Editor’s Note: The Norwich Dance Club is celebrating the history of ballroom dancing in Chenango County this week with a number of events, including an exhibit at Guernsey Memorial Library and a Community Ballroom Dance at St. Bart’s Parish Center on Saturday. For more information, visit www.norwichdanceclub.com.
By David Graham
Dancing in Bullthistle Country, while usually full of happiness and good feeling, has had its dark side as well. The following story involving the Pitcher Hotel represents just such a tragic role that dancing played in the lives of some of our ancestors.
Atop a Chenango Valley hill near the village of Pitcher lies a small graveyard. The last date for a burial (1873) is on the stone of Zella Droff, aged 21 years, 4 months and 17 days. The nearest habitable house is far away, but not far down the road lies the ruined foundation of what was once known as the “murder house.” The tragic story of Zella and the house goes as follows.
About 1870, Ezra Droff (the middle-aged owner of a hill-top farm) took a lovely bride of barely 20. Ezra was a hard worker, a good provider and a deacon of the church. Slow to anger, his wrath was deep when aroused. Zella on the other hand was young and loved sharing the innocent picnics, dances and socials of other young people that Ezra couldn’t and wouldn’t allow her to participate in. Shea tried inviting young people to her house after the day’s work, but a stern and tired Ezra soon forbade this too. Finally frustration drove Zella into slipping out after Ezra fell asleep and walking to Pitcher wearing a pretty dress to attend dances and socials by herself. This continued until the night Ezra awoke to find himself alone in bed. After confirming Zella’s absence, he sat down by the door with a butcher knife. When she finally came in, he murdered her where she stood spraying blood over the furniture, walls, floor and ceiling (supposedly still visible long afterwards). Ezra’s fate is unknown, but Zella was laid to rest in the burying ground just up the road. Nothing was removed when the house was abandoned and the contents could be seen for years.
Some years later, a notions drummer (a travelling salesman specializing in small items difficult to get in the days before department stores) came to town and put up at the Pitcher Hotel. Hiring a rig, he went for a drive in the hills. Sometime after sunset as he drove along a dark road, he saw a beautiful young girl in a pretty dress walking his way. Stopping, he found that she was on her way to attend a dance at the Pitcher Hotel. Turning around, he took her to the village and, after she asked him to dance, the evening was filled with fun and music. During an intermission he got a tortoise shell comb from his sample case and the delighted young woman tucked it into her hair. Too soon afterwards, she wanted to go home and back they went to the exact spot where he had first seen her. He offered to take her home, but she got out and said that she could walk the short distance. Sadly, he watched her disappear into the night and then he returned to the village.
The next day upon finishing his business, the drummer re-hired the rig and went up into the hills hoping to see the young woman again. Yet, beyond where she had gotten out, there was nothing but an empty rotting house and barn and an ancient, nearly buried, graveyard. Puzzled, he returned to the village and questioned the man behind the hotel desk.
“You’ve danced with a ghost,” the clerk told him. “It happens every so often.”
“A ghost? But she was so real!” the drummer declared.
He was then told the story of Zella Droff’s murder and how on certain nights she would once again walk down the road to a dance, leave rather early and disappear on the hill road. Unconvinced, the drummer went back to the old graveyard that night and found Zella’s lonely gravestone atop which, glistening in the moonlight, lay a tortoise-shell comb.
Did this really happen – who knows? But be careful who you pick up on dark nights near Pitcher.
Some of the information and photographs in this column were provided courtesy of the Chenango County Historian’s Office. If you want to learn more about dancing in Bullthistle Country there will be exhibits at the Guernsey Public Library (9/17-22) and the Chenango County Historical Society Museum on Hale Street (mid-October). Any and all errors herein are strictly the responsibility of the author.