COVER: Homemade memorials people for people who died in traffic accidents the winding, ridge-running stretch of Ranch Road 32 known as the Devil’s Backbone. The crosses and altars line a chain-linked fence a roadside rest stop. ABOVE: Rancher Charlie Beatty, 57, on right, shares yarns of ghost horses with friend Bill Spears, 72, at the Devil’s Backbone Tavern. PHOTO by JILLIAN BLISS
by JILLIAN BLISS
For Reporting Texas
Rancher Charlie Beatty first heard the ghost horses gallop across the Devil’s Backbone as he stood outside one night.
“The horses are a legend around here,” Beatty says. “That’s the only thing I think I can say, is, honestly, out of this world.”
Beatty, 57, says the sound unnerved him at the time, but he’s learned to live with it.
There are plenty of ghost stories along the Backbone, a limestone ridge that runs from Wimberley to Blanco through the Texas Hill Country, so many stories that the area is a regular stop for paranormal aficionados.
Local author Bert Wall, who sold Beatty the property next to Wall’s Chaparral Ranch in 1996, wrote eight books chronicling weird phenomena on the Backbone and was working on another before his death in 2010. These days locals gather at the Devil’s Backbone Tavern, on Ranch Road 32 near the little town of Fischer, to share the latest batch of puzzling occurrences.
The old stone tavern is a classic, a 1930s honky-tonk with a jukebox where people share yarns over cigarettes and beers. It is also widely believed to be haunted.
“The TVs in the tavern will turn off and on and switch channels on their own sometimes,” says Melaine Walker, 47, a bartender at Devil’s Backbone Tavern who began visiting the honky-tonk as a child with her father. “I guess whoever is doing it just wants to watch TV or doesn’t like what we’re watching.”
There’s a sign on the tavern’s mantle that says, “Ghost Warning – If Doors and Windows Open And Close By Them Selfs, Just Ignore It. It’s Just Our Ghost Trying to Get Attention. He Thinks It’s Funny.”
A stone that’s part of the fireplace is shaped like the devil’s face. It gazes across the bar from just above the hearth and is said to eavesdrop on conversations.
“We get a lot of tourists that come in here because of Bert’s books and the articles and the media,” Walker says. “They’ll type in ‘haunted bars’ on the Internet and see us and come out. We get a lot of college kids who hear about it and are looking for something to do.”
Like listen to stories about Robert Kelly, whose picture hangs on the tavern wall next to pictures of other departed customers. Kelly was known to have attitudes and perhaps still does. Twice, the story goes, his picture fell and hit his former girlfriend in the head as she told unfavorable tales about him.
Walker says the whole Backbone is haunted. Her ex-husband once came back from hunt on a ranch along the Backbone and said he would never return. He had been frightened, he said, by the sound of at least 50 thundering hooves, and by the apparition of a Confederate cavalry troop that accompanied the sound.
Wall and Beatty used to meet at the tavern, and the ghost horses came up once.
“I got to thinking about a story Bert wrote about the wild horses,” Beatty says. “I told him what happened, and he told me that from over here to a campsite in Blanco they hear horses from time to time — about 50 horses. He said the only thing it could be is Confederate soldiers riding through.”
Jackie Milligan, co-founder of Texas Paranormal Events, an online community that promotes ghost investigations, has looked into strange incidents on ranches on the Backbone.
“One family called us because their youngest son was talking to someone,” Milligan says. “They thought it was cute and an imaginary friend until he told them she was a little girl with a hole in her head.”
Milligan and her investigators knew of a family killed by Comanches in the 1800s on a ranch on the Backbone. Milligan says it was common practice for families being raided to commit suicide–something she noted when she heard the little ghost girl had told the son that her father had put the hole in her head.
Milligan says her team captured EVPs–electronic voice phenomena–of a little girl’s voice giggling in the family’s house. The giggling grew when she asked about the family cat.
“It was funny because the cat would act like someone was playing with him when no one was,” she says. “I was asking questions about the cat, and one EVP had the little voice saying ‘yes’ when I asked if she liked playing with him.”
Milligan has not looked into the haunting of Devil’s Backbone Tavern, though Walker says several teams have come with ghost-tracking equipment. One group showed her and her sister how to rig a flashlight to power on when a ghost entered the room.
Walker says she has been truly scared just once.
“I was closing up all alone one night when it was raining,” she says. “I was the only one here, but when I went to go out the back door, I heard something. I looked and I saw two wet footprints, but there was no one else around.”
JILLIAN BLISS writes for Reporting Texas, a UT School of Journalism program, where this story was originally published. It is reprinted here through a news partnership between Reporting Texas and the Bobcat Magazine.Email | Print