by Roxy Todd and Dan Schultz, Traveling 219
In Christmas of 1955, at least six people reported seeing a beige mountain lion near Marlinton, West Virginia, according to an article by Calvin Price, who was then the editor for The Pocahontas Times. Browsing through the newspaper articles that Price wrote, Traveling 219 producers Roxy Todd and Dan Schultz have been exploring his panther tales, including this story about a series of panther sightings around Christmas in 1955:
Two children are kneeling beside the Christmas tree, holding their breath as they explore their newly wrapped presents. The smallest one, a boy, crawls beneath the tree. A bell falls from one of the branches, alerting their mother, who looks up from the crackling fire. She asks the children if it’s still snowing.
She remembers the first Christmas in this home, newly married, before electricity, just the glow of a fire, small, like this one. Smoke rises into the night, unusually bright beneath the waxing moon, the endless blankets of snow.
The children are looking out the window now, watching a shape emerge on the snow-covered lawn. A panther is creeping there at the edge of the farm. He steps into the light of the moon. He stretches his neck toward their house, to peer into the frozen window. Looking out the window at the terrifying creature, the children feel frozen too.
The panther is a dusty beige color, with white flecks of long whiskers on his face. Two dark, yellow eyes open wide, starring back at the faces of the children, suspended, unwavering. The little boy cries out. Their mother stands and sees the panther, catches her breath in fright. In defiance, fear, and awe, she locks eyes with the great cat and stares. She calls for her husband, and her voice against the glass startles the panther, who tears through soft, fresh snow and disappears in a flash.
That Christmas, at least three other people caught sight of a panther outside their home near Marlinton. And they all called Calvin Price, who was the editor of the Times from 1905 to 1957, and was also one of the last faithful believers in the great Pocahontas Panther.
For decades, Price wrote dozens of articles about these local panther sightings. He claimed to have seen a live panther himself once, when he was alone in the woods. He said in one interview that he whistled at it, and it growled and took off through the trees.
Officially, the last verified mountain lion killed in West Virginia was back in 1887, in Pocahontas County. But this didn’t change the fact that hundreds of people continued to report, and still report, sightings of panthers throughout the Allegheny Mountains.
But Christmas of the 1955 was one of the last reports that Price made about these panther tales. It was almost his last Christmas. He passed away in June 1957.
Why did that Pocahontas Panther come so close to town so many times during that Christmas of 1955? Was it the smell of all those Christmas hambones, tossed outside? Or the smoke from the chimneys, carrying smells of partridge, venison, and mincemeat pie?
Whatever it was, it interested the panther so much that he came back to that house with the mother and her children a few days after Christmas. This time she was reading a story to two of her children, who sat near her lap. The presents had all been unwrapped, but the Christmas tree was still up. The stockings still hung at the mantel, and a nativity scene decorated the table.
The youngest boy was looking out the window when the panther returned. The mother turned to see the panther’s face in the window, as before. She dropped her book on the floor and called her husband to come look. She and the children rushed to the window, but the panther had already leapt away. The moon, now full, lit up their fields, shining down on the panther as he jumped the high fence into a neighboring farm and disappeared.
Close your eyes, and it’s not difficult to see his tail twitching beneath the light of the moon. Tracing his own memory in circles across the snow. Sniffing out the source of all those who still told stories of him around the fire. He let himself be seen. A kind of last farewell to one who would always believe.
This story was produced by Roxy Todd of the Traveling 219 project. The project is a production of Allegheny Mountain Radio, with support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the West Virginia Humanities Council, and Americorps VISTA.