Old habits don't die on a former, possibly haunted, dairy farm.
When I purchased Mount Pleasant Farm in the rolling hills west of Torrington, few repairs had been made since Mason Deming had retired from the dairy business 20 years earlier. The large barn had suffered through years of neglect, and the farmhouse had also fallen on hard times. Grandchildren, nieces and grandnieces, nephews and great-nephews, and various other relations lived in the house over the years since the end of the dairy operation. During the winter prior to my purchasing the property, the second floor had been occupied by Beth, a granddaughter, and her two children.
Beth told me that the house and barns were haunted. She also cautioned me about being careful should I choose to investigate any noises I might hear in the attic, as the stairs were old, creaky, and potentially dangerous. Another warning concerned my making sure that all of the knives had been put away before going to bed because once upon a time there had been a particularly gruesome murder in the farmhouse kitchen.
Her daughter chimed in to tell me that sometimes you can still see the spirits of cows walking through the fields. I found the idea of ghost cows to be charming, and so I promised to keep a lookout for them, especially during a full moon. No, I was told, the cows walked just before sunset, the time when they normally would have been called back to the barn.
Being a practical New Yorker, I was somewhat skeptical about the presence of spirits. That said, I soon met many of the relations who had lived in the house over the years and came to like them all. Some remembered the old ghost stories, and we had many good laughs about specters from Colonial days or long-lost members of the Hodges family—the original owners of the property—still clambering about the farmhouse. A number of the children, and not a few of the adults, professed to have seen the ghost cows walking across the lower meadow. The adults remembered that whomever was sent to fetch the cows was to sing “Seeing Nellie Home,” a favorite of Mr. Deming’s as he worked in the barn. The cows would hear it and immediately begin their return walk.
As I restored the property, my pal, Maggie, and I always carried cameras with us in order to have a photographic record of the renovations. One day in September 2006, Maggie noticed that one of the unmowed hay fields had a wonderful late-summer glow. She photographed me facing northwest, with the field at my back, so as to get the best contrast of light and shadow. When we got back to the house, I transferred the day’s pictures to my computer for future viewing, started dinner, and promptly forgot about them.
Five years went by. When my friend UConn Bob and I began discussing a book about Mount Pleasant Farm, I started looking through old photographs. In the picture that Maggie had taken of me by the hayfield, I was surprised to see another creature in the scene. Over my left shoulder is, unmistakably, a cow. Yet, there hadn’t been a cow on that property for 20 years. This image has not been photo-shopped or otherwise altered. What you see is what was in the field that day. I have no explanation.
When I showed the picture to some of the older relations, however, no one seemed surprised. “That’s Dolly,” they said. “She is always the first one back. If you’d waited, you would have seen Brandy and Buckwheat. They always come next, always together. The rest follow in twos and threes. Delphie is always last. Grandpa would swear that she would shut the gate when all the girls were home.” This was said with perfectly straight faces as if they were talking about old friends. Which, I realized, many of them were. After all the years, there was still nostalgia for the life they had known as children, and even I had to admit that there is something comforting in the idea that the cows return at the end of every day.
I haven’t seen a ghost cow since, although I have heard what sounds like cowbells on quiet early evenings and occasionally find a gate that I know I left open inexplicably closed. I’ve even tried singing a few bars of “Seeing Nellie Home,” but, as Maggie has pointed out, my singing could well be what is keeping them away. Fortunately we have the picture of Dolly, so we know that they are still out there. I like to think that on some future afternoon, perhaps in the gloaming of a tranquil, late-summer day, I’ll get to see the girls walking home.