Old Stone Fort has a history of ghosts, pranks

Published 1:32 pm Tuesday, April 12, 2022

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I don’t believe in ghosts, never have. But there was a time when Old Stone Fort, in Coffee County, was said to be haunted.

At first glance, Old Stone Fort appears to be nothing more than a short wall around a big field that is flanked by two small rivers — the Duck and Little Duck. But the wall happens to be very old, between 1,500 and 2,000 years old, during the Woodland Era. This is the same era in which Pinson Mounds was built in present-day Madison County, and it’s a mysterious era.

When settlers began moving into Tennessee in the 1700s, the Native American tribes they encountered told them that they didn’t know what the place had been used for. The newcomers gave the place the name “Old Stone Fort” because they guessed it had been a fortification built by early European explorers — perhaps those who were led by Hernando de Soto, for instance.

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But in 1966, archaeologists from the University of Tennessee conducted extensive digs which proved that the walls were built in the Woodland Era. Drawing conclusions on what they found (charcoal samples) and what they didn’t find (cultural artifacts and human remains), the archaeological team led by Charles Faulkner concluded that the place once had a religious or ceremonial function. It was, perhaps, a place where tribes gathered once a year for rituals, or sporting events, or just to socialize.

If you think about Old Stone Fort and its geography, it’s easy to see how it could become a popular gathering place. The area between the rivers is flat but surrounded on most sides by steep embankments. Next to Old Stone Fort, the Duck River flows along solid rock and goes through a series of waterfalls, the largest of which is known as Big Falls. The natural flow of the river here has attracted more than one business venture; in the latter part of the twentieth century a paper mill operated at Old Stone Fort.

Here’s what I once discovered about Old Stone Fort’s history from old newspaper clippings: In 1833, six Rutherford County men went to Old Stone Fort for a fox hunt. After having camped out for several days, one of them got spooked by something he saw and heard, which caused him to leave.

A year later, the same six men, with nine of their friends, came back and stayed at the same place. At first they saw nothing unusual. But after several days, a local man named Latimer, who wanted to drive the hunters away, built a contraption that made a frightening sound. With the help of two boys, Latimer sneaked around the woods in the middle of the night and unleashed the terrifying noise at different points and at different times. “At first the hunters were disposed to laugh, then they got quiet, then they commenced shooting,” the article said. “Next morning the hunters told wonderful stories about what they saw, how it came close up to the fire, how impervious it was to their bullets, how it changed from an animal to a woman, and what it would say.”

According to the article, among the members of the hunting party were Leonard Sims, who later moved to Missouri and became a U.S. Congressman, and Jack Fletcher, who served for many years in the Tennessee General Assembly. Both Sims and Fletcher were apt to retell the ghost story in legislative settings.

One of the boys involved in the mischief, however, went on to become a reporter for the Nashville American, and he confessed to his part in the prank in the [Nashville] Daily American on May 18, 1887.

I contemplated this ghost story and practical joke last year when, on a drive from Chattanooga back to my home in Nashville, my son and I stopped at Old Stone Fort, which is now a state archaeological park. We took off our shoes, walked through the river and explored the falls. It’s easy to understand that the place would be a welcome haven for adults, children and spirits of all eras.