Editor's Note: Everyone loves a ghost story. Whether told during a long, dark winter power outage or while hunkered around a camp fire on the beach, ghost stories are sure to hold the attention of all - believers and skeptics, young listeners and old, dreamers and realists. The more familiar the people and places involved, the more intriguing the stories seem. In this series, Sydney Stevens shares some of the ghost stories of our area - stories that may even have been told at your own fireside.
"He told us his name was Will Cox and that he had been killed by a knife. We never could keep sharp knives in the house. They would just disappear," says Jennifer Lonergan of Ocean Park.
"He didn't take table knives or butter knives. Just kitchen knives with sharp points and sharp blades. They are the ones that would vanish. Once my mom found a missing knife in the garden months after it had disappeared. But usually they never showed up again."
Jennifer was nine or 10 years old and living in the "Little Red Cottage" in Oysterville with her folks, Ruby and Pete Heckes, when Will Cox made himself known. It was 1966.
"The house was small, as it still is. During the time we lived there, you walked directly into the main room which was a kitchen- dining-living room area. Straight in front of you was a little hallway with a bedroom at each side and a bathroom in the middle. That was it.
"We had a curio cabinet right by the front door. I was always a little worried that I would bump into it and cause damage to the old bottles and keepsakes that were in it. One night there was a huge crash that woke us all up. We all had the same thought and rushed into the living room expecting to see that curio cabinet and its contents totally smashed. But not a thing was broken or even disturbed."
That event prompted the family to find out what was going on. They went to the Ouija board for help. "That's when we found out who he was," says Jennifer. "He said his name was Will Cox and that he had been killed by a knife. According to him, he was taking all of our knives away to keep me safe.
"He said, 'You can call me Uncle Will.' He said he was watching over me. Or at least that was the message he sent on the Ouija board.
"He sent us quite a few messages but we never did see him, even though I kept asking. He told me that I wasn't 'ready.' The last time I asked we were all sitting at the table with the Ouija board and there was a really loud thump. I jumped straight out of my chair. 'See, I told you that you weren't ready!' he said."
Who was Will Cox?According to Jennifer, Will Cox continued to make himself known to the family, even after they had moved. "In fact," she says, "we moved twice before Pete's house on the bay was finished - once to the little Wachsmuth house on the corner about a block north of the red cottage, and a year or so later to a house a little south of Oysterville near Vance and Imogene Tartar's place. In both those moves, Will Cox stuck to us. When we finally moved to the bay house, he stopped bothering us."
So, who was Will Cox? There is no record of a Will Cox, a William Cox, or even a Wilcox ever having lived in Oysterville - not in the census reports and not in the cemetery records. Nor, as far as early records expert Sandy Tellvik can determine, was there anyone by that name in any of the other communities on the peninsula.
Given that the red cottage is the oldest structure in Oysterville, perhaps the oldest on the peninsula, the building is a well-qualified candidate for a resident ghost. And, among the men involved in building the structure, there were certainly those who would be concerned about the welfare of children - willing to "watch out for" young Jennifer. But none named Will Cox.
According to the 1860 census, the inhabitants of House No. 86 in Oysterville were: Captain J.W. Munson, age 39; Sophia Kimball Munson, age 19; Frederick Munson, 5 months old; Byron Kimball, age 23; and James Johnson, age 24. Nathan Kimball, brother to Sophia and Byron, lived a block or so to the north at the Stevens Hotel. And across the street lived an older sister, Susan Kimball Wirt.
Sophia Munson, her sister Susan and their brothers, Byron and Nathan were survivors of the 1847 Whitman massacre at Waiilatpu near the site of today's Walla Walla. Their father had been killed during that bloody attack and the four children (Sophia, 6; Byron, 8; Nathan, 10; and Susan, 14), along with their mother and infant sister, had been held prisoner for more than a month until a rescue party negotiated their release. Not many could claim a more compelling personal reason for feeling protective toward a child.
It is not clear whether House No. 86 where Sophia and Byron were living in 1860 was the building known now as the red cottage. What is clear is that the cottage, for many years called "Munson's Store," was built by Captain Munson and the Kimball brothers, perhaps as early as 1857, perhaps not until 1863. Records at the Pacific County Historical Society are uncertain as to date, but indicate that the men were all carpenters, perhaps trained as boat-builders. The cottage is built and braced like a ship.
Captain Munson arrived in Oysterville in 1857 and married two years later. The following year Sophia invited her friend, Bethenia Owens, to come to Oysterville for a visit. The two young women had known one another since Sophia's post-rescue years growing up on Clatsop Plains in Oregon.
In later years Bethenia said, "I told Mrs. Munson of my great anxiety for an education, and she immediately said: 'Why not, then, stay with me, and go to school, we have a good school here, and I should like so much to have you with me ...'. "
Bethenia took her up on the offer and the start she got in Oysterville inspired Bethenia to continue her education. She went on to become Oregon's first woman doctor, the well respected Dr. Bethenia Owens-Adair. In her autobiography she spoke highly of Captain Munson and, though it does not further the quest for Will Cox, it gives an admiring portrait of one of the cottage's earliest inhabitants:
Bethenia's StoryMr. Munson might well be called a 'diamond in the rough.' He had a big heart, a hilarious, jovial disposition, and loved good company and a good social time.
He was a tall, broad-shouldered, powerfully-built man, with a large, square head. He was a natural musician, and loved the violin on which he could play by the hour, day or night, and never tire. I have heard him say, 'I believe I could play in my sleep if I tried.' I have seen him play and laugh and talk at the same time, never missing a note or losing time or expression.
Dancing was the popular amusement in those early times, and to dance well was an admired accomplishment. For this good music was essential, and if Mr. Munson could be secured for any party its success was assured.
I have seen him, when the dancing set became entangled, raise himself to his full, commanding height, dropping his violin by his side, with his hand holding his bow uplifted, with a broad smile on his face, and a vigorous stamp of his foot, call out in a stentorian voice, 'Hold on, now, and get straightened out!' Then, with an energetic and artistic stroke of his bow, accompanied by another stamp of his foot, he would start them on again.
If they failed a second time, he would exclaim: 'Here, now, just change off! Some of you old dancers come over here and help these new ones out!' In the end he was sure to bring order out of confusion, and in such a joyous, hearty way that everyone laughed at his own mistakes and no one felt hurt. He was as much a captain in the ballroom as on board his steamboat. He was a most excellent mechanic and a fine machinist, and he could make anything, from a steamboat to a violin. Like the traditional busy bee, he was never idle ...
Mr. Munson manufactured a number of violins, some of which were valuable. One of these he made from a piece of hardwood which he found several feet below the surface while digging a drain in a swamp near the lighthouse. No hardwood grows anywhere near that vicinity, and this fragment must have drifted ashore long years before and had been covered with [the] debris, it may be, of a century. Thus with his skillful hands and fertile brain he was able to bring sweet music from the very bowels of the earth with which to charm the senses and make glad the heart. He did his best, and did it well. Who can do more?
Oysterville's First Courthouse
Various accounts indicate that Captain Munson left Oysterville in 1863, that he was appointed light keeper at Cape Disappointment in 1865, and that Pacific County rented his cottage in Oysterville to be used as a courthouse in 1866. Three years later the county purchased the building, probably from Munson, although one report said that the county bought it from Andrew Wirt, Susan Kimball Wirt's stepson. The building, the first Pacific County courthouse purchased with public funds, continued to be used for county business until a large, two-story courthouse was built in 1875.
From that point forward, owners and renters were many but only one other tenant ever reported any ghost activity. The late Ken Driscoll of Ocean Park took up residence in the cottage for a time shortly after the Heckes family lived there. He later told Pete Heckes that, on several occasions, he was visited during the wee hours by someone who would pull the quilts off his bed.
"There would be a struggle," Pete remembers Ken telling him. "I would tug and he would tug. But there never was anyone to actually see."
Was it the same Will Cox? Only the taking of something that was not rightfully his sounds like Cox's 'M. O.' Surely, removing Ken's covers on cold winter nights couldn't have been considered protective, even by a ghost...
My uncle, author Willard Espy, owned the cottage for 25 years - from the early 1970s through the mid-90s. Neither he nor his wife, Louise, ever spoke of ghost-like occurrences at the cottage. Willard was as fond of yarns as the next person and I can't help but think that if Will Cox had made himself known during those years, the story would have been told and re-told - probably in print.
As it stands, however, Will Cox remains an enigma and the picturesque little red cottage in Oysterville reveals nothing of its spirited past. At least for now.