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Rural Missouri Magazine

Seeking the light
For more than a century, the Hornet Spook Light has brought mystery to southwest Missouri

by Jarrett Medlin
Jennifer Lunsford waits along Spook Light Road to see the Hornet Spook Light. An American Indian from Miami, Okla., Jennifer has seen the light many times since she was a kid. On this night, she sees it not long after arriving.

Jennifer Lunsford stands on a moonlit country road south of Joplin and peers through the night sky. She lays a cigarette on the road and tosses out a piece of beef jerky.

“We were raised understanding that there are spirits on this Earth and they are here to help us,” says the White Mountain Apache tribe member, explaining her actions are a sign of respect but not any official American Indian tradition. “Offering food and tobacco lets the spirits know we haven’t forgot them.”

She stares down the road to the next hillside. Several other cars sit on the shoulder of the road while their occupants wait patiently in the dark. They have come here late on a Friday night to see the fabled Hornet Spook Light, a strange glow that has appeared for more than a century.

Over the years, people have traveled from all over the country to observe the mysterious light. Scientists, researchers and seekers of the unknown have observed the Spook Light and proposed a myriad of theories — from car lights to ghosts — but the light’s source remains a mystery.

“Some things are just not explainable,” says the 34-year-old, who has seen the Spook Light many times over the years. “Personally, I believe spirits are here.”

She abruptly stops talking and exclaims, “There it is!” On the far hill, a dim glow rises above the road. It appears an eerie shade of orange and yellow, about the color of the lit end of a cigarette, as Jennifer describes it. The glow looks unlike anything else in sight. It flickers through the trees and dances from side to side.

Over the next two hours, the Spook Light bobs and weaves, splits in two and changes in intensity. Those watching say they feel an odd sensation, but no one senses any cause for alarm.

A group of teenagers observes the Spook Light during the 1950s. The light has been seen for more than a century. Photo courtesy of Gibson Studios, Grove, Okla.

As Jennifer watches, a group of college students from Tulsa, Okla., walks up and asks about the light’s source. “You’re going to hear everything,” she replies. For the next 15 minutes, Jennifer explains the history and mystery surrounding the Hornet Spook Light.

The Spook Light’s first documented sighting was in 1886 on a lane near Hornet, Mo., though American Indians told tales of the light long before that time. The light reportedly spooked horses, causing a number of carriage wrecks during the turn of the century and earning the road its nickname, “The Devil’s Promenade.”

Legends began to form around the mysterious glow. The best-known tale says the light is the spirit of a young Quapaw brave and his bride who plunged to their deaths from a nearby bluff to avoid facing punishment from their tribal chief, who forbid the marriage. Other legends say the light is the lantern of a miner, searching for his severed head or his abducted children.

More rational explanations for the light include fox fire (a luminous fungus), plasma, swamp gas, sunspots, ball lightning, optical illusions caused by headlights on Interstate 44 and lights flashing atop a distant water tower. Yet none of these theories have been proven.

For decades, experts have tried to solve the puzzle. In 1942, a group of students from the University of Michigan camped in the area. After two weeks, the frustrated scientists shot at the light to no avail. Since then, many others have attempted to solve the light’s mystery. The list includes the Army Corps of Engineers, the National Geographic Society, the National Bureau of Standards, the North American UFO Organization, the University of Arkansas, the Midwest Research Institute of Kansas City, a writer from Popular Mechanics and a crew from the NBC television show “Real People.” Still, no one holds a definitive explanation.

Dale Kaczmarek, president of the Ghost Research Society and author of “Illuminating the Darkness: The Mystery of Spook Lights,” has visited the road a half dozen times since 1982. On one occasion, he crept within 100 feet of the light before it suddenly “took off and left a twinkling, phosphorescent sparkle” in its wake. “It was almost like the light knew we were there,” he says.

The Hornet Spook Light appears as a yellow-orange ball of light atop the road. The light, which contrasts with a red light on a nearby telecommunications tower, is known to change colors, move, split and vary in intensity.

Dale insists the eerie glow is not caused by car lights, fox fire or any other proposed theory. “I can’t come up with anything that fits the bill,” he says. “I would say it’s some sort of ghost or spirit.”

In the 1950s, another enthusiast of the paranormal named Arthur “Spooky” Meadows ran a museum and observation deck at the end of the light’s road. As the light’s self-appointed public relations manager, he regarded the strange glow with great affection and even carried pictures of it in his wallet. Visitors from all over the country recall visiting the museum and looking at old newspaper articles and photos on the walls. Eventually, Meadows sold the building to Garland Middleton, who ran the museum until it finally closed in the mid-1980s.

During the late ’70s and early ’80s, the Spook Light attracted hundreds on some weekend nights. Teenagers would park and party all along the dark, gravel road. Mark Rountree, a citizen of Pittsburg, Kan., and a member of Mensa, the international high IQ society, remembers visiting the light back then. The first time he saw it, he thought it was just a light pole. When he approached, however, he realized it was more than just a typical light.

In recent years, Mark revisited the area but never saw anything. “Things have changed so much that I hardly recognized the place,” he says. “It seems to me like people lost interest. There was a point in the late ’80s where no one saw anything. Then, in the last 15 years, people have started going again.”

Mark goes on to list a number of possible scientific causes before admitting he doesn’t know the light’s source. “I have no idea what I’m looking at, and I don’t really care,” he says. “That’s what makes it fun.”

Now, all that remains along the road are a few cars. It is 1:30 a.m., and Jennifer finally decides to call it a night. She says goodbye, climbs in her car and starts home to nearby Miami, Okla.

After she’s driven beyond sight, a blue and silver truck still rests on the hillside where the light appeared most of the night. The truck’s three passengers stand on the road and wait patiently. From Jennifer’s vantage point, the light seemed to glow right next to them for the past several hours. Strangely, however, the men say they haven’t seen a thing. Like so many other times, the Hornet Spook Light remains as elusive as ever.

To find the Hornet Spook Light, take Interstate 44 west of Joplin to the Highway 43 South exit. Go south until you see BB Highway and take a right onto Iris Road. Continue west to Stateline Road and take a right. Go about 1.5 miles to E-50 Road and make a left. Park at a high point along the road and wait.

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