Friends Music Camp Stories #4: Old Plain Peter – The Ghost of Elders Past

Prelude & Update

Before this summer camp story, a bit of background. Until 2015, Friends Music Camp gathered at the Olney Friends School, in Barnesville in eastern Ohio.

Barnesville is the Mecca, the (old) Jerusalem, the place of pilgrimage where all roads converged for the scattered survivors of the Conservative or Wilburite strain of quietist Quakerism.  These are the Friends who “conserved,” or clung longest to the “peculiarities” of dress and speech, and worked hardest at maintaining traditional “plainness”. (NOT “Simplicity”; that’s a modern, much watered-down imitation.)

Olney’s spirit is embodied in both its main school building, which has a  sturdy, handmade character, and a pervasive Quietist atmosphere at its end of Sandy Ridge; and then in the huge, echoing space of the Stillwater Meeting house, which reigns at the other end of a fetching sidewalk of red brick laid in herringbone pattern.

In its heyday, Stillwater could hold a couple thousand, and was often filled during “Yearly Meeting week” for its parent Ohio (Conservative) Yearly meeting, and where visiting ministers could (yes!) preach for an hour..

Plus immediately to its east, down the ridge’s slope, is Olney’s lovely pond, which on the other side laps at the edge of a working farm. The wiser pilgrims know to rise near dawn, sit on the slope and gaze as the eastern sky reddens, watching the mist, perhaps like watchful spirits, rise off the pond’s surface.

To be sure, much of this atmosphere is now mainly the persistence of memory and more than a touch of myth: “Quietist” Friends here had many internecine quarrels and mini-schisms. The school has more than once been on the brink of bankruptcy & closure, and even over it. The children of these quiet people have been scattering for several generations now.

Still, at midsummer, with students gone and First Day meetings at Stillwater sparse and often silent, Olney offered a very special setting for the first Friends Music Camp. The school frowned on music til the last possible moment; but when camp founder Peg Champney (a Yellow Springs liberal) came in 1980 with her radical ideas and a check book, the school needed the rent money.

Olney made a strong impression on many campers in its 35 years there. For more than a few, it was life-changing.

Beginning around 1990, I became a small part of its program, coming each summer and reading original stories for an evening program. The campers seemed to like my stories, and I became very attached to Olney as a Quaker place of pilgrimage. Soon I began arriving a couple days early, to make the campus my personal solitary retreat space, internally silent amid all the camp musical hubbub. I loved these times, even at their hottest and dampest.

Yet nothing is so constant as change; and a few years back, Olney raised the rent; then an emissary from Earlham College, just over the Indiana border to the west, came hawking the college’s new arts building, new dorms, filled with that magic thing called AIR CONDITIONING, and its cafeteria menu which did not feature such country cuisine as groundhog gravy.

And in 2015, after much agonized deliberation, the camp board decided to move.

Among both campers and staff, many tears were shed at leaving Olney behind. And while all the Earlham promises have been kept: the inside air is cool; the performance spaces gleam; vegan and gluten free items crowd the menu . . . many veteran staff and older campers still cloud up when talk turns to Olney, as it did at least once a day while I was there. We miss it.

[The camp went virtual in 2020 after the Covid pandemic arrived. I read stories to them over Zoom then and in 2021. But this summer, 2022, my thirty-plus year run was interrupted: Friends Music Camp is on hiatus. Will it return? I hope so.].

I miss Olney and camp for all the above reasons, and one more that’s special to me: Olney’s  air is seeded with stories; they can rise to consciousness like mist off the pond. (Earlham, as yet, not so much.) Like the one I usually finished with. It appeared a few years before my visits to camp began: I took my younger children to visit Ohio Yearly Meeting there, just so they, being raised as young Quakers, could breathe the air and feel the vibe, hang out with the few kids who were still dressed plain, and maybe absorb something of its spirit.

When bedtime came, my kids demanded a story. I didn’t have one. But as I pondered briefly, suddenly I did have one. This one, in fact, which popped out of the subconscious pretty much whole.

For all the years I came to camp at Olney, it was a favorite, usually the closer for my sessions. I hadn’t read it at Earlham, though, partly because it scraped at my still aching scab of loss, and I wondered if the new, non-Olney-fied campers would relate to it.

But the calls for it were loud, and I obeyed. The story is one of ten “Quaker ghost stories” that have come to me, and it has a place for audience participation, with the key chant unfurled below bellowed by campers contrapuntally, pitting males against females to see who is loudest. You’ll see what I mean in a minute.

–  –  –  –  –  –  –  –

                     Old Plain Peter, The Ghost of Elders Past

Barnesville, Ohio – Not  Long Ago

Wilbur John Stratton was ten and lived in Barnesville, Ohio. Wilbur and his family all went to meeting there, at the big old Stillwater Meeting house, every Sunday. All of them, that is, except his great-aunt Felicity.

Oh, she always came with them, but great-aunt Felicity was very careful to call it “First-Day,” instead of Sunday. And she was also careful to make sure that her long gray dress was ironed, and her old black bonnet smoothed out before she left the house.

All this was because great-aunt Felicity was an old-fashioned Friend, which meant a plain Friend. She wore the same kind of long grey or brown dresses year in and year out. That’s how she was raised, and that’s what she thought was right, especially for Quakers.

“The plain way, that’s the proper way for Friends,” she often told Wilbur John, as she sat knitting in her favorite rocking chair. She never failed to mention this when she heard Wilbur John whistling, which he loved to do.

Great-aunt Felicity was not only old-fashioned, she was also very old, and spent most of her time at her knitting. She was knitting small sweaters for the Yearly Meeting Relief Committee to send to poor children.

She must have knitted hundreds of them, Wilbur John thought. They were all plain too, gray or brown or black, depending on which color of yarn was on sale when she went to the store. 

“Yes,” she often said, “when I was growing up we would have none of this worldly business that a child like thee has nowadays, sports and movies and TV and whistling tunes and suchlike foolishness. We had better things to think about, eternal things.”

“What about books?” Wilbur asked her one day. This was important, because he loved to read. “Did they let thee read books?” Wilbur didn’t say “thee” much anymore; only to his parents sometimes, and now and then to an older person at meeting. He never said it at school; the other kids snickered. But he always said it to great-aunt Felicity. 

“Oh, yes, we had books,” great-aunt Felicity said. “But mostly we read the Bible. There’s plenty of excitement and adventure in the Bible. And in George Fox’s Journal too.”

Wilbur John listened respectfully, but he wasn’t much impressed. He had seen her old Bible, and her Fox’s Journal. Both were very thick, with small print and no pictures. 

Great-aunt Felicity seemed to sense his doubts. “Now and then a few of us tried to cheat,” she admitted “by looking at worldly magazines and picture books. But it didn’t last long. In those days we had elders watching over us, and in a town as small as Barnesville they were sure to find out about it before long. Then the elders would visit the family, and deal with the wayward child and their parents. Those elders kept us to the plain way.”

“Was thee afraid of the elders?” Wilbur John asked. 

“We sure were,” his aunt said. “They were all old men, who always dressed in black suits and big black hats, and on First Day they sat in the front of the meeting on the facing benches, watching us. Most of them had long grey and white beards, and they always looked very sober, and they preached long and solemn in meeting. I don’t think I can remember ever hearing one of them laugh.

And the most sober and scary elder of them all to us then was old Peter Rockwell. ‘Old Plain Peter’ we used to call him. Yes, he was a stern one.” 

Great-aunt Felicity paused for a moment while she counted some stitches. Then she added, “thee knows, I’m told that old Plain Peter is still around the Stillwater Meeting House. His ghost that is.”

“Really?” said Wilbur John. He hadn’t heard about this before. 

“Yes,” she said, “I’m sure of it. He’s been seen sitting on those facing benches, his eyes glowing under that old black hat of his. And a number of young Friends who had gone out into worldly diversions have found him waiting for them when they went to the meetinghouse of a lonely evening.

He had seen what they had done, and he stood up and shouted at them, `For shame, for shame! Be plain, be plain!’ He ran them right out of there, too, scared out of their wits, as I’m sure thee can imagine.”

“Yes,” said Wilbur John, “I can imagine.” 

And he could. The Stillwater meetinghouse was friendly enough in the daytime, but at night it would be an ideal spot for ghosts: with its long old benches and the high balcony, and one side of it, where the women used to sit, not used anymore and all covered with dust. It made him a little nervous to think of it.

“Now don’t think I’m just trying to frighten thee,” great-aunt Felicity said. “It’s better to be plain out of conviction than from fear. But I know what I have heard.”

When Wilbur John left the house that afternoon, he was thoughtful. Was Old Plain Peter, the Ghost of Elders Past, really watching young Quakers, around Barnesville? The story made him a little nervous, but it also left him very curious. He found himself walking down Sandy Ridge Road toward the Stillwater meetinghouse, and the old Olney Friends School that sat on the hill behind it.

It was a lovely late spring day, and from behind the trees on the near side of the school he heard students shouting and cheering. He knew what that was, and trotted down the brick sidewalk and through some trees til he came to the playing field, where the Olney girl’s soccer team was scrimmaging against a team from another school.

It was an exciting game, with girls in brightly colored shorts running this way and that, colliding on top of the ball, which was bouncing here and there, while more students lined up along the grass, cheering for their team.

Wilbur John loved to watch soccer games, and he often thought that when he was old enough to go to Olney he would try out for the boy’s team.

But then he remembered. Great-aunt Felicity had said the plain Quakers didn’t allow games like soccer at Olney in the old days. They were too competitive, and too worldly. That made Wilbur John wonder: Did Old Plain Peter watch these games too, and shake his ghostly head in disapproval, and wait for one of the Quaker students to come into the meetinghouse at night so he could shout at him, “For shame, for shame! Be plain, be plain!”?

This thought spoiled his enjoyment of the game, and he wandered back to the brick sidewalk, toward the old Main school building. There in the hallway right in front of him was the library, and through its big glass window he could see two students leaning over a big book full of pictures. By leaning up a little closer to the glass, he thought he could tell what the pictures were of–yes, they were pictures of dinosaurs! Dinosaurs were his favorite animals, even if they were all extinct. He had some plastic dinosaur models at home, and often pretended they were space creatures, like the ones he had seen in a comic book at school. 

But then he suddenly remembered again about Old Plain Peter. What do you suppose that ghost thought of all the fancy picture books and story books that were in this library now, Wilbur John asked himself. He must watch the kids in here, too, and he probably didn’t like these books one bit. School books and Quaker books and the Bible, that was plenty for great-aunt Felicity, and for Old Plain Peter too. 

It wouldn’t be plenty for me, Wilbur John said to himself, as he turned and went back out the big front door and down the steps.

It was getting late now, time to think about heading back toward home. But off to his right Wilbur John saw the big school pond shimmering beyond the boy’s dorm, and headed over that way. He wanted to see if any turtles were out on the grass where he might be able to catch them. 

Now that, he figured, should be something old Plain Peter wouldn’t mind; turtles were plain enough, weren’t they, with their brown shells. Though come to think of it they did have those bright red or white spots on their necks. Were those plain too?

They must be, Wilbur John decided as he started skidding down the steep hillside toward the pond, because God made the spots along with the shells. And anyway, his attention was now distracted from this theological problem by the sight of the pond’s regular spring and summer guests, a flock of big Canadian geese, which had recently returned and was sitting quietly on the grass below him. 

Wilbur John shouted happily and ran into the flock of geese waving his arms. They began squawking and fluttering, just as he knew they would, waddling quickly away and then spreading their big wings and taking off, rising gracefully out over the pond and then gliding into it, their long necks extended and webbed feet skimming along like water skis.

Watching them settle down in the pond, Wilbur John realized that these birds were also no doubt plain enough for an old-time Quaker, with their gray feathers and brown-ringed necks and black heads. Maybe that’s why they liked to settle here, next to an old Quaker school and meetinghouse; they felt at home.

He left the geese behind and headed down to the weathered little wooden footbridge that stretched over the pond to its little hump of an island, and his original goal of hunting for turtles. 

Turtle hunting didn’t sound like much, but it could be exciting. Wilbur John would never forget the time when his sister grabbed a turtle away from him and tried to play with it like one of her dolls. She brought the terrified, wiggling animal up near her face to talk baby talk to it, only to have its little beak open and clamp tight right onto her chin. She had screamed and danced until he managed to yank it off and throw it back into the water. Then she was mad at him for laughing, which he did all the way home, especially once he could see that she wasn’t really hurt, just scratched and shaken up a little.

Yes that was fun all right, and probably plain too. But today there were no turtles on the bank, just a few that kept rising tantalizingly to the surface of the pond, well beyond his reach, to breathe and snap up any unlucky bugs that had landed in the water, then sinking lazily back out of sight.

Finally he noticed how long the shadows were getting over the pond and the cow pasture beyond it, and he knew it was time to head back home. So he started trudging back up the hill, around the back of the boy’s dorm.

It was as he was passing the dorm that he heard some music. It was a guitar, and someone in the dorm was playing it, practicing a tune that Wilbur John didn’t recognize. Whoever it was could play well, and the tune was a lovely one, and Wilbur John stopped to listen. Then it ended, and he was just about to move on, when the invisible player started another tune, one even lovelier than the first. Wilbur John paused to listen some more.

The music kept up for three more tunes, and Wilbur John heard a boy’s voice humming to the last one as it was played. Then the school bell rang in the tower atop the old Main building, which meant it was almost time for dinner, and the guitar stopped. The bell got Wilbur John moving too, down the road toward the school gate and beyond it a few blocks, home. And it got him thinking again too. I suppose old Plain Peter wouldn’t like that guitar; the old-fashioned Quakers didn’t think much of music. 

He was still mulling this over when he looked up and saw he was almost at the gate, and that meant he was also right by the Stillwater meeting house. And he noticed that one of the doors on the side porch was ajar. 

Suddenly he had an urge to go in and see if there really was a ghost in there. And before he had time to get scared, he was walking up the porch steps, through the door, and sitting down on the long front facing bench.

The room was quiet, and dim. Wilbur John could hardly see the back of the balcony in the evening shadows. One of the side windows was open, though, and from somewhere outside a bluejay came flapping down to rest briefly on its sill. The bird peered into the room, its eyes blinking. Wilbur John looked quietly back at it. Now there’s a bird that’s not very plain, he thought, with those gaudy feathers and its loud voice–

Just then someone tapped him on his other shoulder, the one away from the window. The blue jay screeched and flew away, and Wilbur John turned around.

Next to him on the bench was an old man, dressed in a black suit and wearing a black hat with a wide brim. He had a long gray and white beard.

Wilbur John almost jumped off the bench. His mouth fell open, and it took a few seconds before he heard himself stammering. “Are, are, are you–I mean, is thee–” was all he could say.

“Yes,” said the old man, “I’m Old Plain Peter, and I’ve been waiting for thee.”

Although Wilbur John was still afraid, something in the old man’s voice kept him from running out the door. It was ghostly all right, but somehow not quite as stern or frightening as he was expecting. The eyes, too, seem to shine more than glow. “Thee-thee’s been waiting for me?” he said. “I suppose thee’s been watching me too.”

The old man nodded. “Oh, yes,” he replied, “I’ve been watching thee off and on for some time. I was watching thee all afternoon today. I knew thee was headed this way.”

“So I suppose,” said Wilbur John, “thee knows what I’ve been doing today too.”

The old man nodded again, very gravely Wilbur John thought. The boy pulled his feet up under him, to be ready to jump and run if the spectre began to shout at him. But a moment passed in silence. The old man sat there and said nothing. Finally Wilbur John couldn’t stand the waiting.

“Well,” he asked, “isn’t thee going to shout at me ‘For shame, for shame! Be plain, be plain!’?”

There was another quiet pause. Then the old man glanced away, past Wilbur John toward the open window. “I was going to,” he answered quietly. “I was all ready to.” 

Wilbur John felt a little bolder now. “Then go ahead,” he said, a little louder. “I’m not afraid.” (Even though he was, really.)

“Well,” said Old Plain Peter, “for the sake of truth, I have to tell thee that something happened today, something I was not expecting. When thee was watching that game, the one with the ball–”

“It’s called soccer”, Wilbur John said helpfully.

“Er, yes, uh-soccer,” continued the old man. “When thee was watching it, I slipped up behind thee and looked over thy shoulder. And soon I found to my surprise that I was so absorbed in it I was a bit sorry when thee decided to leave. That game was turning out to be, well, just plain fun.”

“Then I saw thee straining to see that book with the strange creatures pictured in it–”

“Dinosaurs,” corrected the boy. “They’re my favorite animals.”

“Ahem, yes,” the old man grunted. “Well, since I’m taller than thee, and can walk through walls besides, I went in and took a closer look at the book than thee did. And I must admit, even though I’m not at all convinced that such fantastic creatures ever really existed, that book was, well, just plain interesting.

“And what about the turtles and the geese?” Wilbur John asked. “Did thee see them too?”

“Oh, yes, and thee was quite right, they’re plain enough. I used to hunt turtles myself when I was thy age, and that was over a hundred years ago. But I wasn’t thinking so much about them,” he said, and scratched at his bearded chin with a big wrinkled hand.

Wilbur John’s eyes dropped. “I know,” he said, staring at the floor. “It was the music, the guitar.”

“That’s right,” said the ghost. “I heard it. Thee never saw the boy who was playing, but I did. I watched his fingers moving over the strings, and the furrow of concentration between his brows. And when I came out again, I could not deny that I felt the same way thee did: that music was, well, it was just plain beautiful.

“After that, I came ahead of thee into the meetinghouse, to sit and reflect on what thee and I had seen and heard today. And I was still sitting here when thee came in.”

“So, what does thee think now?” Wilbur John asked. “Doesn’t thee want me to be plain anymore?”

The old man sat for a moment and then nodded his head solemnly. “Yes,” he answered, “yes I do. But I think I’m beginning to see that there may be more ways to be plain than I imagined.”

He was quiet for another long moment. Then he turned and faced the boy. 

“Let me ask thee something now,” he said. “Does thee reckon thee could do those things, play that ball game, read those fancy picture books, and play such music–does thee think thee could do all those things and still be plain, really?”

Now it was Wilbur John’s turn to ponder for a long moment, but finally he answered, honestly, “I don’t know.”

Then he said, “But I know I’d like to try. But if I do,” he added, “is thee sure thee won’t rise up someday and start shouting at me ‘For shame, for shame! Be plain be plain!’ like my great-aunt Felicity says?” 

Now the old man smiled. “Oh, that Felicity was always a mischief maker,” he said quietly, as if to himself. “No,” he added more audibly, “I’ll agree not to shout at thee –but only on one condition.”

“What’s that?” asked the boy.

“It is this: I would like thee to keep coming here to meeting on First Days, and reflecting in worship on what thee is doing, to see if all these things thee does still seem plain when brought into God’s Light.”

“All right,” said Wilbur John. “I promise I’ll do it. It’s a deal. Does thee want to shake on it?”

The old man smiled and started to raise his big weathered hand to meet the boy’s, then he pointed past his shoulder.

“Oh look,” he said, “there’s that gaudy blue jay again.”

Wilbur John faced the window, only to see the blue jay taking off again with another screech.

When he turned back again, the bench beside him was empty, and he was alone in the big old meetinghouse, which was now almost dark.

Good grief, he thought, I’ll be late for dinner! He jumped up and hurried out the door, up to the gate and Sandy Ridge Road. As he walked along, he felt a special kind of lightness in his heart, a pleasure that seemed to light up the dusk all the way to his house. He soon began to whistle, one of the nameless tunes he had heard played on the guitar that afternoon. 

He was still whistling when he came into the house. He could smell food from the dining room, and great-aunt Felicity had just laid her knitting aside and was getting out of her rocker, leaning on her cane.

“Wilbur John, thee is late, and thee is whistling again,” she said, though her tone was not as stern as the words. “Old Plain Peter will be after thee if thee keeps that up.”

“Oh, I don’t think so,” Wilbur John said jauntily. “Thee see, I had a chat with Old Plain Pete today, and we got it all worked out.

– – – – – – – – – – –

This handmade set of tiles is one of many made by Olney students for the wall  in a Boys Dorm bathroom.

Previous Friends Music Camp stories in this 2018 series:

#1 – Talking With the Trees
#2 – How I Got so lucky
#3 – The Voice of God

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