November 9, 1891 dawned dreary and cold, with a promise of rain. Dark clouds gathered over the community of Dancing Creek in Amherst County, Virginia. The children of Rev. Ed and Emma Belle Powell set out for school, including the youngest, Ottie Cline. Ottie, who was a few days away from his 5th birthday, said good-bye to his mom then stopped where his father was husking corn and asked if he might skip school that day and stay with his father. Being a responsible parent, Reverend Powell told Ottie he should go on to school. It would be the last time her ever saw Ottie alive.
Miss Nannie Gilbert, the teacher in the one -room log school house then known as Bluff Mountain, was running short on kindling. A three- inch snow and ensuing cold snap the week before had depleted her sources. At recess that day, she instructed her students to each bring back one arm load of wood to use in the school’s wood stove. The girls took their five-minute recess first. After they returned, the boys set out. Young Ottie trailed behind, struggling to gather wood behind the older boys. The path the boys took behind the school lead through a dense forest of chestnut, oak, and pine. By the time Ottie has gathered his wood, the older boys had returned to the school. Little Ottie set out alone, thinking he was following the boys back to the school. Unfortunately, he had gone the wrong way.
About 20 minutes passed before Miss Nannie Gilbert realized Ottie had not returned. In those days, it was the job of older students to watch over the younger. She had assumed he returned with the older boys. When she realized he was missing, all the children set out to find him.
When they could not find Ottie, they were sent to gather parents and neighbors to help search. In spite of their efforts, Ottie could not be found. An evening rain began to fall. An ice storm was brewing over the community of Dancing Creek. Searchers found the place where Ottie had dropped his load of kindling, but still could not find the little boy. As they searched and called, a Mr. Henry Wood set his dog out on Ottie’s trail. The dog and Ottie were fond of one another and the dog set out readily after the little boy’s scent. The dog headed up the ridge and was gone for a very long time. (Mr. Wood wondered later if the dog had not actually gone to the little boy.) Around 10 pm that night, the search ended.
Newspapers all over the area carried stories of the little boy’s disappearance. Around 1500 volunteers came to help in the search. They walked in circles surrounding the school in an area that got wider and wider. Still. Ottie was never found. No one searched the old Indian trails leading up Bluff Mountain. The trail was so steep, it was thought no child could ever climb that high.
Reverend Powell hired a detective. After two weeks, the detective returned, saying he could find no trace of Ottie. Undaunted, Reverend Powell offered a reward for his son to be returned alive. Throughout that long snowy winter, Reverend Powell never gave up hope of his son’s return.
On April 3, 1892, a party of hunters on Bluff Mountain followed their barking dog along an old trail through the forest. They found the dog beside the body of a young boy. They knew immediately that they had found Ottie Cline Powell. He lay curled as if asleep, still wearing his brown hat. His pants were full of holes, torn by the briars and brambles as the little boy struggled along the trail trying to return to school. His feet were missing, evidently taken by wild animals.
Two hunters set off down the mountain with the news, while the others remained behind with the body. The Reverend stopped his sermon as the hunters entered the church house that day, informing him that his boy had been found. Reverend Powell threw up his arms and began thanking and praising God for answering his prayers that his boy be found.
Ottie was brought down the mountain at last. It was determined, after examining the contents of Ottie,s stomach (three chestnuts, undigested, eaten at recess that day) that Ottie had died that first evening of his disappearance. He had collapsed from exhaustion and fallen asleep beneath a large tree as the rain began, and had never awakened. At long last, Little Ottie was laid to rest in a local cemetery.
Emma Belle Powell became depressed at the loss of her youngest child. He grief began to threaten her health, so her husband had Ottie’s casket exhumed and reburied near their home. He thought that, since Emma Belle could now look out the window and see Ottie’s grave, she might find comfort. However, she only became worse.
Finally, the family moved to a new home near an intersection where Reverend Powell opened up a general store. Emma Belle never recovered, and eventually succumbed to her grief in 1897. She never got over losing her Ottie.
In 1925, a teacher from Buena Vista, J.B. Huffman interviewed Ottie’s family members and older members of the community in order to write a book about Ottie’s death. He was so touched by the tale that he built a wooden cross form, filled it with concrete and , when it was set, hauled it up Bluff Mountain to the site of Ottie’s death. Here it remained for 43 years.
As more travelers and tourists began to visit the Blue Ridge Parkway and Appalachian Trail, a new interest was generated in Ottie’s story. In 1968, Huffman used the proceeds from the sales of his book to purchase a new memorial for Ottie. This monument still stands today. There are a couple of errors on the plaque, however. It reads:
THIS IS THE EXACT SPOT.
LITTLE OTTIE CLINE POWELL’S
BODY WAS FOUND APRIL 5, 1891*.
STRAYING FROM TOWER SCHOOL HOUSE **
NOV.9, A DISTANCE OF 7 MILES.
AGE 4 YEARS, 11 MONTHS.
For many years, hikers on Bluff Mountain have told tales of encountering the ghost of Ottie Cline Powell. A Journal at nearby Punchbowl Shelter holds many tales of a “brat” child ghost that poked them with sticks in their sleep.
One 2009 hiker left a tale of his encounter with Ottie. The hiker heard crying around 10 pm, but assumed it was a wild animal. Later, he was awaked by a loud thunderstorm. In two consecutive flashes of lightning, he saw a young boy crouched in the corner of the shelter. When he grabbed his flashlight and shined it in the corner, the boy was gone. The next day, he found all his clothes removed from his backpack and folded into neat little squares. On top of the clothes was a small pile of chestnuts.
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