Every town needs a gimmick these days, good for few tee-shirt sales and attracting the occasional weirdo tourist/researcher into town. Bladenboro has The Beast of Bladenboro. Lumberton has the Space Alien.
It appeared for a while that St. Pauls would be known far and wide as the home of the last remaining Carolina Cougar (ruled to be extinct), but that just didn’t catch on—even though I myself saw the cougar and my niece and her friend had years earlier seen two cougars!
But St. Pauls does have another peculiar, strange, offbeat claim to fame—The Tree Monster.
Now, as a child, I was always fascinated by trees and did and still do count them among my best friends and favorite things. So, went I went into The Rebel Theatre and sat down and saw The Tree Monster and I was scared beyond belief, I thought my tree hugging days had ended, but in reality they hadn’t even begun.
So I was all ears when Cecil Inman came by the office to tell me that a Tree Monster had been seen in a nearby wood line. I immediately grabbed my camera and hit the road in hopes of getting a Yeti or Bigfoot or Sasquatch or Abominable Snowman on camera and thus earning St. Pauls a place in then pantheon of strange places to visit to spot a strange creature.
Didn’t happen. Sure, I could easily see the Tree Monster, but it didn’t try to evade detection or even eat me up. It just stood there, big and green.
But that sent me spiraling back through the years to a time in the 1960’s (I know what you’re thinking, folks) when two young boys, two innocent young boys, folks, playing in a wooded area known as “The Wildlife” for its heady mix of flora and fauna, saw and were confronted by what they described as a Tree Monster. Now these two boys were probably way too young to have seen the film called The Tree Monster (in black and white, for Pete’s sake) down at The Rebel, so they didn’t get the idea from that. And they definitely did not get the idea from anything green growing along a ditch bank. They saw a real Tree Monster and they came running and screaming from their play and told everyone what they had seen. The word spread quickly throughout the town and soon cars were lining the dirt road leading into The Wildlife and men with shotguns were taking aim at anything deemed suspicious or threatening. The boys, however, refused to go back into the woods or to lead them to the exact spot where the creature had been seen. So, of course, despite intense searches over the next few days, the Tree Monster proved elusive. A story appeared in The St. Pauls Review. A news crew came all the way from Wilmington to report and to shoot footage and to try to capture the creature on film.
But, alas, St. Pauls sadly, unfortunately missed its claim to fame.
No tee-shirt stands and sales. No hippie dippy tourists. No suspect researchers. No mad scientists. No national press coverage. No denials from the federal government, Pentagon or Air Force, which would have insured our fame, right?
Now you understand why I was so excited when Cecil told me about The Tree Monster near his home. I was certain that St. Pauls would be, for the first and probably the best time, be on the national, maybe even international radar, and in the days of Internet where videos go viral worldwide in seconds, would be famous. We would have our gimmick, our Chamber of Commerce moment when locals would smile for the camera and swear that they had seen, had been attacked by and had barely escaped, our very own Tree Monster.