Old Larissa and The Killough Massacre

Old Larissa is an abandoned town-site in Cherokee County in northeast Texas. On Christmas Eve, 1837, the Killough, Wood and Williams families arrived from Alabama and settled on the site. Unfortunately, the very next year, their settlement would go down in history as the place of the largest single Indian depredation in East Texas.

The year before the three families came, the site of Old Larissa and thousands of acres around it were promised to the local Cherokee Indians by Sam Houston in a treaty. The land was promised to them forever in exchange for peace in East Texas. A few months later however, the Republic of Texas Senate refused to ratify the treaty and put the land up for white settlement. When the Killough-led settlers came in, built homes and began clearing the land to grow crops, the Cherokee, who considered a man's spoken words to be a bond, considered them to be trespassing on their land and stealing food from them by killing the game animals they hunted. The settlers knew none of the history of the land they believed they had legally purchased.

For a few months, the Indians tolerated the intrusion, but more settlers began moving in, clearing the forests, planting crops and killing game. By August, 1838, there were 30 people living in the settlement they called Larissa. The corn was ready to be harvested, but the settlers received word the Indians were becoming increasingly disgruntled and were getting ready to go on the war path against them. They managed to let the Indians know they were willing to leave. In return, they were promised safe passage, which they received, and they retreated to Jefferson, a large town that was much safer. In late September however, hearing of no Indian attacks and not wanting to lose the corn they had planted, they decided to return to their homes. It was a grave mistake.

On the afternoon of October 5, a large band of Cherokee, Caddos, and Coushattas attacked the settlement. A number of men, including Isaac Killough, Sr., were caught in the corn field without their guns and were quickly killed. Homes were then attacked. The remaining men and older boys were killed and some of the younger children and several of the wives were kidnapped and taken with the Indians when they left. Surprisingly, twelve people, including Urcey, Killough Sr.'s wife, escaped the massacre by hiding in a barn and in the surrounding woods. In all, eighteen of the settlers were either killed or abducted, the largest number of white fatalities in an Indian raid in East Texas history.

Stone obelisk placed at the site of the massacre
The survivors eventually made their way on foot to Lacy's Fort, forty miles to the south on the Old San Antonio Road. When word of the massacre began to spread, a militia set out to find the perpetrators and rescue any surviving whites. After reaching Fort Houston near the site of present day Palestine, they heard the Indians were camped at an old Kickapoo village near Frankston. Riding at night, the militia found the Indian encampment and attacked the next day. The surprise attack was successful and eleven Indians were killed before the rest made their escape. No white captives were rescued or seen. It was later rumored that the group of Indians the militia attacked were not responsible for the Killough massacre, but it little mattered as it was thought revenge had been in order.

It was not until 1846, when the Indians in the area were subdued and removed that any further settlement was attempted. Over the next few years, the settlement of Larissa grew into a thriving community with a number of business's, churches and even a college. When the Civil War came, Larissa began to decline as the local men and the male students left to fight. After the war, Reconstruction hit the town hard as it did everywhere in the south and the college was forced to close. In 1872, the railroad bypassed the town by eight miles and more people moved away. A meningitis epidemic then hit and a number of the remaining residents died. The death blow for the town hit in 1882 when another railroad bypassed the town by three miles and a new community was founded along the rails. Most of the few remaining residents moved to the new town of Mount Selman.

The stone obelisk surrounded by the victim's graves
Today there is very little remaining to even suggest there was once a prominent, thriving community at the site. A Texas historical marker was placed where the college stood and a stone obelisk was erected at the site of the massacre by the Work Projects Administration in the late 1930's. The peaceful site is at the end of a remote, rarely used dead-end country road barely wide enough for 2 cars to pass each other. You won't find it by accident. The only sounds to be heard are the birds in the trees and maybe a small animal rooting around in the underbrush. The obelisk is surrounded by the graves of the victims marked by mounds of rocks and crumbling markers barely legible. A few scattered modest homes and barns of small farms are found in the area, but none have any connection to the possibilities or the horror that once was there.

Buried Gold in a Ft. Worth Cemetery

Greenwood Cemetery entrance
In the late 1840's, Charles Turner, a Mexican War veteran and former Texas Ranger, established a large farm on land that eventually became today's Fort Worth, Texas. After building a home for his family, he expanded into the retail business and opened one of the first general stores in the growing community. His store gained fame when hundreds of people from all around the area came by over a few days in December,1860 after Cynthia Ann Parker, who had been kidnapped almost 25 years earlier in the Fort Parker massacre, was recaptured from the Comanche Indians and brought there by Texas Rangers while returning her to her family. She still wore her Indian clothes and sat quietly holding her infant daughter, Prairie Flower,  as people lined up to stare at her.

Talk of secession filled the air in early 1861. At his store, which had become a community meeting place, the slave-owning Turner expressed his desire that Texas not leave the Union. He said he could see no good that would come of it and gave his opinion that if war came, the south, with no manufacturing base, would lose and economic disaster would inevitably follow.

The Turner Oak

Later that year, when the state voted to secede and join the Confederacy however, Turner confirmed his allegiance to Texas and even paid to raise a company of Confederate soldiers. When war was declared, the Confederate government ordered its citizens to exchange their gold for paper currency. Before exchanging his gold though, Turner, along with his most trusted slave, "Uncle Ben," took a large cooking pot filled with gold coins and buried it under a live oak tree on his farm.

As the war continued, people suffered. Men were killed in battle, people went hungry and nobody was immune from the suffering. Some of Turner's family passed away and were buried near the oak tree which hid the pot of gold. Soon, people from the area began being buried on the same piece of land and a cemetery began taking form. The population of Fort Worth dropped to only 175 residents by the time war mercifully came to an end.

Marker at the base of the Turner Oak
The hard Reconstruction years followed and the citizens of Fort worth felt the pain like everyone else in the south. The economy was devastated when their Confederate money became worthless. People were left with next to nothing. And that's when Charles Turner came to the rescue of Fort Worth. He retrieved that pot of gold coins hidden beneath the live oak and used the money to pay for food, construction of new buildings, and the needed infrastructure of a city. Today, Fort Worth is prosperous and the 16th largest city in the United States with a population of almost 900,000, but who knows what would have happened if it were not for Charles Turner and his hidden pot of gold.

Near the Turner Oak is the grave of Luse Wallenberg,
marked by a female figure atop a pot of gold coins which
commemorates the story
The live oak tree which once was the caretaker of Fort Worth's future, is still alive and well. Known as The Turner Oak, it has been officially named a Living Witness tree and is listed as a certified Historic Tree of Texas. It is located about 200 yards inside the main gate of what became today's Greenwood Cemetery on White Settlement Road in Fort Worth.

Close-up of the Luse Wallenberg
grave statue


A Mother's Love Never Dies

South of Kilgore, Texas on Highway 259 is a small country cemetery named Pirtle. In the middle of the sacred grounds, hidden among ornate gravestones pointing to the sky, is the grave of a small boy that is no longer marked. When it was fresh, his daddy, a hardworking but poor farmer, couldn't afford a formal marker so he carved his son's name and the year he died into a sandstone rock and placed it there. Over the years though, it has been lost or stolen or maybe the carving weathered away and a well-meaning groundskeeper thought it was just a rock and removed it. 

In life, that little boy was terrified of the dark and the monsters he believed came out when light went to sleep. It’s normal for children to be afraid of the dark and what might be lurking within it, but this little boy, for reasons known only in his innocent mind, was deathly afraid of it. Whenever he found himself in darkness, he would scream in fright and curl up on the ground in a shaking, quivering ball. He even had trouble trying to take a nap in the daytime because when he closed his eyes, the light dimmed.

It had been a difficult pregnancy and mother and baby had both barely survived the birth. He would be her only child as she could never have another. From the time his mother figured out why he would cry every night, she tried to calm him and keep the darkness away. Every night she would sit beside him on his bed with an oil lantern glowing on the table. She would whisper her forever love for him and kiss his forehead. She told him stories of brave knights who slew dragons for kings and queens who lived in far off castles and would softly sing lullabies until he finally drifted into sleep. Only then did she tip-toe to her own bed, leaving the lantern burning low. She would get up often during the night to check on the lantern, because if it burned out, he would wake up crying in terror.

The boy never got over his fear of the dark even as he got older. His few friends from the neighboring farms made fun of him and his father, despite love for his family, grew angry at the boy and resented his wife for her indulgence. Like all little boys, he desperately wanted his father to be proud of him so he tried hard to control his fears, but no matter how hard he tried, he could never suppress them.

One day shortly after he turned six, he “took The Fever” as they said back then and became very sick. For several weeks, his mother stayed at his bedside day and night, cooling his hot little body with a rag dipped in cool water she fetched from the well. Nothing more could be done though and she became ever more frantic as she helplessly watched her young son slowly get worse. In the middle of a dark moonless night, despite all of her efforts and prayers, the boy gave up the fight. With his eyes open and looking at his loving mother, he passed away. 

The next day, neighbors came to take the child’s body for burial, but the mother hugged the corpse to her chest crying, “You can’t take him! He’s afraid of the dark! He's so afraid of the dark!” Eventually, the doctor was summoned and he gave the woman laudanum so she would fall asleep and the dead child could be taken from her for burial.

After the burial in Pirtle Cemetery, the mother visited his grave every evening as the sun set and stayed there the whole night. Newcomers to the area would often ask about the flickering light they would see in the cemetery after dark. Was the cemetery haunted by spirits? No, they would be told, it's only a mother who was crazy with grief. The residents would sadly shake their heads and explain she thought she was comforting her dead son. She kept a lantern lit all night as she sat next to her little boy's grave, telling him she would never stop loving him, softly singing lullabies and telling tales of kings and queens and brave knights in shining armor who rode white horses and slayed dragons. She wouldn't leave until the morning sun rose above the horizon and filled the day with light.

The story goes that the poor mother died not a year later of grief. Her husband buried her beside their son, but it seems she sometimes pays a visit to her little boy at night. Many people have reported seeing a lantern light flickering in the darkness in the middle of the cemetery. The old-timers are sure it's that forlorn mother still comforting her son from beyond the grave. Proof a mother’s love never ends.

When Japan Bombed Texas

In the early spring of 1945, Japan bombed the state of Texas. Well, they tried and actually came close to succeeding. There were no causalities and the whole thing might never have been known if it had not been reported by a group of teenagers from the little town of Desdemona.

On the afternoon of March 23, C.M. Guthery, fourteen, was riding the bus home from Desdemona Junior High when he noticed what looked like a large basketball descending from the sky. When he got off the bus at his stop on the next block, he started following the "basketball" as it continued to fall. As it floated closer to the ground, young Guthery had to begin jogging to keep up with it. A little over a mile later, it landed in a vacant field near some houses.

A group of kids from the neighborhood soon joined Guthery in examining what they could tell was a large balloon. The fabric was very brittle and a faded red rising sun symbol could be seen near the top. It was gray in color and smelled bad, kind of like creosote, so a few of the children wouldn't touch it, but others did. They began pulling it apart and carried away some ropes and pieces of the fabric.

Japanese balloon bomb in the
air (file photo)
Guthery walked back home and told his parents what he had found as did several of the other young teenagers. Government authorities were called by the parents. Early the next morning, military men showed up in town to visit the site where the remains of the balloon remained. They then began canvassing houses and gathered up the missing pieces taken as souvenirs. 

While the officials were busy in Desdemona, Ivan Miller, a cowboy on the Barney Davis Ranch in the nearby town of Woodson, was working a fence line when he discovered a large, collapsed balloon. This balloon also had a large rising sun painted near the top as well as several smaller rising suns around the bottom. Before the military men finished their work in Desdemona, residents in Woodson trekked out to the 2nd landing site and carried off pieces of the balloon as souvenirs. The officials had to repeat their process again, securing the site and then going around town collecting all the missing pieces.

In both cases, the civilians who found the balloons and took away pieces of them had no idea they had found anything other than a couple of big balloons. It wasn't until later they discovered how lucky they were.

On May 5, 1945, just six weeks later, a group of picnickers in southern Oregon were not so lucky. That morning, Archie Mitchell, the reverend for the Christian Alliance Church, drove to the mountains near Bly with his pregnant wife and five young parishioners from his church. About 1/2 mile from the picnic area on Gearhart Mountain, he dropped off his wife and the kids, all between the ages of 13 - 15, so they could have an adventure hiking the trail for the rest of the way.

(Historical document)
After arriving at the picnic site, Reverend Mitchell was unloading the food from the car when he heard his wife calling to him a short way into the surrounding woods. They said they had found something that looked like a large balloon and wanted him to come take a look at it. He had heard on the news warnings regarding Japanese balloons landing in the area so as he began jogging toward the group he shouted for them to get away from it. Unfortunately, his warning came several seconds too late. He had only ran a couple of feet when he heard a large explosion and debris began raining down. Evidently, one of the children had tugged on a rope hanging from the balloon and the bomb exploded. When the Reverend recovered his senses and made his way to the site of the explosion, he found his wife and all five of the children dead. The Oregon picnickers were the only Americans killed by enemy action inside the continental United States during World War II.

Between November, 1944 and April, 1945 Japan launched nine thousand balloons which they hoped would be transported to mainland America by the atmospheric winds. Attached to each balloon was a 33-pound antipersonnel explosive and two incendiary munitions. Their goal was to create a series of forest fires and to kill civilians in order to create havoc, divert personnel, dampen American morale and disrupt the war effort. Approximately 1,000 actually reached America, Canada and Mexico, but most proved to be carrying dud bombs or, like the two found in Desdemona and Woodson, the explosive cargo had fallen harmlessly into the ocean before making landfall. It may never be known for sure, however, how many actually caused damage as the military placed a blackout ban on any news of the balloon bombs in order to deprive Japan from tracking their success.

Confirmed landings and explosion sites
Amazingly, a number of these balloon bombs continued to be found for years after the war. Several were found in Hawaii and some made it as far east on the mainland as Omaha, Grand Rapids, Chicago and Detroit. One, with its explosives still attached, was found partially buried outside Edmonton, Alberta in 1953. In 1955, another one was found in Alaska. One was found and had to be destroyed in northern Mexico in 1964. In 1978, a badly deteriorated balloon without its munitions was found in a remote forest area in Oregon. The latest one found was discovered by two forestry workers in 2014 in the Monashee Mountains of British Columbia. The balloon material had disintegrated but metal pieces of the apparatus was visible and the bomb it had carried was partially buried in the dirt. It had been laying undiscovered in that spot for 70 years. Considered too dangerous to remove, the military placed C-4 on the ground around it and blew it, they reported, "to smithereens."

Even today, over 70 years later, not many know about Japan's balloon bomb attack, but World War II effected every home, town and person in America, even a few young, very lucky teenagers living far from any battlefield in a small country town like Desdemona, Texas.