TOWER Rock Farm is at the end of the road under a hill with a leaning stone cairn. It's an old white house, with a cobbled courtyard and slate-roofed outbuildings, set down in a hollow at the edge of the wildgrass. In front, there's a great Norfolk pine as old as the farm itself. Blizzards of crows curve down from the wind to the pine, and a white owl sits in it of an evening.
"A funny thing happened to Beacon magazine on the way to your doorstep several weeks ago," begins a recent front-page story in the Akron (Ohio) Beacon-Journal under the headline "Dear Reader: It was a hoax." "We got taken. Bamboozled. Led down the garden path by a writer with an almost-perfect scheme."
The writer is Jackson Webb. He mailed a story to the Akron paper's Sunday magazine editor, saying that the personal experiences he described occurred while he was living on a farm outside Akron. The magazine ran the articles in two parts, as its cover story two consecutive weeks.
Then came a shocking discovery.
The Sunday magazine from the Omaha World-Herald landed in the Arkon magazine's office - with the same story in it. Except that the names of the places had been changed so that the events portrayed in the story supposedly occurred while the author was living in rural Nebraska.
And it gradually transpired that several other Sunday magazines in some of America's top newspapers ran the piece: the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, Baltimore Sun, New Orleans Times-Picayune, the Tulsa World and the Seattle Post-Intellingencer. The story has appeared in different places from late 1976 through last May.
All the versions had been "localized so that the story depicted events occurring in each magazine's region. Webb even supplied the editors with art in the form of woodcuts to run with the article. Some magazines ran the piece as a series.
Webb, in a letter with each manuscript, told each editor he had come with his daughter from Scotland to a rural area near the editor's paper to work on a novel about Greece. The work that he submitted supposedly related his experiences while living in the area.
Each story centered on "Tower Rock Farm" and was called "Tower Rock Journal" or "Tower Rock Almanac" in several magazines. In New Orleans it was titled "Amite River Almanac" and in Georgia "Ellijay Woods Almanac."
Webb's article as described in the Beacon Journal "explanation," contained "marvelous reflections - full of vivid observations of the farm's surroundings and spiced with penetrating psychological insights. And it had simply dropped into our laps, almost too good to be true. Which appears to be precisely the problem."
Webb indicated to the editors that he had spent an extended period of time in each magazine's region. The Baltimore Sun, in an introduction to the first of three articles, quoted a Webb letter saying, "The Almanac comes from a time near Brighton in Montgomery County, a year away from Scotland . . ." The New Orleans magazine called it "a winter spent in East Feliciana Parish." The Seattle magazine, Northwest, said Webb had spent a year "in the rural Green River Valley."
After a call to Scotland, Webb was located in Denver where he said the way he marketed the story was "an innoncent mistake." But he admitted he did not spend as much time in one place as he had indicated to the editors. "I didn't realize that a regional piece would have to have 100 percent accuracy . . .
He said he sometimes "stayed in a place a couple of weeks" and that sometimes he did visit a place more than once.
And he said he didn't stay at all in Wisconsin before submitting the story to the Milwaukee Journal, which rejected it. "I was glad it came back," Webb said. "That was the one that was stretched the fathest."
He called the "Tower Rock" farm story "an incredible combination of things, a conglomerate. If you put a tag on the items (in the story), I'm not quite sure where the items come from." Webb, who writes about changing seasons, in one place, some seasons in another place."
"That was the crucial mistake," Webb said. "Not enough of it was from each place to make it regionally accurate . . . It was a hodgepodge of the last two years.
William Bierman had just become editor of the Beacon magazine when he found the duplication in the Omaha paper. "I was fairly upset," he said later. Particularly, he wrote in his explanation, when he found "the same landlord, Peter, was displaying the same fit of temper over the same stray cows which had vexed him in Portage County." He checked with other editors and found, "Peter and his cows had done time" in many locations.
Each story begins the same way: "Tower Rock Farm is at the end of the road under a hill with a leaning stone cairn." But as the story progresses, Webb changes the names of places.
"I came to Ohio from Scotland to write a book about Greece . . . it reads in Akron.
"I came to Maryland to write a book about Greece . . ." in Baltimore.
"I came to Georgia . . . " in Atlanta.
"I knock a stone off a wall walking across the fields to the Orwell road . . ."
I knock a stone off a wall walking across the meadow to the Scaggsville Road . . ."
I knock a stone off a wall walking across the meadow to the Dahlonega Road . . ."
Terence Smith, editor of the New Orleans Times-Picayune's Dixie magazine, even printed a second piece by Webb. "He did it to me twice," said Smith. "I'm laughing and crying at the same time."
Smith said that after he ran the "Tower Rock Journal" in 10 parts, he printed a second long series, 11 parts, in late 1977, about a world trip that Webb said he took. The Atlanta Journal and Constitution magazine also ran the world trip story, in two parts.
In the Atlanta world-tour version, Webb and his daughter hitchhike out of the north Georgia woods to begine the journey. In the New Orleans version, they hitchhike out of rural Louisiana to start the trip. (In each case, they're picked up by "a tall diesel" after being passed by "a chicken truck").
"There was going to be a third one," said New Orleans' Smith, relating that Webb asked for partial advance payment on still another piece. "By that time, even I was wising up."
"He's a nice gentle con man," said Sam Angeloff of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, who added that he noticed some discrepancies in the "Tower Rock" story Webb submitted to him. "He had towns on the wrong side of one another" and a question came up about "an owl of some sort. I don't think one of them was around here ever."
Webb said he would return all money he received from the various magazines, though he wouldn't say how much that was. It's estimated that he made less than $2,000 total: some editors would not say what their payment was.
Webb, 37, was born in Denver. He attended Taft School in Waterton, Conn., and college at Columbia University. He said he worked one year for J. Walter Thompson advertising agency in New York, taught English in Greece and did publicity for the U.S. Trade Center in Frankfort.
He said he has lived most of the last 13 years in Scotland and has been married twice and has four children. He has had one novel published, by Weidenfeld and Nicolson in London, called "The Last Lemon Grove."
Webb said he didn't know how long it took him to make all the changes to fit each story to a different region. "As I sepnt them out, since I knew the places, I could just put them in," he said.
Although the editors say Webb misled them about the article, none suggested that charges would be brought against him.
The editor who rejected Webb's original piece, Mike Moore of the Milwaukee Journal's Insight magazine, said, "We were convinced he was never here. He allegedly lived in Dodge County, which is near Milwaukee. It's a pastoral area. We began calling around, but nobody had heard of the farm, nobody had heard of the guy, all this stuff.
"We thought he was writing fiction."