For Halloween: A quick, not-too-scary tale.
Adventure in the Hobbit Barn
When I purchased the old Shepard Place on 160 acres in northern Nebraska, I didn’t consider it to be haunted. In fact, it turned out to be just a lot of work.
Back in 1925, Old Man Shepard ordered a house kit from the Sears & Roebuck catalog. It came by rail, arriving at the depot in town, about twenty-five miles away. It took several trips by horse and wagon for Mr. Shepard to get all of the pieces out to the property, and the last five miles along the bumpy river road took some real skill to navigate. But that’s another story.
After Mr. Shepard finished putting the house together, he built a barn for his livestock and dug a 6x8-foot root cellar into the hillside behind his home.
That house had seen better days by the time I acquired the property in 1990. I bought it from the bank that had repossessed the place, which I considered to be barely habitable. A sign leaning against a big tree in the yard read, “Huck Hobbit Rentals.” I asked my neighbor, Roy, about that.
“A guy named Hobbs had your place during most of the 1980s and he was a real character,” Roy said. “He was, well the best I can describe him is a hippie entrepreneur. He did odd jobs, rented out a few canoes to tourists, and was always coming up with looney ideas to make a buck. He moved his family to Alaska when the bank kicked them out.” He shook his head and whirled his finger around his ear, pantomiming “crazy.”
The outbuildings were in worse shape than the house. Gaping holes in the barn roof had obviously let rain and snow in for years, and the root cellar had partially collapsed. Both structures gave me the creeps, so I mainly avoided them.
One day, needing a break from working on the house, I decided to do a deep dive into the barn to see if Mr. Hobbs had left anything interesting. I noticed that the roof remained intact over several of the stalls, which appeared to be crammed full of junk. I pulled on a pair of heavy work gloves and started exploring. The place didn’t feel so eerie with the afternoon sun pouring in through the roof and the openings left by missing wall boards.
The stall closest to the broken barn door overflowed with rusty iron. Rummaging through it, I discovered tractor parts, handle-less garden implements, wheel rims with broken spokes, and pieces from an old corn sheller. A wheelbarrow without the wheel peeked out from beneath a pile of rebar. Two dusty typewriters sat to one side, the carriage return lever missing on one, and the key bars in the type basket twisted into a knot on the other.
“Nothing useful here,” I muttered to myself as I turned my attention to the second stall.
It appeared to be full of discarded river outfitter gear. Planted atop a pile of torn life jackets, two broken paddles crossed over each other, as if to say, “X Marks the Spot” on a treasure map. With my foot, I nudged a few life vests aside to see what lay beneath them. I started when a mouse scurried out from under an aluminum canoe with a jagged hole in the hull. I guess I’m a little edgy after all, I thought.
I peered over into the next stall and gasped. A bloody arm protruded from a huge pile of deteriorating cardboard boxes and dirty rags. A cloud passed in front of the sun, dimming the daylight. I walked around to the stall door, and poked my head inside, straining to get a better view. I saw a bloody leg sticking out below the arm. I shivered. Jumbled thoughts raced through my mind. Should I take a closer look? Should I call 911?
My sense of reason returned when I realized that everything was too dusty for any recent violent disturbance. Nobody’s been in here for months, maybe years. If that was a genuine dead body, it would either stink by now or maybe just be reduced to a skeleton. Skin and wounds wouldn’t still be intact.
I crept into the stall, all senses on alert. I carefully moved some of the rags and then began digging deeper into the pile. Several complete, or nearly complete bodies emerged—all with elaborately painted “wounds” and “scars.” Some had red-stained bandages wrapped around limbs or torsos. A couple of detached heads grinned at me. These are just mannequins, I thought. Why would someone go to all this work to make it look like carnage and mayhem?
A peal of thunder made me jump, and I raced back to the house just as it started to rain.
The next morning, I paid Roy another visit and told him about my gruesome discovery. His face broke into a huge grin. “Scared ya, didn’t it?”
“Not after I figured out they weren’t real,” I lied.
He chuckled. “Old Hobbs was into a bit of everything. For two or three Halloweens he created a big haunted house attraction, and people came from all around—they paid him to see it. Every year it got wilder, and it drew bigger crowds.”
A week later, I pulled everything out of that stall and loaded it into my pickup. There were almost a dozen mannequins in various states of distress, boxes of moldy black and orange decorations, several torn and faded masks, and even a big plastic witch’s cauldron. I threw a tarp over the whole mess and hauled it to the dump.
A handful of other people were dropping their garbage at the landfill when I arrived. Several of them looked at me, first casually and then with rapt attention, as I backed in to unload. One little boy jumped up and down, pointing at me and pulling on his father’s shirt. What are they looking at? I wondered.
I shut off the engine, got out of the cab, and walked back to untie the tarp. I discovered what everyone was staring at. One of the ropes holding the tarp had come loose during the drive, and a corner of the tarp had blown back, exposing a gruesome jumble of limbs and “bloody” bandages.
I untied the rest of the tarp and dropped the tailgate. A severed head fell out and bounced into the garbage pile. I jumped, in spite of myself. The little boy screamed. His father’s eyes nearly popped out of his head.
Suddenly feeling the need to rush, I hurriedly emptied the pickup bed, stowed the tarp, and drove away, half surprised that nobody tried to stop me.
It took me months to get comfortable again about going to the dump.
Photo by Brice Cooper on Unsplash