Hear Rowan’s myths and mysteries
By Amy Notarius
Rowan Public Library
Local Salisbury storyteller and historian Susan Waller will present “Myths and Mysteries,” a program of stories about Rowan County history, on Thursday at 7 p.m. at Rowan Public Library Headquarters, 201 W. Fisher St. in Salisbury.
Over the years, Waller has collected stories about strange events that have happened in Rowan County. While some events took place only once, others have recurred every year for nearly 200 years.
There’s the story of a train crew riding into Salisbury from Lexington during a terrible storm. Suddenly, the chief engineer orders his crew to stop the train.
Once stopped, the crew goes outside to find that the bridge ahead of them has been completely washed out by raging flood waters, and the train would have plunged into the river below if they had not stopped in time.
All three engineers then admit to seeing a mysterious hand gesturing for the train to stop, a sign that saved the lives of their passengers and themselves.
Or the story of a German immigrant farmer who forces his daughter to marry someone she doesn’t love, in an effort to amass more land by joining with another family.
The young girl refuses, and the night before her wedding her father awakens to find barn doors flinging themselves against the side of the barn, and sees a mysterious light glowing in the barn. Inside the barn, he discovers his daughter has hanged herself. And, every year, on the anniversary of her death, the doors of the barn would fly open and a mysterious light would again glow in the barn.
Waller began telling stories as part of her work at what is now Horizons Unlimited, an experiential learning center that is part of Rowan-Salisbury Schools.
“We did a lot of county tours for fourth and eighth grades,” Waller says. “That’s when they were studying N.C. history.” Waller found that personal stories were the best way to pique her students’ interest.
“Kids really could care less what battle was fought, in what year,” Waller says. “They think the first battle we ever fought was World War II. These personal, first-hand stories are what let me put it on a kid’s level, so my approach to history was different.”
Waller was working for Rowan Museum when she was asked to teach regional and local history for Horizons Unlimited. At the time ó the early 1970s ó there were very few organized histories of Rowan County. So Waller created new programs based on her own research.
She found much of the source material for her stories in the history room at Rowan Public Library. “I’d go through old records and old papers and old journals and diaries, and that’s where a lot of my history came from, the stuff that wasn’t in books,” Waller says.
Waller learns even more history from local graveyards. “There’s more history on tombstones than there ever was in a book,” Waller explains. After discovering from tombstones that six children in one family died in the same year, for example, Waller would note the date and then research what was happening at that time. Was there an epidemic of some sort in Salisbury?
Eventually, Waller even incorporated visits to the graveyard into her Horizons Unlimited curriculum. “I used the Old English Cemetery,” Waller says. “We’d take a class down there, and we did searches. They literally explored the whole curriculum in the graveyard.”
Waller acknowledges she had more freedom than do teachers today. “It was a wonderful job,” she says, “a wonderful way to get started, because I really had no parameters. I was allowed to research and find my own way.”
Today, she notes, teachers “have a set formula, and you have to follow it. “When I was teaching, we’d take off in a totally different direction, and some of my best teaching days I couldn’t justify on my lesson plan. But my kids learned something valuable. You can’t teach that way today.”
As her spontaneous teaching style suggests, Waller isn’t sure which of her many stories she will tell at the Thursday program. But she promises a fun evening.
“This is not truly scary stuff,” she says, “a little eerie, a little strange perhaps.” Its a unique opportunity to learn some of the lesser known myths and mysteries from Rowan County’s history, in an entertaining, informal setting.
The program is free and all are welcome, but according to Waller, it is most appropriate for children ages 8 or older.