Mystery of the Town of Washburn
No author given
From an undated newspaper clipping from the late 1800’s

Away back in the days when spruce logs were unknown on the Aroostook river, and lands covered with trees, were sold by the State Land Agent for little or nothing; then a settler saw his neighbors but twice a year, and scarcely knew he had any only for the smoke on a frosty morning, or the occasional report of a gun, or a torch light a mile above or below, in the gloom of night, while salmon spearing.

It was then that Mathias Black wended his way from far off Miramichi, on horseback, to New Brunswick and up the St. John river. He was a very odd and eccentric man, had accumulated something like twenty thousand dollars in gold, trafficking in square pine timber and salted salmon at the mouth of Dalhousie river, near the head of Bay Chaleur. As the place became more populous and competition more persistent, he pulled up his corner stakes and abandoned the locality.

The first of June 1838, saw him picking his way carefully along the shores of the beautiful Aroostook, whose banks were covered with that smooth, clean and sweet smelling early green that intoxicates the senses.

He was in love with nature, because nature was loveable. Camping wherever night spread her mantle, his horse browsed along the grassy slope, while he fried the savory trout and smoked squaw bush bark. One or two of the earliest settlers saw the camp fire or got a glimpse of a stranger on horseback, wending his way westward.

One man between Presque Isle and Washburn, met him. Black made himself known and inquired what rate of interest could be had on money loaned, saying, “I have twenty thousand dollars in these,” pointing to a pair of leather saddle bags that lay astride the horse behind him. The man lifted the well filled pouch and found it very heavy.

Mathias Black travelled by easy stages, for he enjoyed the fishing and camping too well to hurry past the beautiful. When he reached the mouth of Salmon brook, he exclaimed, “Here is the Mecca I am in search of.” The brook was one of the largest, its water was the coldest of all the streams that mingled with the waters of the river.

Accordingly on the opposite bank, he again drove his corner stakes and erected a log house. As no one had a deed from the State of their farms, no loans were made, but Mathias was happy both in the possession of his gold and he charm of such a life as he was enjoying, for he loved the solitude of the woods, the hills, the river, and the cool sparkling brooks that tumbled down its precipitous banks. He buried his gold coins near the river’s bank at the lower end of the little patch of land he had cleared of trees and brushes.

When the Aroostook War began, Mathias Black swore like a pirate. He thought he was far from the haunts and strife of men, but he found himself in the center of a war that no one could predict the end of. When the State troops retreated up the river in mid-winter, they made such a racket in their haste to escape from the hated and dreaded red coats, and were so lawless in appropriating his stores of hay and oats that had been carefully housed for the faithful horse, that he was filled with disappointment and discomfort.

When the wild roses were in bloom along the river, he mounted his horse again and headed for the Queen’s dominion, minus the leather saddle bags. Old Dan Hickey met him – he had no saddle bags. Lewis Scott, then a small boy was fishing on the shore; Black passed him – he also noticed the absence of leather saddle bags. Fairbanks was engaged in grubbing out a road on the river’s bank; he saw Black pass going down river – no saddle bags lay across his horse. There is no evidence that Mathias Black ever returned for his gold. He evidently intended to return when the war was over, but never did, and there is not a shadow of doubt but that the twenty thousand dollars of gold is laying beneath the hay field of the Black farm today.

Just where it was buried, end with all efforts to locate it have failed, and constitute what is today “Washburn’s mystery.”

Mathias Black was no common sort of a man. Nature covered him with her protecting laws. He fully understood and was in daily communion with his environments. He had studied the natural laws that domesticated themselves in that locality and in doing so had opened an entrance into the kingdom of the spooks – they are always about us and when a man whose mission pierces their sphere, comes into communion with them, they rejoice and quickly adopt him into relationship. After that they faithfully guard his possessions. Therefore no one can ever succeed in stealing Mathias Black’s gold from its mausoleum of sandy loam. The spooks always did and always will drive away anyone who attempts to dig down to a large stone that covers the gold. Many have essayed to become wealthy – all too suddenly – by gaining possession of buried treasure. There is not a county in the State but has its legend of some old farmer who was stingy and saving, who was never known to pay out a cent in money, who always raised large crops of wheat and sold six hundred bushels of oats and six tons of hay a year, since the small boy can remember. His wealth was always left in the ground when he died. Madawaska has one or two such legends, but the story of Black’s wealth is so well authenticated that there is little doubt of its truthfulness.

It is not a common occurrence in the South for the plow point to hook the bail of a buried kettle and yank the rusty thing form its bed, full of gold and silver coins.

Old Dan Hickey was the first to relate the story of Black’s gold in the writer’s presence in 1848. Later, old Lady Brannan, a real celtic of the chipper and cheery kind, life under any kind of conditions was always cheerful to her happy temperament. As late as 1870, or thereabouts, when her hair was white as snow, she thought nothing of walking from Washburn to Presque Isle for a pound of tea and return.

“Yes, Mr. Black buried his gold an Bob Milikin tried to stale it. He went in the middle of a black night an’ dug a hole down to the rock that covered the money. It was starlight when he began to dig, when he looked up the hivins was black as ink an’ the air was that full of stinking sulfur that Bob’s face was made as black as pitch and remained so as long as he lived.” 

It was known to Duncan Steward, who lived on the State road, that Bob Miliken made more than one unsuccessful attempt to get Black’s wealth, Dan Hickey who was past fifty, fifty years ago, sallied forth one very dark night from his home (that no one should know from what source he got his riches) with pick and shovel. When he began digging the spooks tore up the grass turf along edges of the river bank and sent the sods rolling and scurrying across the narrow strip of grass. Hickey stood gazing at them, his hair on end, until a couple of sods struck his legs and went to pieces. Then he crossed himself and ran for his life. Someone on the farm was the richer for his tools. Hickey would never pass the place after that night, Hickey told old lady Brannan all about it, said the devil himself was guarding the place and hair would grow on the palm of his hand before he ever went there again.

One of the prominent men of the Salmon Brook Settlement took a shy at the treasure one dark night. (They all chose darkness to shield them from observation.) That man related his experience to the writer in the summer of 1865. He said he crossed the river at the ford, that his wet pants made him a little clumsy, the water in his boots made a sloshing noise and when nearing the place, a trembling sensation was all over him. The wind was blowing quite hard but as he neared the spot it became ominously still. It alarmed him so much that he hesitated for a few minutes then began to dig. He had barely begun when he felt a handful of gravel stones strike against his head that hurt severely. He looked up to see a column of illuminated fog or mist, Long arms protruded, the two hands that were as large as show shoes, held a flat piece of ledge rock, from which the spook was biting off mouthfuls and blowing the pieces at the intruder. Leaving the shovel he ran in mortal fear. He said to the writer, “There has never been a time since when I thought there was any money there for me.”

From the close of the great rebellion, when gold sold at a high premium, to about 1870, the grass field was always full of little round holes made by venturesome individuals during the night time, by pushing a pointed iron rod down to find the treasure.

An ex-soldier did considerable of that sort of work trying to increase his pension at the expense of Black’s deposit. He told the writer that the black art protected that money, that he often shoved the pointed rod against something solid that always dodged the second thrust. Sometimes he was forced to leave the rod in the ground because it became hot and went to pieces in bright sparks. He never visited the place without leaving on the run to save himself from some horrid spectacle or sensation.

In 1872, one of the true old time knights of the ribbon, a chivalrous soul, who has served the public with his nag, faithfully, for forty years or more in moving household goods and merchandise, alike for the rich and poor, and but for his honesty could long ago have built a mansion with plate glass windows, in the month of leafy June of that year lay dreaming in childlike slumber, the windows was wide open, the balm of exuberant nature was about him. Occasionally his lips put on a momentary smile as infants are wont to do when dreaming of the nursing bottle. A valley sprite sat on his downy pillow and filled his left ear with tales of wealth, of a meadow by a fair and placid river, a branching and leafy elm tree, along margin of alder bushes in the midst of which grew a bunch of blooming high bush cranberry bushes. The happy man dreamed of a six horse team of shiny black steeds, of lager beer galore, and long Normandy wines. When he awoke a red-breasted robin was caroling his glad song at the open window. The world appeared so beautiful, nor did nature ever look so winsome as on that lovely June morning. He knew the story of Mathias Black’s money, so after breakfast, he harnessed his faithful horse and drove to the town of Washburn. Hitching his horse and then he descended to the meadow. There was the placid river, the meadow, and ”holy smoke” there stood nodding in the summer’s sun, the leafy elm tree, the alders, and the blooming cranberry bushes. Lifting his old hat he slowly wiped the sweat from his forehead, then looked again to reassure himself. On his way home when near the village, he looked out over the broad acres of costly farms, saying; “Mine to have, mine to own, mine to till, O happy man, (Git up Jim! Hitting the horse with the whip) some time next week.”

For a week he went about his daily toil. Old Jim wondered at his master’s gentleness. The moon was full, but at the end of a week, the time seemed ripe. He again harnessed the horse and drove to Washburn, hitching the horse out in a sheep pasture to a spruce tree, (that none should discover his mission.) With crowbar and shovel he descended to the meadow. His feet were light, the ground seemed soft as feathers. He felt a little lonesome. The clouds began to obscure the stars, he began to dig, but the dirt and sods returned again. A small black animal came from the bushes and went squealing across the narrow strip of grass. By that time the man was thoroughly unnerved, but with the crowbar he made a desperate lunge into the ground. The bar revealed a solid rock. The contact almost paralyzed his arms. The heavens were black as ink, the rain fell in drops as large as potato balls. The treasure hunter ran as he never ran in this life. The thunder was deafening and the lightning blinding. On going for the horse he was gone, the wagon lay scattered about. Sadly the good man started for his home, arriving at daylight tired and broken, to find the horse at the stable door with only the bridle and collar of all the harness.

Well, after a couple of days’ cogitation he hired two Frenchmen to go with him. Together they sought the meadow with blocks and tackle to lift the rock by quick work. They dug a hole down to the rock, before the spooks awoke. The tackle had been fastened in the top of the elm tree. The lucky man descended into the hole to fasten a chain about the stone, the two Frenchmen were on tip toe, ready to run at the slightest noise. The cranberry bushes shook so violently that there blossoms were scattered. Away went the Frenchmen. The good man climbed out and saw the tackle alive with St. Elmo’s fire, the ropes were like red hot bars of iron. Then he saw the hole again fill up and he fell in a swoon and lay until long after sunrise. When he awoke, like Rip Van Winkle everything he had brought with him was reduced to ashes and no signs whatever remained of the work done. The birds were singing, the crows cried in unison, “Go home! Go home!” and he did go home.

There is no evidence that any further efforts have been made to take Mathias Black’s gold from the place where he laid it. Others may try but none can get the best of the spooks that never absent themselves from the vicinity of the meadow.

The reason for this bit of history is simply to resurrect the Mystery of the Town of Washburn from oblivion.