Saturday, 04 September 2021 14:20

COLUMN: Ghostly music at Grassy Island Part I

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COLUMN: Ghostly music at Grassy Island Part I J.A. Bolton

Until the early 1900s, the Pee Dee River ran free and clear from the North Carolina mountains to the South Carolina coast with no man-made structures to hinder its flow.


The Native Americans built fish traps out of rock in the river, but none interfered with the natural flow of the mighty river.

The natives not only used the fish and mussels for food but also the river provided fresh water for drinking, bathing and transportation. Along the riverbank grew stands of bamboo, river cane, and tall grasses that they used in their daily lives. Why, the natives even used the river rocks and mud that lay on the bottom of the river.

The natives were very proud and thankful for all that the river provided. Many stories of battles and hunts along the river were told around the native campfires. All the while, rituals and festivals were held thanking the great spirits for the waters of the river.

Seems while all these rituals and ceremonies were going on, the sounds of musical instruments like drums, rattles and flutes were played. These instruments were a big part of Native American culture. The sound of the drums could indicate war or danger on the horizon. The sound of the rattles was sometimes used for healing and dance purposes. Native flutes seemed to tell a story and were found to even lower the heart rate and relieve stress.

An old native legend tells how the flute might have come into being. It says that woodpeckers pecked holes in hollow branches while searching for insects. Seemed when the wind blew along the holes, people nearby heard the sweet music coming from the hollow branches.

The natives soon learned to use bamboo or other types of hollow branches to make their own flutes. By trial and error, they learned that hand drilling more holes and different sizes in the wood would make different sounds come from the instrument when blowing into it. 

Soon, the flute made its way into native culture. In fact, throughout the world, the flute is associated with fertility, birth, life and death.

As I said earlier, when a good musician plays the flute, the beautiful music tells a story. It seems to penetrate and soothe the spirit. In native culture, the flute tells the story of lovers and even seems to bring the spiritual world alive, which was a big part of native culture. 

In today’s world we might refer to spirits as ghosts, but in past times they were called apparitions, phantoms, haunts, or even spooks. The natives used words like bhoot or bhuta (Sanskrit). These were supernatural beings, usually the ghosts of deceased humans or animals.

An old Pee Dee River story tells us that as the first white trappers and hunters came up the river from Cheraw Hills, now known as Cheraw, South Carolina, some returned and gave reports of mysterious flute music along the river section now called the Grassy Island section of the Pee Dee. It soon became known as an area to quickly pass through or to avoid altogether. Now, I don’t know if the story was just to keep fellow hunters and trappers out of a good hunting area or, as some might say, the place is haunted.

A little history is in order about the Grassy Island section of the river. Most of the islands were formed after Blewett Falls Dam was built in the early 1900s. Seems the water backed up, spreading the water out to form a lake. In some places like the Grassy Islands, some higher ground became islands and the water ran in different places surrounding these islands. Just above these islands was a shallow and rocky area of the river which was used by the natives and early settlers as a crossing or ford. “Sara” was what the natives may have called what we call Grassy Island today.  The word means “a place of high weeds.”

As our river story continues, it seems that the weary trappers were paddling their canoes upriver several miles from what now is called Blewett Falls when they would encounter a heavy fog. The fog would be so thick that the boatmen couldn’t tell which way to go. They paddled their boats as close to the shore as they dared. Tall river grass seemed to be growing everywhere along the edge of the river, but the trappers felt safer close to the edge of the river.

As the trappers continued to paddle, they could hear the rushing water coming over the rocks at the ford. But, above the noise of the river, they seemed to be surrounded by mysterious music made by someone or something playing a flute. The haunting music seemed to be coming from both sides of the river, in every direction, just above the water. Now, these were tough men who thought they had seen or heard just about everything in their time, but this strange phenomenon they were encountering made the hair on their necks stand straight up.

Next week, you won’t want to miss the end of the story of the haunted past of Grassy Island.

J.A. Bolton is author of “Just Passing Time,” co-author of “Just Passing Time Together,” and recently released his new book “Southern Fried: Down-Home Stories,” all of which can be purchased locally or on Amazon. Contact him at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..