Sometimes referred to as the Hornet Spook Light, this phenomenon is also identified by names of other nearby towns. (Courtesy of Lisa Martin)
SPOOKSVILLE – Down a quiet, country road near Joplin lives a legend. Instead of a person, however, the road leads to a story; a tale often referred to as the Hornet Spook Light. Though it’s not there every night, the blazing ball has accented the night sky — seemingly out of nowhere — for decades, uniting generations in puzzled curiosity.
“Sometimes it looks like a lantern far in the distance, carried by someone slowly walking. At other times it appears to be a ball of fire hurtling at the viewer with incredible speed — only to stop, skip around near treetop level, then zoom back into the distance. Occasionally, so I was told, it settles on the hood of your car, or dances off a little into the woods or disappears, then reappears behind you,” wrote Robert Gannon for Popular Mechanics in September 1965.
Gannon is only one of an untold number of people who have come to see the spook light. Perplexed and drawn by its mystique, such visitors have created a story far longer than the tree-guarded, gravel road where it began.
How it started
Various legends are linked to the ghost light, which was tied to the tiny community of Spooksville — and located along a mysterious road nicknamed Devil’s Promenade.
“Some mighty strange people have lived along this road, and some very strange things have happened there,” wrote Ozarks folklorist Vance Randolph in “Ozark Magic and Folklore,” published in 1947, of the road where the light is spotted.
Randolph gave various theories behind the “jack o’ lantern,” as he called it, which he saw on numerous occasions: “Some people think the light at the ‘Devil’s Promenade’ is the ghost of an Osage chief who was murdered near this spot; others say it is the spirit of a Quapaw maiden who drowned herself in the river when her warrior was killed in battle.”
Local expert and author Larry Wood gives a few other stories. One is of a Native American couple who reportedly committed suicide by jumping off a nearby cliff, while another features the ghost of a Civil War sergeant. “There’s one about a miner (who) got lost, and he’s trying to find his way back home carrying a lantern,” says Wood.
While stories about the spook light’s origin vary, another question is when it first was seen. Some accounts date it to Native American days, long before modern explanations could whittle away the story. Another account, told by local resident F.W. (Bill) Mizer in the mid-1950s, recounted his experience with the spook light in the early 1900s:
“…The first time it was seen was in 1903. At that time there was a widow lady living near State Line Road. She lived alone, and when she first reported seeing the light, she thought someone was trying to run her off her property. The reports persisted, and a bunch of boys decided to investigate.
One night about six or seven of us went to the widow’s house. … We didn’t have long to wait before we saw the thing that had the widow frightened. The first time I saw the light, my hair raised several inches from my scalp, and I had a hard time keeping my hat on my head.”
Despite the verbal accounts, Wood believes that the first mention of it in print dates to 1935 when an article appeared in the Neosho, Mo., newspaper. The next year, The Kansas City Star garnered greater attention for it through a story.
Ten years later, the Star launched an investigation to determine what was causing the mysterious light once and for all. But the newspaper didn’t go at it alone: Reporter Charles Grahman asked the U.S. Army for help:
“…I sent a letter to Col. Dennis E. McCunniff, commanding officer of Camp Crowder, three miles from Neosho, and not far from the lonely road. I explained to him the hypothesis, and asked the assistance of the army in seeking proof. Colonel McCunniff invited me to Camp Crowder to talk it over.
When I arrived he said his first thought, on reading the letter, was that someone was having hallucinations. He mentioned it to his secretary, a young woman living in Neosho. She assured him there were some mysterious lights. he talked to others, who told him a few of the tales that surround the lights.
‘They have my curiosity aroused,’ the colonel said. ‘I should like to know what they are. We shall be glad to co-operate.'”
Star staff, personnel from Camp Crowder, and others collaborated to study the spook light in 1946. (Courtesy of The Kansas City Star)
After days of on-the-ground study, the participants believed that they could prove an explanation, one that was presented in the newspaper on May 19, 1946. Their simple answer: Headlights, coming from a road eight or 10 miles away, triggered the phenomenon.
But Graham knew that their study wouldn’t convince everyone.
“The solution of the ‘mystery’ light probably will not satisfy some persons who have seen it,” he wrote in the article. “We have no desire to insist upon the solution and we certainly don’t want to rob anyone of the enjoyment of a good ghost.”
Promoting the spook light
A vintage view of the Hornet Spook Light. (Courtesy of Larry Wood)
As it turned out, Graham needn’t have worried: His study didn’t spoil things for everyone. The spook light’s heyday didn’t actually hit until the next decade, says Woods, and was due in part due to the work of Arthur “Spooky” Meadows. The local man helped turn the area into a tourist attraction — and insisted, according to the aforementioned Popular Mechanics article, that the light dated to 1866:
“Finding the cause of Spooklight isn’t helped either by those who have a vested interest in it. Spooky Meadows, for instance. He runs what he calls The Spookville Community Building and Museum — a tourist trap that doesn’t quite make it. The building — about the size of a double garage — squats at the east end of Spooklight Road. Inside, local teenagers play juke box and pinball machines, guzzle pop and polish sausages and sprawl on cast-off furniture lining the walls.
Spooky Meadows, 71, is a kindly, outback philosopher with a clean, but unpressed shirt and a Tyrollean hat. He rolls his own from Half & Half pipe tobacco, and often fails to end his sentences. He’s imposed an interminable song about his beloved Spooklight, which he’ll sing for you — quavering, but with gusto — at the slightest show of interest.
Old Spooky can’t be pressed into giving many opinions on the light. When pinned down, he says, ‘What is it? That’s easy; it’s a light. But we don’t know what causes it.’ Then adds, as though settling the matter: ‘It’s more or less a hoodoo.'”
Meadows may have believed his statements — or, as the author suggested, they perhaps were simply good for business. “He just promoted the heck out of it,” says Wood. “…You’ve got to keep that (mysterious) element alive or else nobody’s interested in it.”
And local organizations were glad to get in on the action, too. In the mid-1950s, the Ozark Playgrounds Association published a promotional booklet filled with testimonials and lore about the legend.
It even mentioned that Joplin’s Burgess Insurance Agency had contacted Lloyds of London to secure a Financial Guarantee Bond offering a $10,000 reward if the spook light could be proved a fake. “On seeing our proposed guarantee of reward one insurance man jokingly said, ‘Don’t be surprised if Scotland Yard doesn’t send Sherlock Holmes to investigate,” proclaimed the booklet.
And it worked: The light was seen as a novelty — a mostly harmless one. But there was the time in 1962 when a Tulsa man was found shooting at the spook light (and was subsequently fined $19 plus costs and sentenced to five days in jail for disturbing the peace).
A second incident occurred two years later, when a man was shot after reportedly causing a racket (and, according to some, dressed up in sheets) to scare his wife and another woman. He ended up hit by birdshot after another man came out to investigate the situation.
That same decade, an article distributed by the Neosho Chamber of Commerce played up the thrill factor. “Now and then someone tells of seeing the light so close that it lights the interior of their car but this is rare and no one has ever been harmed by it,” reported the story. “Goosebumps do go away.”
Continuing a mystery
Those goosebumps may go away, but they aren’t always forgotten. Jackay Smith remembers two occasions as a child when she saw the spook light; two occasions that were enough to last her the rest of her life.
Her grandfather took her to the light, something their ancestors claimed to have seen as early as the turn of the 19th century. The first sighting was fairly uneventful: But a second trip, made when Smith was around 1o years old, was never to be repeated.
“It scared me so bad that I never wanted to see it again,” she remembers.
Today, the 37-year-old vividly recalls the encounter: The light, vibrantly orange, approached her as she stood stock still. “As it got closer, it felt like heat was radiating off the sun,” she recalls.
Finally, after “it seemed like I stood there forever,” says Smith, the light zoomed away. It went back smoothly — as if on a track — to where it came.
In later years, Smith heard the explanations of what the lights could really be. And initially, the headlights theory made sense to her. “And then I thought, how could that be?” she questions. “Because my great-great-grandparents saw the same light in the early 1800s.”
But whatever it was, one thing about the second encounter sits strongly with Smith.
“I know one thing: It was not the reflection of a car,” she says.
Garland “Spooky” Middleton took over his father-in-law’s museum and roadside stand around 1970. (Courtesy of Larry Wood)
As time grew, so did the stories and studies. Some researchers tied the mysterious light to swamp gasses; others to glowing minerals. The headlight theory held on, too. “Then there’s other people who’ve been parapsychologists and stuff who insist that it’s not (scientifically explainable),” says Wood. “That it’s got to be some kind of supernatural thing.”
Meadows promoted the latter idea through his roadside stand until around 1970, when he sold out to his son-in-law, Garland Middleton. But the business wasn’t the only thing that transferred to Middleton. “They called him Spooky also,” says Wood. “He inherited his nickname.”
Times changed in other ways, too.
Middleton operated the museum and shop until around 1980, when he passed away. After that, the building fell into disrepair and eventually burned to the ground. And instead of highlighting the area as a tourist attraction, officials started discouraging folks from loitering to look for the light — especially teenagers, who congregated there to drink.
And the atmosphere changed as well. Parking along the road has been forbidden, and “the road is now paved, so it’s not as eerie as it used to be,” says Wood. “When it was a gravel road and had a rustic feel to it, and the trees overhanging the road. But that’s no longer the case, so it’s harder … to get into the mood of it, I guess.”
But while there aren’t as many people who head out there these days, Wood notes that nothing says the curious can’t drive out that way and take a look.
How to find it
However, spotting the spook light these days is a bit trickier than it was in years past. “I mean, you could go out there almost any night and you’d be pretty assured of seeing it at least 50 percent or more of the time,” Wood says. “But that’s no longer the case, or at least the last few times I’ve been out there.”
But if the spook light is going to make an appearance, really anytime after it’s completely dark is good to look. “There’s really no time any better than any other,” says Wood.
Nights, however, are a different story. “Now, Spooky Middleton told me that it was better on kind of an overcast night than on a real clear night,” he says. “He said, ‘You don’t want it when it’s pouring down rain, but also not on a perfectly clear night.'”
Looking back at those early days, Wood recalls the first occasion he saw that light. “I was pretty much a believer,” he says. Since then, he’s seen it many times — and time has changed his thoughts a bit.
But there’s still a question in his mind.
“Personally, I lean towards the headlights theory,” he says. “But the only thing that kinda doesn’t go along with that is it’s been harder to see in recent years. And if it was really headlights, it seems like it ought to be more likely to see it.”
Want to check it out?
From Joplin: Take Highway 43 south to Iris Road. Turn west and drive around two miles until you come to a T intersection. Turn right (north) and go about a mile or mile and half to the Spook Light Road (which is officially E50 Road).