Walk along

Preston Road

on a late summer’s evening, when the traffic noises start to die down and the neighborhood takes on that peaceful, dinner-is-over-and-the-dishes-are-done feeling. Look north, as night settles in and the sky darkens, and if it’s the right night and the right time and the right place, you might see a family taking their evening walk.

 

Nothing unusual about that, of course, just another warm, lazy evening in Preston Hollow. But walk toward them, and the scene is said to become a bit odd.

 

It’s a family, certainly, a husband and wife and two or three young children, but they aren’t dressed the way they should be. The man has on a hat, for one thing, closer to what someone would have worn 150 years ago, and the wife and children are wearing similar clothing — long, tattered dresses and homespun shirts and pants.

 

They’re heading north, away from you, and even though you walk faster to get a better look, you don’t seem to gain on them. And then, just as quickly as they appeared, they’re gone, and you walk even faster to try to reach where you saw them but they’re not there, and there isn’t any trace that they ever were. You stop and shake your head, and wonder how you’re going to explain what you just saw when you go back inside.

 

The explanation is actually quite simple. It’s the believing that’s hard, because what you saw was

Preston Road

’s Pioneer Family, which has been walking north toward their farm for more than a century. That they’re dead, and have been for all that time, is what makes it a ghost story.

 

Because ghosts are not just something that attract attention around Halloween. The Pioneer Family is far from the only group haunting this part of town, as they would no doubt attest (if they were in the spirit to do so, of course). How about the two sets of ghosts — a well-to-do family and a lonely, solitary woman dressed in black — who were regularly seen at the old Olla Podrida shopping center? What about the stories of the haunted house in Bluffview, where the ghost of a little girl who was murdered by an intruder drove her mother insane? Or the apartment complex near Central and Walnut Hill where dogs are said to behave strangely near the spot where a man supposedly buried his murdered wife?

 

          One can argue that these are nothing more than legends, the by-products of overactive imaginations, teenaged pranksters, or witnesses who have overindulged. Perhaps. But go through newspaper clippings, interview older residents, and there are plenty of stories dating to the early decades of the last century, both here and elsewhere in Dallas .

 

          “When I started researching my book, I really didn’t expect to find too much in the way of ghost stories,” says Mitchel Whitington, the author of “Ghosts of North Texas.”

 

After all, Dallas is a city of chrome and steel. How could it be haunted? But there is a rich history of ghosts here, ghosts that are worth exploring.”

 

 

A ghostly business

 

          Ghosts may not be a high-margin business, but they are a steady one. There are a half-dozen paranormal research groups in and around Dallas that visit cemeteries, stake out haunted houses and investigate supernatural claims, and that doesn’t include the dozens of books, Web sites, and newspaper and magazine articles detailing who is haunting what and where.

 

Says Roger Ramsdell, who runs DFW Paranormal Research of North Texas: “We keep busy. Some of this stuff is obviously an urban legend. But some of the others? There may be something there.”

 

          This outlook may seem a bit silly in the first years of the 21st century. After all, there are rational scientific explanations for occurrences that people as recently as a couple of hundred years ago would have attributed to ghosts. But, says University of Texas-Arlington sociologist Raymond Eve, who studies this sort of thing, ghosts have been part of the culture for so long that it’s difficult to dismiss them entirely — no matter how modern people consider themselves to be.

 

          “It’s really only been in the last 200 years of the 4,000 years of human history that we can describe physical forces without having to give them human characteristics,” he says, adding that there are also neurological and psychological explanations for the continued existence of ghosts (assuming one doesn’t believe, of course). This includes lucid dreaming, when a sleeper is convinced he or she is awake and having genuine experiences, but when their brain is actually confusing them with parts of their imagination.

 

The other thing to remember?

 

“Ghosts are just plain fun,” Eve says. “It’s more pleasant to believe in the fantastic rather than the realistic. I can give my students a lecture or I can tell them a ghost story. What’s going to tickle the neurons of their brain more?”

 

          Which is something even non-believers can agree with. Several walks along

Preston Road

for this article didn’t turn up the pioneer family, and Whitington hasn’t seen them either (nor did the Dallas police patrolling the area that he interviewed).

 

But there are plenty of people who say they’ve seen the family.

 

 

Historical facts

 

These accounts don’t have many details, mostly just trembly eyewitness and near-eyewitness stories that have been passed down over the years.

 

Sometimes, it’s someone who claims to have seen them, and sometimes it’s someone who knows someone who saw them. That means the particulars often differ from story to story, and that frustrates anyone — ghost hunter, researcher or writer — who is trying to figure out just what exactly is going on.

 

What is known is that modern day

Preston Road

loosely follows the

Old Preston Road

, built by the Republic of Texas to connect the Red River to Austin (and which itself followed the path of a centuries-old Indian trail). By the mid-1850s, there was a white settlement up and down the road, home to perhaps as many as several thousand people, with significant communities in Dallas, Cedar Springs (near present day Oak Lawn) and Farmers Branch .

 

All this settlement was highly resented by the native population, mostly Anadarkos, but also raiding Kiowas and Comanches from farther west, and there was a history of skirmishes since the 1830s, including one on Turtle Creek. The Republic of Texas had a military outpost near Cedar Springs, and the U.S. government was concerned enough to build a string of forts from Fort Worth south to Eagle Pass on the Rio Grande to protect the settlers.

 

So it’s entirely possible that settlers living in what was then a prairie wilderness, could have been killed by a raiding tribe, probably Comanches, says Johnny D. Boggs, a western historian and novelist. The clothing the family is seen wearing seems to fit what settlers of that era wore, and the family is seen where their farm might have been, between

Northwest Highway

and Arapaho. Dallas County had 278 farms in 1850, according to the census.

 

The catch is that there doesn’t seem to be any record of a local pioneer family being killed by raiders, Boggs says. In fact, Dallas County is barely mentioned in the classic book “Indian Depredations of Texas,” which was published in 1890 and details more than 250 attacks from the 1820s to the 1870s.

 

Still, people say they have seen what they have seen. An official at Old City Park even gets a little huffy when someone questions the existence of her spirits, or wonders why the facts in so many of the stories seem to keep changing.

 

Because it is difficult to argue with eyewitnesses.

 

“I could hear a scream that was actually the most blood-curdling scream,” a woman named Phyllis Thompson, who was sitting on a dock by nearby White Rock Lake, told the Dallas Times Herald in 1985, describing her run-in with the Lady of the Lake ghost. “It was definitely a woman. It was there and then it was gone.”

 

Isn’t that just like a ghost?

 


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