On the east side of Fort Collins, CO is a tree with a notorious and bloody reputation. One that supposedly has claimed the lives of farm hands and land owners alike. Under the gnarled branches of ancient cottonwoods is a decrepit house that belonged to a bitter old man named Jim Strang. Today it is encased by chain link fencing and boarded up. “No Trespassing” signs litter the fence at regular intervals. We are assured this is for our safety and not because the land itself is haunted.
At one point these twisted trees played host to the slipknots of old lynch mobs. Their roots were soaked in murderous blood.The menacing cottonwoods are now only host to murders of crows.
Of course, this is just the urban legend behind the property. Tinges of flavor have been added over the years and no one seems to be able to find any documentation behind the stories. Many people have said that Jim Strang hanged his farm hands for stealing, which is not outlandish for a house built in the late 1800s. The hangings eventually caused a revolt in which Strang found himself hanging from the very same tree. Some stories even have Strang killing his family and then hanging himself in an apparent murder-suicide.
The ghost story cliche came about when people reported seeing the silhouettes of hanging men in the setting sunlight. Paranormal sites have listed it as one of many haunted locations in the area and some have even added it to ghost tours around the city.
Unfortunately, without documentation, most of this can be dismissed. After all Fort Collins has had its share of documented vigilante justice. When James H. Howe drunkenly murdered his wife, a mob hung him in front of the courthouse. Newspapers and town historians have documented this and corroborate the story. No such evidence exists for the Hell Tree and the abandoned goat farm.
When I went to the Hell Tree and the adjacent Strauss Cabin, I was looking for images and footage that I might be able to post on creepy sites. I hoped I would find something that felt paranormal, something that would trigger that ominous heaviness when you find yourself in a place that bears the burden of dark histories. Instead I was greeted to a magnificent sunrise over the ruins of an old cabin, to spring flowers and young rabbits. It would take heavy editing to pervert the beauty I saw that morning. Even the Hell Tree and decaying goat farm had a warmth to them that betrayed the stories.
Perhaps next time I’ll ignore the no trespassing sign and put my hand on those old trees, or sneak through the chain fence into the house. Maybe from that vantage at sundown I’ll see where the land’s reputation was built. For now I would be willing to wager that tetanus haunts the old nails of the house more than any vengeful spirits.
Tony Southcotte: Tony hails from the Rocky Mountains somewhere around the state of Colorado. Possibly raised by grizzly bears, this gritty denizen of the arena now spends most of his time grappling with Java updates and dysfunctional RAM. With not much fiction under his belt, it might seem tempting to bet against Mister Southcotte, but an impressive knowledge of everything from PVC pipe to psychedelic drugs makes Tony a storehouse of fiction waiting to hit the paper. Plus, you know, there’s the possibility of him ripping you apart like a grizzly bear.