When he died at age 93, William Poole specified in his will that no one touch a needle of his beloved pine forest, demanding to his final breath that every branch be spared any cut from ax or saw.
Poole’s decree outlived him only 30 years, the time it took for greed to wipe away a dead man’s wishes. Loggers cleared the woods he rode atop his favorite white horse, and even in the grave, each trunk ripped from the ground pained him like a hair torn from his head.
So to this day, Poole’s ghost gallops through the remains of his beloved trees, riding a phantom steed, shaking a bony finger at the callous generations that inherited his Earth.
The story of Poole’s ghost offers a dozen variations, but all of them center on the well-heeled 19th-century bachelor who might qualify as Wake County’s first conservationist.
In the century and more since his death, his legend has spiraled out wildly enough to include buried treasure, unexplained light flickers and a monster bear the size of a piano.
But Poole’s lost forest remains the heart of his story, and whether his spirit rides it out of longing or spite is a question only the haunted can answer.
Poole started life with empty pockets and grew to enjoy the luxurious existence of a wealthy planter and miller, keeping a 75-acre forest reserved for riding. He served both as county justice and commissioner in his day, and though he carried the reputation of a handsome man and a good talker, he never married – opting instead for the kinship of his horses and his woods.
“To him, the thousands of trees were so many individuals, each with a personality,” wrote John Harden in 1954, “and he rode herd on them, with his white horse, as if they were living and breathing creatures needing his care and protection.”
Poole’s land covered both sides of what is now Rock Quarry Road, not far from Walnut Creek Amphitheatre, and rumors of his wealth traveled far enough that the Union army marched to his door in 1865 on its way into Raleigh, demanding that he dig up his secret cache of gold.
From the cane-bottom chair of his front porch, Poole denied having any such gold, which thoroughly irritated the soldiers in blue. Depending on the version of the story, the troops either strapped Poole to a rail, beat him bloody, burned down his mill or some combination of the three.
All agree, however, that the Union army discovered Poole’s prized white stallion tethered in the woods, and they confiscated the horse in lieu of treasure. It’s said the beast reared and whinnied as they led him away.
Poole survived the attack and lived to 1889, a life that nearly touched three centuries. Sadness over the loss of his horse persisted to his last days, but the two reunited in the afterlife, guarding their woods against all intruders. The sight of this phantom pair spawned more frightened stories about the trees on Rock Quarry.
Legend grew of a bearlike beast stalking those woods. Ghostly lights were said to flicker on Poole’s grave. At midnight, you could hear the sound of shovels turning dirt, searching for treasure the Yankees couldn’t coax out of a gentleman farmer.
None of this kept developers at bay. Not only did future generations sell Poole’s land, they moved his grave to Oakwood Cemetery, where he rests under the epitaph, “An honest man is the noblest work of God.”
“Does that which remains of the old patriarch, locked there in the Earth under all this neglect, still resent the intrusion on these acres and the removal of all these wonderful trees?” asks Harden in his book “Tar Heel Ghosts.” “If so, his love is a staunch thing, a thing that just refuses to die.”
But even with his horse stolen and his woods razed, Poole found his vengeance. When loggers cut into the old man’s pines, they found them hollowed out with rot, worthless to those unworthy.