Selbyville Swamp Monster


[From “The Daily Times”. April 2005.]




Say the words "Great Cypress Swamp" in Selbyville, and one is instantly corrected.


"Around here everybody calls it the 'Burnt Swamp' because of the fires," said Scott Collins, Selbyville Chief of Police and local history buff, "But it's probably even more famous around here for the swamp monster sightings."


Famous for a reason. The Selbyville Swamp Monster was spotted on many occasions and even photographed many times. The first such frightening photo of a tall, yeti-like creature, menacing the innocent with its damp fur and swamp breath, appeared for the first time in what was then the Delmarva News on April 23, 1964. Though the monster was caught on film, it was never apprehended, and the tales of a shadowy dark monster lurking in the depths of the swamp continued to scare children and adults alike for decades.


The threat of the swamp monster


"My parents would always threaten to throw us to the swamp monster if we were bad," said Collins, "In the winter, when I was little we used to go ice skating out in the swamp but you never stayed past dark because of the swamp monster. Then when we got older that was the biggest thing- trying to stay out in the swamp all night on Halloween. I don't think we ever made it."


Though the Swamp monster legend is older than the old-timers can remember, the revival of the tale in the decades of Collins' youth can be linked to one man and his clever Halloween costume.


According to Fred Stevens, a lifelong resident of Selbyville, a.k.a. The Selbyville Swamp Monster, it was he who posed for the photographs staged by Delmarva News Editor Ralph Grapperhaus in 1964.


"The newspaper man (Grapperhouse) started it to sell papers after he saw me in the Halloween parade in my swamp suit I'd made out of my aunty Dorothy Pepper's raccoon fur coat," said Stevens, "He'd take me out into the swamp and we'd take pictures and before you know it people were out there every night searching."


He tells of how the craze got so bad there were people coming out there with guns looking for the monster. After that he decided it had gone too far and they called it quits on the hoax. He promised Grapperhaus he wouldn't say anything for 25 years, which he kept until recent articles on the history of the swamp revealed the truth.


"A lot of the kids that grew up during that time, grew up afraid of that swamp monster. Boys would take their girlfriends through the swamp to prove they were brave, but I've seen the toughest guys lock their doors when driving through the swamp," said Stevens.


'Most frightful labyrinths you can imagine'


The history of the swamp itself is a legend in itself and explains the oft-used moniker "Burnt Swamp."


According to a historical account by the English botanist Thomas Nutall, who visited the Great Cypress Swamp in 1809, "We began to enter one of the most frightful labyrinths you can imagine. It was filled with tall tangling shrubs thickly matted together almost impervious to the light."


At this time the swamp covered 50,000 acres, but just a half a century earlier was much larger. Today, stretching from the Maryland-Delaware border southwest for 73 miles to the Pocomoke Sound, the swamp is still an impressively wild, dark corner of Delmarva, though the acreage has been considerably reduced by industrial development and a series of blazing forest fires.


In the late 1700s and early 1800s, settlers began logging the swamp for the hardwood of the cypress trees for its resistance to rot and decay. Workers set up camps in the swamp to cut the cypress logs into tough, long-lasting shingles. Soon the wood was in high demand for shipbuilding as well.


Logging continued in the swamp until the mid 20th century, when the last of the great fires raged through the Sussex County portion and much of the Maryland side. The fire began in the 1930s after a drought left the swamp floor covered in highly flammable peat. It blazed for eight months and consumed what was left of the old cypress growth.


Today the swamp is still a plot of land thick with history, if not with the cypress logs that made it so important for many years.


According to Collins, there's stories of hunters and other people getting lost for days at a time and having to be rescued, but the biggest hunt happened after a small charter plane went down there in the 1970's. Rescues were attempted, but by the time the crews got out there, the people were dead. Though the engine was removed, the plane itself is still out there.


Over time, the Great Cypress Swamp in Sussex County has become more swamp than cypress, but conservation efforts have, since the 1970s, kept the area out of use.


"Most of it is not usable, but the state is trying to preserve what is left of it. Private clubs rent out parts of it for hunting, but for the most part people just don't go back there," said Collins.


Again, for a good reason. The ghost of the Selbyville swamp monster probably still haunts the burnt swamp.


"I just remember all the stories and the sightings and being scared. We never knew that someone was pretending to be the monster," said Collins.











WCSRO, 2006.