In Episode 159, Jeff Belanger and Ray Auger drive around an odd intersection in Smithfield, Rhode Island, 13 times searching for the Witch Tree. Some claim the intersection of Mann School and Colwell Roads is cursed by a witch rotting below an oak tree that sprouted more than two centuries ago. How did this road hazard turn into a monster? Listen to find out!
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JEFF: Okay, we’re going to take a left right up here onto Mann School Road.
RAY: Got it.
JEFF: And we’ll follow this for about a mile until the next major intersection with Colwell Road.
RAY: Okay, then what do we do at the next intersection?
JEFF: Well, yeah, that’s the thing… the next intersection IS our destination.
RAY: Okay, so we’re looking for a roadside oddity of some kind?
JEFF: Sort of. Though this isn’t really the SIDE of the road at all. This is an oddity with a paranormal twist. And we should be careful at this upcoming Smithfield, Rhode Island, intersection because some say it’s cursed.
JEFF: Ray, today we’re going to delve into the story behind one of the oddest intersections in all of New England. We’re going to explore the curse of the Witch’s Tree.
JEFF: Hi, I’m Jeff Belanger.
RAY: And I’m Ray Auger, and welcome to Episode 159 of the New England Legends podcast. If you give us about ten minutes, we’ll give you something strange to talk about today.
JEFF: Thank you for joining us on our mission to chronicle every legend in New England, one story at a time. We look for ghosts, monsters, aliens, or the just plain odd history that makes the northeast the weird, wonderful place that it is. And we can’t do that without the help of our patreon patrons! These legendary people kick in just $3 bucks per month to get early access to new episodes, plus exclusive access to bonus episodes and content that no one else gets to hear. Just head over to patreon.com/newenglandlegends to become a bigger part of the movement.
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RAY: So Jeff, we’re driving up to a Witch’s tree?
JEFF: That we are. Though today it looks pretty different. Okay, check that out just ahead.
RAY: This section of Mann School Road isn’t very busy, I don’t see any other cars around right now. We passed a couple of houses on the road, but not many. And… Okay, that is a strange intersection for sure.
JEFF: I know, right?!
RAY: It looks like someone made a mistake when laying down these roads. There’s a ton of pavement here, and right in the middle of the road is a tree, though I think it’s kind of a pretty tree. And it’s not very old, judging by its size. And around the small island that’s maybe six- to-eight feet across, is a guardrail going around the whole thing.
JEFF: They say if you drive around this tree 13 times, you’ll summon the witch!
RAY: And likely get arrested for a DUI in the process.
RAY: This whole scene isn’t very scary, Jeff.
JEFF: No, I get that. But this is not the original tree. It was just a few years ago that this spot looked very different. To figure out what happened, we’re going back in time about 200 hundred years.
JEFF: It’s Tuesday, August 8, 1810, and there’s a little sprout of an oak tree sticking out of the ground in this Smithfield, Rhode Island, field.
RAY: Yup… that looks like the first sprout of an oak tree. (PAUSE) Smithfield was first settled by Europeans in 1660 as a farming community, and it was officially incorporated as a town in 1731. Today, in 1820, mills are starting to pop up around town as manufacturing moves in to support the growing population of the region.
JEFF: And right here this little sapling gets to watch all of that happen.
[BIRDS / NATURE SOUNDS]
JEFF: Time passes, and this tree grows along with the community around it. The oak roots worm through the ground, gripping the bowels of Smithfield as it pushes itself higher toward the sun.
RAY: Trails right nearby this growing tree eventually turn into dirt roads for wagons and horses.
[HORSE AND WAGON GOING BY]
RAY: And by 1895, there’s an intersection of two roads by this oak located just north of Sprague’s Upper Reservoir.
JEFF: This oak tree has seen quite a lot already—the War of 1812, the Civil War, the first automobiles. After a century, it’s an imposing figure on the landscape.
RAY: In the twentieth century, dirt roads give way to paved roads, and property lines get drawn with precision. And pretty soon, this intersection is seeing activity.
RAY: But that little sapling is all grown up now. More than a century old, it’s now a mighty oak. And the folks building the road can’t see fit to cut down such a majestic tree.
JEFF: Still, the plans for the road are clear. And now the property lines on all sides of the intersection are set. Either the tree has to go, or it becomes part of the intersection.
RAY: I guess these Smithfield workers can’t see their way to destroying this majestic tree. That’s kind of beautiful.
JEFF: Or maybe a little lazy?
RAY: What do you mean?
JEFF: I mean, if you have to take this tree down to pave over it, you need to go deep so it doesn’t force its way through the pavement. Plus, if you do a proper job and kill it, those big roots spidering underneath the road are going to rot over time and it could cause parts of the road to sink, creating some hellacious pot holes.
RAY: So maybe leaving the tree up in the intersection was the best possible decision at the time?
JEFF: Maybe. But it does leave the intersection with a giant oak tree right in the middle.
RAY: As more years pass, the population of Smithfield continues to grow. And more people…
JEFF: Means more cars.
RAY: And with more cars passing through this intersection…
JEFF/RAY: Ooooooo Ouch!
RAY: There’s bound to be some car accidents.
JEFF: Yeah, I can see a good chunk of bark has been knocked off the base of the tree. The good news is, most of the accidents here are fender-benders. There’s a stop sign at all three entry and exit points of the intersection, so unless you’re blowing through the stop sign, you shouldn’t be going that fast. Still, some drivers seem to really struggle with getting around a giant tree in the road.
RAY: More years mean more scrapes and accidents. Not only is the town placing caution signs on the trees to alert drivers, but locals are starting to graffiti the old, scarred oak tree. In short, it’s become a landmark people talk about.
JEFF: There’s something else happening as we move into the 1980s… that old oak tree is getting scary looking. Especially in late fall as its leaves turn color and then drop.
JEFF: There it is sticking right out of the blacktop. No guardrail around it. It’s as if it just burst through the pavement. It’s spooky looking, and soon, the stories start to circulate.
RAY: Stories like, this is a witch’s tree. That’s it’s cursed. That if you drive around it 13 times, you’ll summon the witch. It’s obvious by the scars and naked bark around the base, that not everyone makes it around the tree in one piece.
JEFF: For centuries, there have been folk traditions on how a community deals with a presumed witch in death. We’ve explored some of those stories right here in New England. Like the Witch Goody Cole of Hampton, New Hampshire. When she died, her corpse was nailed into the ground.
RAY: That’s right! The ideas was so she couldn’t get up and torment her neighbors in the afterlife.
JEFF: Then there was the witch Hannah Cranna of Monroe, Connecticut, allegedly buried upside-down so her corpse couldn’t rise from the ground and bother any locals. Another common practice when dealing with a deceased witch is to plant a tree over her buried corpse so the roots will contain her body and spirit for as long as the tree stands.
RAY: Oh man, so do you think there’s a witch buried underneath this old oak in the intersection?
JEFF: I looked and found no record of any burials anywhere around this area.
RAY: But, if I could play devil’s advocate for a moment.
JEFF: Please do.
RAY: If someone suspected a person of being a witch, they would NOT be buried in the consecrated ground of a cemetery. They would be buried somewhere away from everyone else. Like they did with Goody Cole in New Hampshire.
JEFF: Good point. So while we could say it’s plausible, I just don’t think it’s likely in this case.
RAY: Why not?
JEFF: Because people don’t start calling this the Witch Tree until the 1980s. If we move ahead to 1990, this intersection is about to get weirder.
JEFF: The Town of Smithfield decides having a tree in the middle of an intersection is dangerous.
RAY: I wonder how many accidents it took to determine THAT?
JEFF: So they bring a crew out here with chainsaws and start cutting off some branches. But as soon as the workers take a break…
JEFF: A woman living nearby comes out of her house and sits down in front of the tree in protest. She doesn’t want to see it gone.
RAY: Man, she seems pretty fired up at those town workers!
JEFF: Annnnd now the police arrive. The woman is arrested for disorderly conduct, but the charges are soon dropped. Still, the point is made, and the old oak tree lives to see another day.
RAY: If we move ahead to 2008, the Witch Tree is looking more ominous than ever.
JEFF: Yeah it is!
RAY: Because it’s dying. Decay is rotting away from the inside, leaves aren’t growing as they should, so the tree stands naked, and now falling limbs pose a threat to passing cars. Once again the town of Smithfield sends out a crew.
RAY: And this time all of the tree’s branches are removed and it’s taken down to a stump maybe six feet tall. A dark stump and shadow of what the tree once was. But that stump is also dying. And that brings us back to today.
RAY: Today, that old oak stump is gone. In 2012 the stump was removed, the area around it was cleaned up, a new tree was planted, and there’s that guardrail we mentioned earlier encircling the entire area. Today, it would be more appropriate to call this a really small roundabout than a tree in the middle of the road.
JEFF: And if you’re the superstitious sort.
RAY: Which we are!
JEFF: Indeed we are. Because there’s a new tree planted in the same exact spot, if there ever was a witch underneath, that witch should still be contained.
RAY: We can only hope.
JEFF: Either way, the legend lives on. There’s still a tree in this intersection. People still talk about the landmark, it’s just if you don’t know the backstory, then the new tree looks too pretty and innocent as to hide any kind of corpse or curse.
RAY: Ahhh, but give it time, Jeff. Maybe 50 years from now when this new tree grows, we’ll be back as really old geezers talking about a Witch’s curse that dates back all the way to the 1900s.
JEFF: Where I grew up in Newtown, Connecticut, we have a giant flagpole in the middle of the road right on Main Street. Though they paint it almost every year, you can still see the scrape marks from cars who get too close. So I get it when there’s a landmark in the road.
RAY: If you want to see some old pictures of the Witch’s Tree, fly your broom over to our Web site and click on episode 159. You can also get links to our super secret Facebook group, and find our legend line phone number which is 617-444-9683. You can call or text us anytime, and you can even leave our show closing on there for us.
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VOICEMAIL: This is Kelly Baxter from North Canton, Ohio until next time remember the bizarre is closer than you think.