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Devil’s Tramping Ground

In the woods just outside of Siler City, North Carolina, lies a bare circle of earth about forty feet across where nothing grows except for a few strands of grass. Legend has it that on certain nights the Devil rises from the depth of fiery hell and comes to this place where he stomps around in circles extinguishing any life form that attempts to take root. Over the years, the alleged “Devil's Tramping Ground” has become the subject of numerous spooky tales and campfire ghost stories.

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The Devil’s Tramping Ground. Photo credit: Jason Horne/Flickr

Stories about the barren ring are well known in local communities. It is said that objects left within the ring overnight disappears the next morning, dogs howl when taken near the ring, and strange events occur to those brave enough to the spend the night within its boundaries. A story goes that once a group of boy scouts spent the night inside the circle. When they woke up they found themselves mysteriously transported a few miles away. Others who tried to stay up the whole night there were lulled to sleep by a soft voice. Many people have also reported seeing strange shadow-like figures in the tree line watching them, and other such delightfully spooky stories.

Some people believe the spot was an ancient meeting place for local Native American tribes, who made the bare circle with their ceremonial dances. Others say there used to be an old molasses mill there and the horses used in the operation with their constant circular treading created this barren circle of land.

Or it might just be possible that this patch of land is unusually poor in nutrients so that nothing grows.

According to a report by Stephen P. Hall and Marjorie W. Boyer, Devil's Tramping Ground is located within a large region of uplands characterized by flat topography, poor drainage and acidic soils that can be attributed to past volcanism. The pale soil in this area is probably derived from an ash flow originating from a nearby volcanic source, such as the low hill named Beck Mountain located just west of the site. Boulders of rhyolite—an igneous, volcanic rock—are also present near the Devil's Tramping Ground, and the entire slope of Beck's Mountain is covered with rhyolite, volcanic glass, and other pyroclastic rocks. The only plants that grow here are those adapted to the strongly acidic soil conditions and to shifts in moisture ranging from extremely hot and dry in the summer to flooded in the winter.

This region was once covered by hardwood forest before it was converted to pine plantation, although there are still some hardwood present in the natural areas. There is also evidence that the old forest was burned down, and the authors believe that “fire may be necessary to maintain the open, shrubby condition of the natural community.”

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Slave workers tapping sap from pine trees.

One possibility is that the Devil's Tramping Ground was a turpentine pit where logs of pine were burnt to extract their sap—a product known as pine tar—that was used as wood preservative and sealant in wood and roofing construction, and also in soaps, shoe polish, lubricants, linoleum, etc.—collectively called naval stores—and in the treatment of various skin diseases. Logs were piled in a shallow pit and covered with earth. A slow burning fire lighted in the top of the pile caused the gum to liquefy and the tar to run down into catch basins outside the mound.

In colonial times, North Carolina was a major producer of pine tar that went to the British Royal Navy to help build and maintain their huge number of ships. Tar was used to make waterproof ropes. Pitch was used for caulking and painting the hulls of ships to make them waterproof, and turpentine was made into oil paint, which was used primarily to paint ships as well as the exteriors of buildings. Like tar, pitch and turpentine too were obtained from pine sap; pitch is just concentrated tar, and turpentine is distilled pine sap.

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Sketch of tar kiln cross-section and plan view.

By the 1770s North Carolina was producing 70 percent of the tar exported from the colonies and 50 percent of the turpentine. It eventually gave the state the nickname “Tar Heel”, a reference to the sticky gum and tar that stuck to the soles of boots of those working in the industry.

The tar industry thrived until the 1940s when maritime uses of pine tar diminished and so did its production. Pine trees were depleted and what remained were felled to clear land for settlements.

The area around Devil's Tramping Ground is now private land, and the pine that grows here are recent plantation. The old-growth pine forest that once covered this region is long gone.

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