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The Ghost of Cleage House

by
Sandra Ratledge

 
 
 
Do you sometimes regret never having an opportunity to meet a relative or ancestor deceased long ago? Lots of us, no doubt, can identify with the desire. Of all my husband's deceased ancestors, I yearn to have known Granny Robinson, his great-grandmother. Donnie Easter Wilson was born June 2, 1887, at Coker Creek in Monroe County, TN and married Garrett Robinson February 22, 1903, in McMinn County, TN. She passed away seven years before I married into the Ratledge family, so I never met her. In spite of that, I still found ways to learn about her -- "here a little, there a little."

One story Granny Robinson told my husband in his youth was about a ghost in Cleage House, which stood only a few miles north of where he grew up in the Mt. Verd Community of McMinn County, TN. The Chattanooga Times Free Press featured an article on May 30, 2003, about the restoration and preservation of the historic Samuel Cleage House on Highway 11 in Athens, TN. Efforts were well underway, it said, to sandblast the brick exterior and rebuild the old home, which was originally constructed in the late 1820s using architectural plans drawn and carefully executed by Cleage himself.1

Property selected for the site was a parcel of some 1,125 acres and known as the Mouse Creek Farm2 because of its proximity to Mouse Creek, a village later named Niota. This vast piece of valuable real estate in recently established McMinn County, however, was only a portion of approximately 3,000 acres Cleage obtained from the state of Tennessee by occupant entry into lands ceded by the Cherokee.3

Samuel Cleage was a savvy businessman, contractor, and builder from Botetourt County, Virginia who learned masonry early in life. In 1823 at about forty-two years of age, he left Virginia taking with him his family, slaves, household possessions, and tools of the trade. Their destination was Southeast Tennessee, a newly developing land of untold opportunities in construction.

As he proceeded down the great post road he offered his services to various farm owners whose modest homes did not appear commensurate with their prosperity. Having once secured a contract, he set his slaves to work making brick, and supervised the erection of a substantial residence according to plans which he himself drew. In payment he accepted gold, notes, and Negroes. Aside from enlarging his fortune as he went along, he left behind him a line of well-constructed buildings, many of which are still standing.4

Here in McMinn County, Samuel died on July 20, 1850, and was buried in the Cleage Cemetery on Mt. Verd Road. Mary, his wife, was buried beside him two years later. Only eight additional marked graves can now be found there in the family cemetery5 although numerous slaves and servants of the estate were interred without inscribed tombstones. Their names and identities are lost to the ages.

Descendants of the Cleages moved away, scattered far and wide, and eventually sold the home and property. For years, local folks claimed that the deserted house and ruins by the railroad were haunted. James and Mary (Robinson) Burton lived there for some time with their children. Other renters came and left, moved into the dwelling, and then out of it soon afterwards. It seemed as if no one wanted to reside for long in the two-story imposing structure, perched like a vulture on a knoll above the surrounding valley. So, it sat vacant for decades. Vandals broke the windows -- even the fanlight above the front entry -- and demolished everything of worth. Gradually, the weather-beaten structure wasted away and deteriorated into a hull.

The newspaper article about its restoration stirred memories of Granny Robinson's story, the one she shared with her great-grandson, Stephen Ratledge, when he was just a boy -- over fifty-five years ago. Here then begins the tale of a ghost haunting the old Cleage House.

Garrett and Donnie Robinson rented that drafty, old house about three miles southwest of Niota and lived there for a while when their firstborn child, Kitty Mae, was very young. She may have been named in memory of an older "Kittie" who had once lived there, Kittie Mae Cleage, a great-granddaughter of Samuel through his son Alexander Cleage.6

It was just before Christmas, according to Granny, and quite cold outside. All the windows were shut tightly to prevent cold drafts, and the doors were closed and latched. Grandpa Robinson had gone to work hours before, and Granny was in the kitchen cooking. The year was about 1911 because Kitty Mae was still a small child. She had gone into the parlor but ran immediately back to the kitchen. Excitedly, she announced to her mother, "Santa Claus has come! Oh, he's here! Come see!"

"Oh, Kitty Mae, quit your foolin' now. I'm busy," Granny replied.

"No, Mama, it's true! I'm not telling a lie. He's got a long, white beard. He's sittin' in the rocker, rockin' and warmin' himself by the fire."

Because Mae seemed so very sincere and insistant, she reluctantly stopped stirring the food sizzling in the hot iron skillet. Pausing to think for a second, she wiped her hands on her cotton apron. Perhaps, she thought, an unexpected visitor had come and just sat down to rest before walking back to the kitchen. After turning away from the iron "cook stove," she began smoothing stray wisps of hair into the bun at the nape of her neck as she proceeded out of the kitchen. Disbelieving every step of the way, she followed her joyful daughter from the kitchen through the hall to the front sitting room. As they approached the staircase, she heard the rocker moving back and forth. Upon entering the front room, they found no one, but the rocker was still rocking rapidly just as though someone immediately arose from it and then walked away suddenly. But where had the stranger gone?

They checked the doors and peered out the windows but saw no one. They searched every room in the house upstairs and downstairs to no avail. No bearded man could be found either inside the house or outside on the property. Why had Granny not heard doors opening or closing as he entered or exited? Why had she not heard the normal creaking of the ancient wooden floors beneath his footsteps? The old man had simply vanished just as silently and imperceptibly as he had appeared!

Who was he? No one ever knew. No neighbors or relatives admitted to entering the house that day. Allowing little Mae to believe that Santa had stopped for a visit was easier at the time than trying to convince her it was some unknown visitor. It was also simpler by far than trying to explain the ghost who walked the halls of Cleage House.

Many years later, Kitty Mae Robinson married Henry Lee "Buck" Ratledge, a strong, dependable, and even-tempered man, not fearful of anyone. Yet, he vowed that nothing could make him spend a night under that roof, although he had been inside it during the daylight hours. He described a mysterious red stain on the floor near a hearth. Old-timers claimed it was a bloodstain, but no one knew its origin or age. No matter how long Granny Robinson scrubbed and no matter how much lye soap she rubbed into it, the persistent crimson stain remained. It was only a short while, however, that she remained in the spooky, old house.

Could the mysterious visitor have been the ghost of a Union soldier killed by the last remaining Cleage slave? The story of his murder has been passed along through generations and was related by Jack Fields, whose father was a Cleage descendant and family genealogist. According to family history, the last of the household slaves was named Nancy. Long and devotedly, had she fed, cleaned, and cared for Mary, Kittie, and various other Cleage children before and long after the war. Thus, the Cleage descendants had always referred to her fondly as "Black Mamie." So it was that in her old age, she chose to remain with the family as a servant even after the cessation of war.

One day during the Civil War, as Black Mamie was baking cornbread in a deep iron skillet, a Union soldier suddenly burst through the door. Possibly he was searching for food when he barged into the hot kitchen. During the latter part of the Civil War, food was extremely scarce. Southerners were on starvation. Confederate soldiers marched barefoot and ate hardtack, if available. Farmers were gone to battles, so very few men were left in the fields to plant, till, and harvest large crops. Raiders from both sides commonly pillaged homes and scavanged vegetable gardens cultivated by women. Ham hocks and sides of bacon were looted from smokehouses; and chickens, stolen from coops. Jellies, dried fruits, crocks of saukerkraut, nuts, and anything easily edible was raided from root cellars. Food raids were so common that women resorted to hiding food in underground dairies and pits concealed heavily with brush. There was almost nothing left to eat by 1864 except cornbread, long a staple of the Southern table, but from necessity at that time, the mainstay of survival.

Glancing around but seeing nothing valuable, the intrusive Union soldier spat disgustingly into Black Mamie's round pan of freshly baked cornbread, the only food for the family. Enraged, Black Mamie grasped a meat hatchet, swung, and thrust it furiously into his skull as swiftly as if chopping off a chicken's head. He collapsed on the spot like felled timber, and blood pooled on the floor beneath him. More than likely by nightfall, his dead body was dragged across the field to the Cleage family cemetery and buried among the slaves. Was he the ghost still searching the alcoves of the ancient house for war booty? Was his the restless spirit haunting the halls of Cleage House?

photo of Granny Robinson with great-grandsons, Stephen Ratledge and Lucky Ratledge

Many thanks to Jack Fields of TX for sharing the story of the Union soldier with me!

FOOTNOTES

1. Roberta Seawell Brandau, History of Homes and Gardens of Tennessee, (Nashville, TN 1936).
2. Reba Bayless Boyer, editor, Chancery Court Records of McMinn County, Tennessee, (Athens, TN 1980), p. 14.
3. Brandau, op. cit.
4. Ibid.
5. Marvin & Samme Templin, compilers, McMinn County, Tennessee Cemeteries, (Athens, TN 1999), p. 178.
6. Boyer, p. 150.

This site is dedicated to the memory of my mother Beulah Cline Nipper, a beautiful product of the Knobs.

©1999-2015 Sandra N. Ratledge. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. Any reproduction or inclusion of this website's contents in publication whether online or in print is prohibited. Do NOT copy photographs and upload on Find a Grave or any other internet websites, blogs, attach to family trees, or print in publications. Do NOT copy stories, articles, documents, sketches, anecdotes, letters, obituaries, content data, etc. and attach to family trees or upload on other websites of any kind.

Homespun
Graphics
by
Sandra Ratledge

This site is dedicated to the memory of my parents,
Tommy and Beulah (Cline) Nipper.