The treasure of Watkins Holler


Kentucky Kache

(Story found online)

My Uncle Harold helped build Bagnell Dam and the Lake of the Ozarks back in 1929-31. He drove a truck. His work took him all up and down the lake valley. He got to know many of the old-timers in the area as he delivered supplies to the various work camps and field offices. He learned quite a bit about the valley and in later years he enjoyed telling tales about those interesting times. My favorite story was one he told many times, though the story never changed. It had nothing to do with the dam nor the lake, for it took place long before either came to be. It involved the disappearance of a family, a lost treasure, and a peculiar light that never has been explained. The story began in the year 1862, and I believe this is the first time it has ever appeared in print:

A certain family named Watkins had carved a farm out of the wilderness where a small creek flowed into the Osage River. Theirs was a prosperous farm, for Jess and Sarah Watkins were a hard working, Kentucky-bred couple who had migrated to the area with their children and their slaves some fifteen years earlier. The family seemed truly blessed. They raised some of the finest mules in the region, together with the abundant grains that they cultivated in the fertile bottomland adjacent to the river. Naturally, the creek that tumbled out of the hills and wound through their farm came to be called Watkins Holler.

But prosperity would not be theirs for long. In 1861 the War Between the States cast a pall over the land. The people of the Osage Valley found themselves deeply divided in their sympathies. Having come from Virginia and the Carolinas, from Pennsylvania and Ohio, and from Kentucky and Tennessee, the range of political opinions and beliefs split towns and counties apart. Though no one wanted the war to intrude upon their lives, their blood ties to embattled kinfolk ?back home? stirred the passions and fairly cried out for vengeance. And so the war came even to the remote farms and villages of the Valley.

The very remoteness of the area kept out the large armies of either side. In their place came small groups of local men organized as militia. Some of these militia were little more than armed gangs espousing one cause or the other, but dedicated more intently on robbing and murdering the rich and the unwary. Many a night would they descend upon an isolated home and demand an oath of allegiance from the hapless head of the family. And when he failed to satisfy them?for their intent was to plunder regardless of allegiance?they would shoot him on the spot or hang him from a convenient tree and proceed to take anything of value that the home had to offer.

Jess Watkins had thus far been spared, but he knew it was only a matter of luck. He was not a coward, yet discretion dictated a move to safer grounds. The question he faced was not so much where to move, but rather how to accomplish it. So one day he called his wealthier neighbors together?especially those who had declared, perhaps foolishly, that they were staying?and proposed to them a most remarkable sale.

?I will sell you my land,? said Jess, ?together with my livestock, my implements, and three of my five slaves?all that you see here before you?for $500, gold.?

There were looks of disbelief on the faces of the men. The property was worth five times that value.

Jess continued: ?I ain?t a-wantin? to leave. I?m doin? this because I?m of no use to my family as a corpse, and I believe it will come to that the way things are now.?

A neighbor interrupted. ?I ain?t agin? a bargain, Jess. But you?d be a fool to give this place up at sech a price.?

?Nor do I intend to,? answered Watkins. ?So hear me out. I don?t want any misunderstandings on this. I will sell it all to you as I said, and I?ll take my brood and clear out, but only until the war is over. Then I will come back. On my solemn oath I will, and when I do you must sell my property back to me at the same price.?

Some of the menfolk exchanged sidelong glances while others tugged at their beards in moments of intense concentration.

?I?ve spent my best years working this land. And it?s a money maker. It?s the best payin? farm from Warsaw to Tuscumbia?ain?t braggin?, jest statin? fact.? He called for one of his sons to fetch a ledger book. ?Let him that denies it look in this book. I?ve ciphered it all out.?

Those who could read examined the pages and explained the entries to the others. There was a general nod of assent as the various transactions were enumerated.

?Now, as you can see,? Jess continued, ?a man is bound to make money here. If you buy my place you may sell the mules as you see fit. I?m resigned to take some losses, but you must sell back to me whatever remains when I return.?

?When?ll that be?? inquired a lanky hillsman.

?Seven years, friend.? There was an air of dead certainty to Watkins voice. ?This war cain?t last more?n seven years. I?m bettin? the farm on it. I?ll be back in seven years?the devil hisself cain?t stop me.?

And so it came to pass that the farm on Watkins Holler changed hands, at least for a time. There were two buyers: one was a neighbor, old Absalom Pogue; the other was Doc Collins from down Linn Creek way. The two men pooled their money and paid in gold coin. The papers were drawn up by Judge Fristoe, a good friend of the Watkins family. After the sale the judge asked Jess where he was taking the family.

?Texas,? replied Watkins. ?There ain?t no fightin? down thataway. We?ll be safe enough, I reckon.?

?And how will you live??

Jess glanced down the wide, green valley. His face hardened with a look of determination. ?Between me and my sons, we?ll find a way. Lord knows, it cain?t be no harder than clearing this land. Besides, I?m keepin? two of my black boys, and if I have to, I?ll sell them to raise money.?

?You?ll have your $500 gold with you. That?ll keep you going.?

Jess said nothing for a moment, and then he spoke in slow, measured phrases. ?No, Judge. I ain?t a-takin? that gold with me.? Watkins looked Judge Fristoe square in the eye with a look that would shake the mettle of any but an honest man. ?I?m a-buryin? it right on the farm, out by the stone wall that runs along the holler. That way I know I?ll have it when the time comes.? His eyes narrowed as he contemplated his friend. ?You?re the only one that knows, and I trust you like a brother to keep it to yourself.?

?It?s our secret, Jess,? replied the judge in solemn tones. ?And may God keep you safe and sound.?

Within a week of the sale the Watkins family left for Texas. It was July, 1862. The war would last three more years.

In the late summer of 1865, old man Pogue and Doc Collins both expected the Watkins family to return. Pogue and Collins not only had survived the war, but had profited handsomely from it by selling mules to the armies?both armies as it turned out. Part of the bargain that Pogue and Collins struck with the quartermaster agents included a demand that the military commanders in charge of the Valley keep the bushwackers and militia away. So with a glow of generosity born of success, and born, too, of the fact that there was not a mule left to sell, the two men had decided that Watkins could have his farm back now; there would be no need to wait the full seven years. Yet the Watkins family did not return that year.

Nor did they return the next year, nor the next. Indeed, the full seven years passed and still no sign of the family. By that time old Pogue had died, intestate, and Doc Collins had sold everything of value on the farm. Otherwise, he had no interest in the place. He leased out the few acres that had not gone fallow. In 1873, a typhoid epidemic claimed the life of Collins and his family. A year later, wild fire burnt down the Watkins house and outbuildings and, with sure certainty, the forest reclaimed nearly all of the once-prosperous farm. All that remained to mark its passing was the stone fence that ran out along the meandering creek that a few still called Watkins Holler.

Judge Fristoe, friend to the end, made inquiries of Watkins family. He wrote to acquaintances in Springfield and Fort Smith, and to postmasters and county judges all the way to Austin, but always with the same negative response. No one had seen nor heard of the Watkins family of Missouri. Folks in the Osage Valley showed little curiosity over the apparent disappearance. ?Likely, they went somewheres else,? was the most common explanation. Fristoe knew otherwise, for even if his friend had found a better place, Jess Watkins would never leave $500 buried in the ground and not come back for it. No, Judge Fristoe feared the worst: the Watkins had fallen victim to either disease or jayhawkers or Indians along the road to Texas. Perchance some Good Samaritan had taken the time to give their bleached bones a decent burial. That was Fristoe?s hope, but he never spoke aloud of it, nor of the buried gold. The secret went with him to his grave in 1875.

The story might never have been revealed were it not for a nephew of the judge. Thirty-five years after Fristoe?s death, the nephew, who lived in Jefferson City, came across some old papers the judge had left in a sealed trunk. Amonst the papers was a journal in which the judge had documented the sale of the Watkins farm and the revelation of buried gold on the property. A secret thus revealed is a secret no longer. The imprudent nephew announced his findings and immediately set out to locate the trove. But there was one significant problem: the old judge's journal did not include a legal description of the land, and not a single map of the area made mention of Watkins Holler. Still, the nephew was unperturbed, for county deed records certainly would show the location of the property.

Fristoe had been a judge in Camden County, so that is where the nephew looked first. More?s the pity, for he learned that the land deeds dating from the time in question, in the words of the county recorder at old Linn Creek, had ?gone down the river in the flood of ?03.? Thinking, perhaps, that the property had been on the Morgan County side of the river, he paid a call on the recorder at Versailles. There he found scattered records from the proper time, but none mentioned the name of Watkins. He was told bluntly that many of the deeds had been lost over the years, and that he had about an equal chance of finding Geronimo?s grave. A bit shaken, the nephew next went to Tuscumbia to search the Miller County records. That quickly came to nothing?a fire had claimed all the records of those olden times. With his enthusiasm waning, he next tried the Benton County courthouse. No luck; both a fire and haphazard record keeping had combined to foil his search. The nephew passed from the scene a sadder but wiser man.

Unknown to the nephew, his inquiries at the courthouses had caused a stir. Word got around that someone was looking for a treasure at Watkins Holler. And there were a few old-timers around who knew exactly which creek used to be called Watkins Holler. They truly were the wise ones, for the years had taught them when to keep quiet. After the commotion had settled down, they and their families set out to probe the grounds on the old Watkins place. The searches involved several of the long-established families of the area, though a certain code of honor prevailed amongst them and bound them to silence. The searches were never well organized, and spanned many years. One of the families, it is said, actually bought up the land?indiscreetly, of course?in the hopes of locating the gold at their leisure, but they never found it.

They did find something else.

On certain summer nights a light appeared along the old stone wall that paralleled Watkins Holler. It appeared as a pinpoint of light, much like a candle or lantern light. The light would drift along the wall and then disappear. On occasion, a passerby might chance to investigate the glow, but as he drew closer the light would vanish. The new property owners had seen it several times and confided to the other families that such a thing was going on. An explanation soon came forth. One of the men who knew of the secret worked at the Stover coal pits. He said it was gas seeping upwards from a coal deposit. Under certain conditions of temperature and humidity, he claimed, the gas would glow in the dark?much like a dim light.

That seemed to settle it. But the family that had bought the land, and had seen the light more than anyone else, knew the real truth. That truth kept them from ever searching again for the gold. They were fearful of offending the spook light?and they were certain it was a spook light, for unlike coal gas it only appeared at intervals, during warm July nights, every seventh year. It was the cold ghost of Jess Watkins, coming back every seven years to get his money and buy back his farm.

In all his travels up and down the valley in the final months before the lake came in, Uncle Harold never knew which of the many creeks that flowed into the Osage was the original Watkins Holler. The gray-bearded old man who told him the story wouldn?t say. In fact, he told Harold that he was doing him a favor by not telling him where it was. ?You don?t want to see that light, boy!? the old man had told him. ?It?ll ha?nt you all your life. I know. Best that it goes under the lake. Some thangs is best left alone.?

Harold?s been gone these many years, and there is no way of knowing who the old man was that told him the story. But one thing seems sure: one of the coves that now opens onto the main channel of the lake was once called Watkins Holler. Some July night, maybe this year, an unsuspecting boater, or a fisherman on shore, will gaze upon the waters of a nondescript cove and notice a dim light coming from under the water. Then we will have found, once and for all, the elusive Watkins Holler.

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