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Woodworker's Gazette
Gazette Archive 4/28/02

Barnes and Witches
by Walt Akers

Any of you who had the good fortune of driving down Seaford Road prior to 1960 will recall that the region was a fishing village then. As such, the roadside was dotted with small houses, boat shacks, and barns... lots and lots of barns. Owing to an abundance of hardwoods in the region, the majority of those barns were built from oak, ash, or hickory with the occassional chestnut model thrown in for good measure. As the buildings and their owners aged, both gradually declined and, for the most part, they faded to a subtle, silvery grey before finally disapearing altogether.

There are exceptions, of course, and Margaret Kirby was a fine example.

Now, being Southerners and gentlemen it is against our principles to speak ill of anyone --- at least when they are within hearing distance. But, seeing that Mrs. Kirby has gone on to her reward now, I feel that I won't be betraying any confidences to reveal what I know.

You see, when I was a boy it was common knowledge that Mrs. Kirby was a witch. I don't mean metaphorically, either. I'm talking about a spell-casting, dead-raising, broom-riding harpy --- the gen-u-ine article. As kids, when we had to walk past her house... well, we didn't walk past her house. We would circle around the Methodist church, through the graveyard and down into the swamp to *avoid* walking past her house.

Now, aside from being a witch and scary as hell, Old Lady Kirby had several things going for her that prevented the townspeople from descending on her house with torches and pitch-forks. First, her home was situated in the center of a vast stretch of land that extended from Crab Neck to Chisman Creek and she was reputed to be a very good shot. Secondly, she had an army of ferile cats that were distributed, ad-hoc, across her property. The population would shrink and grow, of course, based on the availability of food and various "cat plagues", but, for the most part, Mrs. Kirby's property looked like 27.6 acres of writhing, undulating fur.

My Old Man reveled in telling tales of small, unnamed children being stalked and eaten by the Kirby cat hourde... We boys kept to the swamps.

Having inherited a tidy sum from her father, a prominent boat-builder, Mrs. Kirby had the luxury of staying at home, looking after her cats, and conjuring demons all day. As the years passed and most of the other large parcels in Seaford were sold off, we all expected that she would sell her place and move on to a more temperate clime --- perhaps scaring new and different children in Florida or California. No such luck, though... Mrs. Kirby was in it for the long haul and two more generations of youngsters would slink through the cemetary in fear before the 'Seaford Witch' finally succumbed to her fate.

With no surviving family and no will, it took York County the better part of six years to dispose of her property.

As I said earlier, Seaford used to be dotted with old barns and out-buildings, but as the years progressed most of the structures were scraped away in favor of single family dwellings. By the time Old Lady Kirby's estate was settled the only barns still standing in the district were three large buildings that her father had used to refit boats. On the day that the County auctioned her property to a local real-estate developer, we all knew that those three barns --- and all of that seasoned oak --- would soon fall victim to smoking teenagers or a stray lighting bolt or some other stroke of misfortune that would free the builder from the unreasonable expense of demolition. After all, the reckless smoking habits of Seaford teens had been instrumental in clearing most of the property in southern York County.

Well, it took less than three hours from when the "Sold" sign was planted in the yard, before my brother John and I were huddled around the dining room table developing our plan of attack... "scheming" is the term my wife, Helga, would use. Now, like Helga, I'm sure that many of you are wondering why we didn't just ask for the lumber. Perhaps we might call the real-estate developer and say, "Hey, you think we could peel some of the flooring out of that old barn before you send your arsonists over to burn it to the ground?" Well, let me assure you (as I did her) --- that's not the way things are done around here. And so with tears in our eyes (and bail money in our pockets) we grabbed the crowbars and set off across the County in search of a barn.

It was almost midnight as we crept across the field and closed in on the free-range lumber.

We approached as steathily as we could... and it was no easy task considering that every other step landed on some part of a cat. As we descended upon the largest of the barns, we could hear voices coming from inside. I had genuine concerns that the 'teenagers' were already lighting up, and our trip would be for naught. But, since we had come this far, it seemed prudent to climb up into the loft and have a peek inside...

From the rafters we immediately identified the culprits... it was the Patton boys.

It seems that the lust for lumber is a common affliction. Since the Pattons only lived a mile down the road, they had arrived before us and had busied themselves stripping down the interior wall boards. Now, had this been any other occassion we would have been happy to see Clyde and Cecil and we probably would have sat down and had a drink. However, on this night... well, this was family business and there was only so much lumber to go around --- the Pattons would have to go. But, rather than risk an armed conflict, John decided to pursue a more diplomatic approach. He reached down and grabbed two fertilizer bags from the floor and slipped back out through the loft door. He was only gone for a minute or two, but when he returned... the bags were no longer empty.

They say that the mark of brilliance is being able to say just the right thing at just the right time... If that's the standard, then John proved himself an intellectual giant that night. He strode to the edge of the loft and with the highest, raspiest voice he could muster shrieked, "I'm back, boys... and this time I'm taking you two with me!" With that he started screaming like a mad woman, slapped the fertilizer bags together and then dumped two ferile cats down on Clyde and Cecil's heads. I can't say if the Pattons believed that Old Lady Kirby had come back to take her revenge or if they just had an unnatural fear of flying cats. But, I can tell you that Cecil was half way across the County by the time Clyde knocked the barn door off its hinges while making his escape.

Well, we spent the rest of the evening celebrating our victory by harvesting the remainder of the wall boards and half of the loft floor. We finally retired at 5:00 AM... just before the sun came up. By the end of the week, a sudden (and unexpected) fire would gut the old barns... we didn't take it too hard, though. We'd collected our piece of Seaford heritage...

Walt Akers
Twisted Oaks

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