story, in 1883, Israel sold wood for $3.50 a cord, and milk for $.05 a quart. Even earlier than that, in 1876, shoes cost $9.50 a indication that the ritual of concealed shoes was a seri-ous belief, judging by the relatively high price of shoes at that time. The third son, William H. Owens, Jr., mar-ried Elizabeth (Lizzie) Smith, and they re-mained at Owens, Sr.'s home on Acres Road. William Jr. and Lizzie had two daughters: Ann (1873-1879), who died at a very young age, and Carrie Mae (1880-1960), who died, unmarried, at the age of eighty, and is buried in the Cemetery of the Highlands in Highland Mills. Like his father, William Jr. operated the farm where he had dairy cows, carrot lots, apple orchards, currant bushes, potatoes and turnips. He made his living selling milk, vin-egar, cider and produce; he also smoked hams and made brooms. The original 1838 marriage certificate of William H. Owens (Sr.) and Ann Rider still exists and is housed in the archives of the Woodbury Historical Society. The signatures of the witnesses read like a veritable "Who's Who" of local Quaker society of the period. The archives also include three diaries written in 1874, 1875 and 1876 by William H. Owens, Jr. The handwriting and signatures in these diaries match several inscriptions writ-ten on stones and carved into the mortar in other parts of the Acres Road home where walls were removed to expose the stonework beneath. The signature of Carrie Mae, his daughter, also appears in several places. In addition, behind one newer wall a small block of wood was found on which was written in a childish hand: Carrie Mae Owens Birthday Age 13 June 1893 The diaries depict everyday life on the farm, visits made to family members, sleigh rides enjoyed, crops planted and sold and fishing at night in Cromwell Lake, known at the time as Hazard's Pond. The weather was mentioned on every page and the lives of the family members unfolded, allowing a glimpse of the people who wore the shoes. William Owens, Jr. sold the farm in 1911 and moved to Monroe where he died of scarlet fever in 1913. Standing in the same home, perhaps in the same room, where the diaries were written over 125 years ago, as well as studying the well-worn shoes, almost give the feeling that the Owens family members are still here with us. They have become as clear and as real as the imprints of their feet became to the shoes. Beginning nearly 170 years ago, the footsteps of a family began to echo in the home on Acres Road. Today, they still echo here, not physically, but through a ritualistic legacy left behind for us to discover. One may wonder if witches really do re-main trapped in shoes concealed in old homes, as the legend maintains. On a cloudy day, when the weather is moody and the wind pushes viciously from the northwest, listen very closely to your noises. Was that the house settling, an old tree swaying in the wind... or was it a footstep behind you? Editor's Note: John and Nanette Bieber formerly lived in this home on the ancestral Owens farm. The Orange County Historical Society gave permission to The Photo News to reprint this article.