It started as a small crackling sound, like tinder in a dry forest snapping under foot, like the “pop-pop” of a fat pine log in a fireplace. Soon, smoke curled gently upward in the midnight calm that surrounded the old white two-story house downtown on D Street in McCook, Nebraska, my hometown.


Mysteriously, within seconds, a crowd gathered. It was as though they were already there, as though they knew in advance that McCook’s own little whore house was going to burn that night, according to H. C. Clapp, a then-retired local merchant who was telling me the story. It happened back in the early teens or 1920’s, he recollected.


Within seconds, screams of terror arose from inside the house. It’s girls, fear glowing from wide eyes, streamed into the night, trailing housecoats and head-wraps. They were met by a phalanx of hard-eyed, well dressed woman who jeered them while, simultaneously, cheering on the fire.


Moments later, for all practical purposes, it was over as giant flames, made brighter by a moonless night, licked the black sky. Streamers of bright orange coals raced up into the night sky in curling paths, carried along by superheated air, as if sending up flares to mark the spot, as if pleading for help.


Hard on the moment, as ranks of women faced each other in the flickering firelight, as the house crackled in its agony of flame, the bells of the local volunteer fire department clanged up the hill. But the crowd of mostly women wouldn’t part. Firemen had to force their way through the ranks of shoulder-to-shoulder women to lay hose, and once attached to the hydrant, pressure mysteriously dropped almost to zero.


Firemen shouted while others ran, heads down, some crawling on hands and knees to spy out the reason for the sudden loss of pressure.


“Hose cut!!! Here . . . back here!!!” called a fireman, down on his haunches, holding the hose, which pulsed fluid from its open wound like a severed artery.


And thus began the legend of the girls of Willow Grove and how this tree-lined swale on a plain south of McCook came to be, and how some of the families still living in this sleeping little village can trace their roots to willow trees that still whisper names and recuerdos on the gentle breezes that flow up from the river, and how at least one merchant — H. C. Clapp, to be exact — prospered from it all.


It is one of those classic tales, full of mystery, fraught with emotion, and the tangle of the sometimes conflicting beliefs in which the forces of good and evil often find themselves, leading some to ask which is the good side, and which is the bad side.


In the end, like all legends, it keeps its secrets . . .secrets long since buried in the moldering ruins of a few cabins in this place called Willow Grove, and in the ashes of a fire some say was set by the good women of McCook, and in court testimony in which prostitutes testified to the efficacy of prayer, while local women — all good, decent “church-folk,” — denied its power.


It all started, Clapp said, with the railroad . . . the CB&Q . . . the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy, which made a railhead out of McCook. In those days, McCook was nothing more than just another little prairie town with its inhabitants’ homes crawling up the gentle hills on the north slope of the Republican River Valley. With the designation “railhead” came all the accouterments of economic prosperity. The railroad built a round house and large machine shops while local entrepreneurs built saloons and hardware stores.


Men with the talents needed by the railroad were hired from as far away as Germany. My grandfather, Carl Gustav Budig, an escapee from Kaiser Willhelm’s growing army, found solace, safety and gainful employment as a master machinist with the railroad. He took his sons — my father and uncles — out of school in the seventh grade and put them to work as apprentices in the Burlington shops. Seven years of night work later, they, too, were master machinists. They could make or fix anything made of steel.


Men and railroads equaled large payrolls, and wherever there are men and money, especially single men whose homes are far, far away, there, too, are women like those who followed the armies of Hannibal and other great conquerors. And like all conquerors, the railroad just rolled on, swallowing up land and depositing, here and there, little towns full of the hopeful and the hopeless.


So, with the railroad came a certain vexation to some of the folks in McCook. Specifically, to the WCTU — the Women’s Christian Temperance Union — as well as various other women’s groups, all of whom gave wide birth to the block on West D, not far from Main Street, according to Clapp, who owned and operated H. C. Clapp’s, a women’s ready to wear, also located on McCook’s Main Street and not too far from the white, two story house that burned one night by the dark of the moon.


“Those girls used to come into my store and spend all their money,” he recalled, adding that “they were always very well behaved.”


But the fire ended that. It also set in motion a legal action in which several women in McCook were charged with arson.


It was no secret, Clapp said, that the God-fearing women of McCook didn’t care for that house of ill-repute. They didn’t care for it being so close to downtown, either. It was located there because it was close the railroad’s shops, he said. Men getting off work — day or night — could visit the girls on their way to rooming houses . . . or wherever, he said.


Between the saloons and that house, McCook really jumped, especially on Saturday night.

“Well!” Clapp mockingly huffed, “that was just too much. It wasn’t long before the local women were praying for their little town to be rid of these girls,” he said. Apparently, when that didn’t work, they began praying for “an act of God.”


“A fire . . . to be exact,” Clapp said, shaking his head.


Word got out. “Mostly, it was a local joke,” Clapp explained.


So, both sides were sort of squared off against one another. But up to that point, it was all rumor and . . . prayers.


Then, one night, it happened. Fire. “And sure enough, there were a lot of local ladies who just happened to be ‘in the neighborhood’ when it started . . . about midnight . . . when most folks were home in bed,” Clapp said, making little clucking sounds with his mouth. His lips curled into a quick smile just once, and then he caught himself.


Clapp didn’t remember who was responsible for the trial, but there was one.


“What a sight,” he recalled.


“There were the prostitutes, on the witness stand, testifying that the fire started not too long after the good women of McCook started praying for a fire. Therefore . . . . And there were the good women of McCook, on the witness stand, denying that prayer had any effect at all.”

Clapp said he didn’t recall the outcome of the trial. “No one got sent away or fined or anything,” he said.


The net result was that the girls of McCook were banished to a place outside the city limits. They found this place south and a little west of town, down near the river in a grove of willow trees. Local folks called it Willow Grove, he said.


“You know where that gravel road runs south there, out of Klein’s Machine Shop?” he asked. “Well, that’s the road. It curves west after going under the railroad trestle. It was down along that road,” he explained.


“Boy, I really started making the money, then,” he said. He explained that once the girls were banished, they had nowhere to spend their money.


“I used to load up my buckboard with everything in the store, and haul it out there every two or three months,” he said. “Spend all day Sunday out there . . . those girls trying and buying everything in my wagon.”


Clapp thought a moment, and then added, “And that ain’t all,” he said, scuffing the ground with his foot, as though looking for something.


I waited. It was obvious he had something to say, and he was looking for the right way to say it.

Finally, he just opened his mouth and said it.


“A lot of those girls married railroaders . . . settled down and raised families right here in McCook,” he said.


He fell silent then, and so did I. My breath fairly stuck in my throat. I suppose it would have been different if we had been talking about New York City. But we weren’t. We were talking about McCook, Nebraska, my hometown, a town which, at the best of times, reached a population of around 12,000 souls. Back in the ’20’s, McCook’s population must have been small. Small enough that it would be hard to hide that sort of thing, or the stigma that went with it. Even in the ’50’s when this conversation took place, the inference of stigma was strong.

“They just got married and toughed it out,” Clapp explained.


“Do you remember . . . I mean . . . do you still know . . . .” He knew where I was going with the question. He was a little, round man in those days, and he almost looked like pictures I had seen of Santa Claus in that part of the story where he “laid his finger aside his nose.”


Clapp did the exact same thing. He touched his nose with his finger and smiled at me. But he said not one word.


Later, after talking with him, I drove down that gravel road leading away from Kelin’s Machine Shop, and like he said, about a mile on, I came to what surely was an abandoned set of falling-down buildings almost totally obscured by the stand of tall willows that filled a gentle depression in the earth.


I parked and strolled tentatively among the trees and listened to the gentle wind shushing through the branches. That was about it. I left and kept this story locked away inside of me for almost half a century.


But now, thinking back on it, if I listen again to the breezes coming up off the river and through the trees above my head, it seems to me that I can hear all sorts of things.


I hear the lies of some, and the promises of others. I hear the soft crying of young men, and young women, both far from home. And for a few, just a few, I hear the rush of ecstasy, the glad sounds of expectation fulfilled, of promises kept.


And in my head, from that place in the lowlands of McCook, I look north toward the homes on the hills around Willow Grove, and I wonder if anyone up there ever looks down and lays a finger aside their nose.