Eerie Light in the Knobs
Eerie Light in the Knobs


Sandra Nipper Ratledge

Here begins the only ghost story my grandfather Joe Cline ever told. His was the sole eye-witness account of the event. Whether this qualifies as a genuine ghost story or instead represents some scientific phenomenon, who knows? He never understood it even though a vivid memory of the incident lingered with him.

A brave soul he was indeed and not easily spooked by anything or anyone. Tales of "haints" and "boogers" never gave him the jitters; he would just laugh away such old wives' tales as great fun. A man of more courage couldn't be found in the Knobs, folks said. For jobs deemed impossible, farmers around Ebenezer, Burger Branch, and Liberty Hill knew to ask "Little" Joe Cline. He would tackle the dreaded chores, those shunned by others in the hills and hollows of the Knobs. Though of wiry frame and average stature, he was a dynamo. Undaunted by a challenge, he was also a risk-taker. Both kinfolks and neighbors knew Joe would come to their rescue even in the blackest nights, the worst thunderstorms, and the most perilous times. So, I have been told. I never knew my grandfather, you see. He died on March 21, 1927, only four days after my mother's fifth birthday. Yet, this true story, I do know.

The mystery light appeared some time after his marriage to Azilee Hampton from Liberty Hill. Joe's encounter with an eerie light in the Knobs left an indelible impression on him. The imprint was so vivid in his memory and the incident so puzzling that he often recounted the story. Thus, his experience with an eerie light was passed down from my grandmother to my mother and then much later to me, his namesake.

Late one very dark evening, Joe rode on horseback alone through the depths of "Gay Holler." This land in the Knobs was so named for a family who resided there for generations. At that time, Aunt Alice and Uncle John Gay owned the property lying in a basin-shaped hollow in McMinn County and bordering the Cline farm located on a softly sloping hillside in adjacent Monroe County.

All the younger Clines called them "aunt" and "uncle" even though they knew quite well that Alice was actually a cousin. Everybody from the Knobs felt a common alliance -- if not by blood, then by marriage. Older women were called "aunt," "maw," "mommy," "granny," or "mam," and sometimes the name failed to designate a true relationship. Instead, such names were used as a tribute of respect for elders; these "pet" names showed compassion and endearment for the elderly. Thus, to Joe and others, that farm would always be dear "Aunt" Alice's old home place.

Nightfall in the Knobs, especially in a basin like Gay Hollow, is not merely the arrival of darkness. It's a blanket of blackness. City folks accustomed to street lights just can't imagine midnight in the Knobs. Densely forrested areas in these remote hills seem to absorb darkness as much as they do the sunshine. On a cloudy night or during a new moon, utter blackness beds itself in the hollows. So, it was on that particular night.

At this time in the early 1920s, evenings there were darker still because homes were equipped with neither gas nor electricity. Women relied on "coal oil" (kerosene) lamps, lanterns, hearth fires, and homemade candles as the only sources of light. This was sparsely populated farm country. In many places, miles distanced the houses. Meadows, cornfields, and timberland, stretching for acres and acres, separated the log cabins and frame houses. If traveling for hours were required -- on a posse hunt, for example -- men lit pine knots sawed from pine trees. Local farmers, the only constables, carried them as torches. The rich resin inside a pine knot burned almost endlessly and provided abundant light.

Joe was tired but alert that particular night as his horse plodded slowly down the road toward Aunt Alice's. Needing no prodding, the horse was simply destined for the familiar fields of the Cline farm and home. The night was cool and the air heavily laden with moisture. All appeared typical of a tranquil evening in the ridges. A cow lowed softly in the pasture. Frogs croaked in a communal chorus along creeks and around ponds nearby. Somewhere above, a barn owl hooted. Mosquitoes whizzed around and about. Back and forth, the old mare twitched her ears to shoo the pesky insects. Homegrown Joe knew every wagon trail thereabouts. He needed no pine knot or coal oil lantern to find home. He recognized the ebony silhouettes of every barn. Every corncrib along the way he remembered. Each and every fence post was familiar, for he and his two brothers had staked many of them. All was normal and natural, or so it seemed.

Just as he started down into the hollow, a small round ball of light suddenly appeared from nowhere. Though behind him, its presence was still unmistakable in the darkness, for it illuminated the area surrounding him and his horse. It couldn't have been automobile lights because he heard no engine noise. The only audible sounds whatsoever were those made by animals nearby. Besides, at that time, motorized vehicles were as rare in the Knobs as snowfall in July. All these roads were unpaved. Few would risk getting shiny autos stuck in the slick, red clay covering these hills.

Urged on, the old mare galloped away as fast she could. Joe had a natural affinity with animals; if anyone could make her run, he could. The silent light kept pace just behind them and stayed about sixteen hands high from the ground, the approximate height of horses. It seemed to ride along tandem except there was no other person, no other horse, nor were there any hoof beats other than those made by his own mare.

The mysterious, brightly glowing light followed him silently all the way through Gay Hollow and almost to the juncture of Burger Branch and Liberty Hill Roads. Then, it abruptly disappeared at Chief Cline's old country store on their farm. The radiant globe simply vanished as instantly and imperceptibly as it had first appeared.

My grandfather never knew about scientific phenomena like "ball lightning." If indeed this orb of fire were ball lightning, then young Joe was blessed to have survived unharmed. If so, he had once again narrowly escaped death. He never saw the eerie light again, nor did it reappear to anyone else, as far as we know. Neither he, his parents, his grandfather "Big Joe," nor anyone else in the Knobs could identify or explain it -- not even Grandma Cline, who spent her entire life there. Whatever the eerie orb was, you may decide for yourself or simply call it a mystery.


©1999--present year by 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.

Sandra Ratledge

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