For the past decade, Faye Elder has helped to decode the secrets of the Earth.
The Arlington resident teaches dowsing, an ancient technique that she says can detect unmarked graves, to groups as well individuals around Dallas and beyond.
“I’ve had people come from Mississippi for me to teach them how to do this,” she said. “I don’t really have a classroom or a certain time. People just call me, or I meet them at the cemetery.”
It all started when she saw a Texas Country Reporter segment about a woman who was dowsing a cemetery near Austin. One of Elder’s ancestors had donated the land for the cemetery, and her curiosity was piqued. Elder said she contacted the woman who invited her and some family members to join her.
“She taught us all how to dowse,” Elder said. “Every one of us could do the dowsing. It’s not that difficult. She taught us in just a few minutes.”
William McCutcheon, Elder’s great-great-grandfather, had donated the land for the family graveyard, but Elder said people from all around the Hutto area were buried there as well.
“But at that time, Hutto didn’t exist,” she said.
The 75-year-old said her husband makes the dowsing rods that she and others use to practice the craft.
“They’re welding rods is what they are,” she said. “He bends them where you have, like, a handle. I carry the rods in my car at all times, because I never know when someone is going to ask me to dowse an area.”
Elder explained how she holds the rods close to her sides, then extends her arms out ahead of her.
“When you come to a grave, the rods will cross,” she said. “Then, when you get on the other side of the grave, it will open back up.”
Judging from the length of time it takes for the rods to open up again, Elder says she can then distinguish whether a grave is that of an adult or a child. Furthermore, she said she can even tell if the deceased is a male or a female by using a single rod which will move to the left or to the right depending on gender. The only difficulty with that is if a woman has died during childbirth and her baby boy is buried beside her.
Elder says she could point a rod Harry Potter-style at a live person and it would react in the same fashion.
“I think it’s 100 percent accurate,” she said. “You don’t have any information on the individual. But you know there’s a grave there.”
While some consider dowsing a pseudoscience, Elder believes that something about disturbed earth, perhaps a magnetic field, makes the rods move. She said when she teaches or practices at home she uses a bag of potting soil.
“If you have a cemetery in a plowed field, you have to use the one-rod technique because all of the earth has been disturbed,” she said.
Last month, Elder joined a group of other women at the historic Middleton Tate Johnson cemetery in Arlington where some of the earliest African-American burials in the area took place.
Arlington Historical Society director Geraldine Mills has been leading an effort to have a wrought iron fence placed around the property. And Catrina Whitley, with the Tarrant County Archeological Society, had also been working in the area using ground-penetrating radar which she said can reveal underground disturbances. Whitley said the radar had detected a questionable area near a tree that could possibly be ground disturbance.
“It came up as an anomaly,” Elder said. “It looked like plain, old cemetery stuff to me, if I interpreted it right.”
Elder dowsed several areas in the graveyard where she said people were buried, and her determinations seemed to coincide with Whitley’s scientific findings as well as a book of old cemetery records.
“There was a lot of land there that wasn’t marked,” she said. “We were finding graves that matched what was in that book, male or female.”
Elder and Whitley say they are not aware of any Native American graves located in Arlington although there were Indians in the area because a treaty was made with Native American tribes at Bird’s Fort. Elder said her local Daughters of the Republic of Texas chapter pin depicts the signing of the treaty.
“You’d have to know the history of the Indians here, whether they buried or not,” Elder said.
In addition, a historic battle took place with Native American tribes along Village Creek in 1841. According to Arlington, Texas: Birthplace of the Metroplex by Arista Joyner, a series of Native American villages lay along the creek, many of which are now under Lake Arlington.
Elder said while she has never been recruited by the police to help solve a crime or anything, things can get kind of strange sometimes. She talked about how she was once called to dowse a graveyard in Paris, Texas, and some of the graves were not orderly. She learned later that it was a Jewish cemetery, and “some of the destitute had also been buried there.”
“The graves were so erratic,” Elder said. “They were just here, there and everywhere.”
Sometimes, when new graves were dug, fresh dirt would get thrown on top of flat headstones which could conceal them, she said. Now, fabric is lain down beforehand to prevent that from happening. She said she never encourages people to dig or do anything except dowse, but if they think a flat headstone may be buried in a certain spot, they can poke the rod in the dirt and try and locate it that way.
“Some graves will give up their edges,” she said. “You can see the edges of some graves. If you look, they’ll be recessed just a tiny bit.”
Elder doesn’t charge for her services and all she asks is that folks let her sell her dowsing rods, which cost $10 a pair. She then donates the money to the Charles Calvin McCoy chapter of the Daughters of the Republic of Texas (DRT), where she is a member.
“The whole point of me doing this is to make money for my DRT chapter,” she said. “I’m sick of doing crafts.”
Elder said dowsing is fun, especially when she locates something, but she doesn’t know exactly what makes it work.
“There are a lot of things going on in the world that we know nothing about,” she said. “We don’t know everything.”
For more info, contact Faye Elder at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Keep the Dallas Observer Free... Since we started the Dallas Observer, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Dallas, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Dallas with no paywalls.