Reed Gold Mine 9621 Reed Mine Road Midland, North Carolina
A visitor to the Reed Gold Mine this month was startled by a figure some distance away while touring the mine. According to an article from Charlotte’s CBS station, WBTV, Sandy Harrington captured the figure on her Flip Camcorder and realized the figure was a ghost when she downloaded the footage onto her computer.
It’s no surprise to find that someone actually captured something possibly paranormal within the precincts of this mine. There have apparently been stories told about the Reed Mine for some time. According to Troy Taylor’s Down in the Darkness: The Shadowy History of America’s Haunted Mines, Tunnels and Caverns, there is a legend about the mine. William Mills, a Welsh immigrant, arrived in Cabarrus County with his wife Eleanor to work in the mine. The relationship between William and his wife was quite tenuous and they fought a great deal. One evening, in the midst of a fight, Eleanor tripped on the hem of her dress and pitched head forward into a bench, hitting her head on the corner. William tried to revive his wife, but she was dead. Awakened from sleep and probably hoping that the events had been a bad dream, William checked his wife’s now cold body. He heard her voice begging him to take her back to Wales.
Even though her body was cold, William continued to hear her voice begging him. He wrapped her body up and threw is down one of the unused shafts, the Engine Shaft, at the Reed Mine. The legend continues that he continued to hear Eleanor’s voice and was driven to drink as a result. Meanwhile, others began to hear ghostly screams and cries emanating from the Engine Shaft.
The mine possesses a marvelous history beginning with Johannes Reith, a Hessian mercenary who moved with his family to the area and anglicized his name to John Reed. A different legend involves Reed’s 12-year old son, Conrad, who discovered an odd, yellow rock in Little Meadow Creek in 1799. The story tells that the odd rock served as a doorstop for a few years before Reed sold the rock to a jeweler for the princely sum of $3.50. When he discovered that he was literally sitting on a gold mine he began mining his land. The mine ran until 1912 when it was abandoned. The state of North Carolina acquired the mine later and has opened it as a historic site.
So far, I haven’t found much on the modern haunting of the mine. Harrington’s video, which can be viewed on YouTube, is very interesting. Judging from the stills taken from the video, the figure appears to be male, so it’s unlikely to be Eleanor Mills (who may have never even existed). Looking at the video, it can be difficult to determine precisely what you’re looking at as the shot is down a darkened hallway, but it does provide a tantalizing piece of evidence of what may exist in the Reed Gold Mine.
Shortly after writing this article, I was contacted by another visitor with a photo in which he may have captured something. See the entry here.
Van Meter Hall Western Kentucky University Bowling Green, Kentucky
N.B. This article was edited and revised 5 February 2019.
The approach to the campus from downtown Bowling Green is quite grand. A tree-lined avenue runs up a hill to monumental Cherry Hall crowning the hill with an assemblage of other monumental buildings including Van Meter Hall. Built to resemble the Erechtheion, a temple on the Acropolis, Van Meter Hall was the first building on campus when it was completed in 1911. The new hall included office space, classrooms and a large auditorium. The hall has seen a variety of uses over the years and was renovated a handful of times including most recently in 2009, when additions improved the backstage space of the auditorium.
The spectral history of Van Meter Hall is less clear. Various sources pick and choose from the various legends creating a confusing jumble of tales. The University Archives takes pains to point out the three main legends that exist in reference to Van Meter.
The first two stories involve deaths in the building. One story tells of a construction worker during the building’s construction who fell from scaffolding in the lobby and died in a pool of blood. An interesting detail that is sometimes included is that the worker was distracted by an airplane, a novelty in 1911. Similar versions of the story have the doomed worker falling through the skylight in the lobby or the skylight over the stage—a ridiculous notion as the stage does not have a skylight. The second story involves a student plunging to his death while hanging lights onstage. Both of these stories also include an indelible bloodstain either on the floor of the lobby or onstage.
The third story is more unusual. Kentucky is riddled with caves and this story tells of a cave underneath the hill inhabited by a hermit who would emerge into the building late at night with a blue lantern. Alan Brown’s Haunted Kentucky provides an interesting version of this story. He states that during construction of the building, the contractor discovered that cement being poured was flowing into an underground cave. Fearing possible bankruptcy, the contractor threw himself into the pit and was entombed in the concrete. The building was completed by a different contractor. He continues with a story about blue lights appearing in the darkened auditorium during performances, one episode causing a student working on lights to fall to his death—an interesting mix of legends, certainly.
While there is little concrete evidence (pardon the pun) to back up any of these legends, there still are numerous stories of strange phenomena within Van Meter’s walls. Daniel Barefoot’s Haunted Halls of Ivy speaks of lighting malfunctions, props moving on their own accord, and the curtains opening and closing on their own accord.
William Lynwood Montell’s monumental Ghosts Across Kentucky tells a story of a Mark Twain impersonator performing at in the hall around 1981 (the only report with a date). The actor asked the stage manager to get him from his dressing room a minute before he was to appear onstage. A few minutes before the performance, the stage manager saw a man dressed like Twain standing backstage and assumed this was the actor. When the actor failed to go onstage on time, the stage manager rushed to the dressing room and found the actor there.
Add into this mix, reports of the voices of a woman and a small child and the reports become more clouded. What, precisely, is going on in Van Meter Hall? It appears there is activity, but everything else is difficult to pinpoint. Nevertheless, one must wonder if the activity will continue after the most recent major renovations. We shall see.
Barefoot, Daniel W. Haunted Halls of Ivy: Ghosts of Southern Colleges and Universities. Winston-Salem, NC: John F. Blair, 2004.
Brown, Alan. Haunted Kentucky: Ghosts and Strange Phenomena of the Bluegrass State. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole, 2009.
Hawkins, Jenna. “Building History—Van Meter Hall.” WKU Hilltopper Heritage. 2008.
Montell, William Lynwood. Ghosts Across Kentucky. Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky. 2000.
Van Meter Hall. Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Accessed 25 May 2011.
Old Ashe County Courthouse 301 East Main Street Jefferson, North Carolina
Ashe County, North Carolina, lies in the northern corner of the state where it meets the eastern tip of Tennessee and southern Virginia. Tucked away in an Appalachian valley lies the county seat, Jefferson, the first town named for the illustrious American founding father, Thomas Jefferson in 1799. Jefferson is fairly small with a population of about 1,500 people while Ashe County can only boast around 27,000.
Over time, the county’s long history has left a few spiritual marks as well. One of the more prominent hauntings is an odd set of granite stairs carved into the side of a mountain outside of West Jefferson along North Carolina State Road 194 at the bridge over Buffalo Creek. With the menacing name, THE DEVIL’S STAIRS this formation was created during blasting for the Norfolk-Western Railroad line that once ran through the area. Legend speaks of a laborer killed during the construction and later a woman who tossed her infant into the waters of Buffalo Creek below. Since the creation of this formation, tales have been spun about people passing the area at night and encountering apparitions and even picking up vanishing hitchhikers.
Also nearby is the GLENDALE INN SPRINGS AND RESTAURANT (7414 NC-16) in the village of Glendale Springs. Built in the late nineteenth century, this grand house has served as an inn for a number of years though it was closed and put up for sale in 2008. According to Sheila Turnage, the inn is haunted by a mischievous spirit named “Rosebud.”
As interest in the paranormal has spread, paranormal groups have sprung up throughout the country and Ashe County can also boast of a group dedicated to investigating local hauntings: 3P Paranormal. A recent article in The Mountain Times highlighted an investigation by the group of the Old Ashe County Courthouse. Over the years, tales have been told of odd occurrences within this 1904 courthouse. The museum’s curator even mentions a recent incident where an intern heard a telephone ring on a floor above followed by footsteps across the floor towards the phone. This happened when the intern was alone in the building.
Unfortunately, the article only details the setup for the investigation. The group has an excellent website but it has not provided any information on the results of the courthouse investigation. The article, however, does provide a tantalizing tidbit about another local haunting: that of the nearby Old Ashe County Hospital, where the group uncovered some very interesting evidence. I look forward to hearing what the investigators discovered. It seems that this rural county may offer some haunted gems.
UPDATE 5 June 2011
When last we left the investigators of 3P Paranormal, they were wrapping up an overnight investigation of the Old Ashe County Courthouse. The results of this investigation have been revealed. The investigators had surmised that there was likely some residual energy in the 1904 courthouse and indeed, the team captured some striking evidence of it.
The team captured only audio evidence and among that evidence is a recording of a voice saying “Order!” and what sounds to be the banging of a gavel. In the same courtroom, heavy footsteps and breathing were also captured. Voices were also picked up in some of the other rooms. Certainly, it appears that there may be some residual energy in the old courthouse.
Demosthenian Hall University of Georgia Athens, Georgia
One of the oldest organizations on the UGA campus, the Demosthenian Literary Society, a debating society, was founded in 1803. Among its alumni roster are many who would help shape the state of Georgia as well as the nation including Robert Toombs. Known for his fiery disposition and oration, Toombs represented Georgia in the United States House of Representatives, the Senate in the turbulent years leading up to the Civil War and served as the first Secretary of State for the Confederacy.
Toombs entered the university at the ripe age of 14. Under the firm rule of University President Moses Waddell, who was later described as having been “a born educator and strict disciplinarian,” Toombs was more than once on the receiving end of Waddell’s discipline. One evening, only a year or so into his schooling, a proctor caught Toombs and a group of other students playing cards—a vice worthy of expulsion. Instead of awaiting a dishonorable dismissal from the school, Toombs sought out Waddell and received an honorable dismissal before the proctor’s report arrived. Encountering Toombs later that day on campus, Waddell harangued him for this deception to which Toombs replied that he was no longer a student and simply a free-born American citizen.
However, the legend does not end there. During graduation exercises, Toombs took a position outside the university chapel (located just next door to Demosthenian Hall) next to an oak. He launched into a compelling oration and soon the students emptied out of the chapel to hear him speak. That oak was later named the “Toombs Oak” and remained for many decades. Legend says that the oak was later struck by lightning at the same time that Toombs died in 1885, however records show that the oak was dying, but still alive into the 1890s. According to Barbara Duffey, the oak was struck by lightning at the moment of Toombs’ death, but lived on and was finally taken down in 1908. Regardless, upon the tree’s death the stump was removed to Demosthenian Hall where it remains to this day.
Starting in the Georgia legislature in 1837, Toombs record of service to the state is lengthy. He entered the U.S. House of Representatives in 1844 and there forged a lifelong relationship with another Georgia representative, Alexander Stephens, who would later serve as vice president of the Confederacy. Toombs entered the Senate in 1853 and served until his resignation in 1861 when Georgia seceded from the Union. Jefferson Davis asked him to serve as the first Secretary of State, but Toombs became increasingly frustrated with the Confederacy and stepped aside to become a military commander for Georgia. He escaped the South as the Confederacy fell in 1865 and returned two years later as an “unreconstructed” Southerner.
Just as he returned to his beloved Georgia after the fall of the Confederacy, perhaps Toombs’ spirit has returned to his beloved Demosthenian Hall after his death. Students studying in the quiet of Demosthenian Hall have reported hearing pacing footsteps in the empty chamber above. Other students have felt a presence urging them to get out, but when they exclaim, “Bob, no!” the feeling dissipates. A hazy grey figure has also been spotted and other sources claim that the figure is outfitted as a Confederate soldier.
William N. Bender, in his Haunted Atlanta and Beyond, states that Toombs’ spirit has also been seen at his home in Washington, Georgia. He asks whether it is possible for a spirit to travel. In my opinion, it seems there is nothing to actually indicate that the Demosthenian Hall spirit is actually Robert Toombs. I have observed that in historic locations—especially those associated with famous people—there is a tendency to identify any spiritual activity with those famous people, even in cases where is unlikely. While it’s not unimaginable that Toombs might haunt his home, it appears that the activity within Demosthenian Hall is simply residual energy associated with the many students that have passed through the hall’s portals.
Henry Ford Building Complex Berry College Mount Berry, Georgia
Located on part of the largest college campus in the world (at more than 26,000 acres), the Gothic-style Henry Ford Building Complex now is mostly used for administration. The complex was built through a gift from automobile manufacturer, Henry Ford, one of many prominent philanthropists to aid this institution built on philanthropy. Martha Berry, the daughter of a local planter, was shocked by the ignorance of the children in this city at the foot of the Appalachians. She built a series of school to educate these impoverished children and of them, Berry College has survived as a symbol of her kind work.
According to Daniel Barefoot’s Haunted Halls of Ivy, Berry College’s two campuses, the Main and Mountain Campuses, are practically crawling with spirits. From the spirit of Frances Berry, Martha’s sister, at Berry’s home, Oak Hill to the female wraith haunting Stretch Road, the road between the campuses, to the ghost of the House o’ Dreams, a mountain retreat cottage. In the Henry Ford Building Complex, the spirit of a female student who hung herself after her boyfriend was killed in World War II, is said to still roam the building. Of course, with the beauty of Berry’s enormous campus, who wouldn’t want to return?
Pearce Auditorium Brenau University Gainesville, Georgia
Two sensitives associated with the Southeastern Institute of Paranormal Research in Pearce Auditorium encountered a wet female. Working independently, the sensitives discovered this sad form wearing a white dress with dark, matted hair. Perhaps this was Agnes, the auditorium’s resident spirit. Legend speaks of a young woman who hung herself in the building at some point during the 1920s. She’s been roaming the halls ever since.
Opened as a private women’s school in 1878, Brenau gained its unusual name when the school was acquired by H. J. Pearce (for whom the auditorium is named) in 1900. The name is an amalgam of the German “brennen,” “to burn” and Latin “aurum,” “gold;” reflecting the school’s motto, “as gold refined by fire.” The school has continued as a force for education in the region and opened its doors to men in the 1960s while retaining its historical Women’s College and acquiring a few ghosts along the way.
Pearce Auditorium, dedicated in 1897, was built to serve the needs of the campus as well as Gainesville. Over the years, the auditorium has seen names ranging from noted American dancers Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn to the Vienna Boys Choir and, if legend holds true, a slight dark haired young woman named Agnes. Since Agnes passed through the doors of the auditorium, numerous stories have been told about this dark-haired waif.
As with most legends, there are numerous versions and sources do vary. The basic story tells of a young music student who fell in love with a rakish music professor. He kissed her during a lesson and when he married another woman, the distraught student committed suicide by hanging herself in the building. All of this took place around 1926.
Investigators interested in Agnes’ legend have thoroughly searched school records and discovered one young lady who may be the real Agnes: Agnes Galloway, whose picture appears in the 1926 yearbook. Records indicate that Ms. Galloway, from Mount Airy, North Carolina, died young, though in 1929 and the reason given for her death was tuberculosis. While suicide was often covered up by image-conscious families, the year of her death obviously doesn’t agree with the legend. Nancy Roberts in her Georgia Ghosts published an interview that adds some fuel to the legend’s fire.
Roberts interviewed a student whose grandmother had attended Brenau and who had known Agnes. The interview includes the story of the music professor and has Agnes hanging herself in her room in Pearce. The student coincidently was assigned to the very room where Agnes’ life had ended. The student was awakened one evening and saw the ghostly image of Agnes hanging from the light fixture. But, what would account for the sensitives seeing a young woman who was wet?
Another investigation in 2005 by the Ghost Hounds did capture an EVP during an investigation, but who or what is actually haunting Pearce Auditorium may never be known.
Atkins, Jonathan M. “Berry College.” New Encyclopedia of Georgia. 15 April 2009.
Barefoot, Daniel W. Haunted Halls of Ivy. Winston-Salem, NC: John F. Blair, 2004.
Bender, William N. Haunted Atlanta and Beyond: True Tales of the Supernatural in Atlanta, Athens, and North Georgia. Toccoa, GA: Currahee Books, 2005.
In looking back over my previous entries, I’ve come across entries that need revamping. As I revamp some of the older entries, the original versions will be removed and completely updated. This entry, originally posted on September 27 of last year and published as a single entry, will be broken into smaller pieces. In addition to reformatting, I’m adding information from newer sources and adding a few new locations.
Auburn University Chapel Auburn University Auburn, Alabama
Originally constructed as a Presbyterian Church in 1851, this building served as a hospital during the Civil War and it was during this time that a legend was born. A young Englishman, Sydney or Sidney Grimlett, who fought for the Confederacy, died and his body buried nearby. Following the war, the building returned to its sacred purpose and was used as a church and also held classes after a fire in the main building of the college in 1887. When the church moved to new quarters, the building briefly served as a YMCA center before becoming home to the Auburn Players in 1927.
Perhaps something during the building’s conversion to a theatre awakened Sydney’s spirit. The spirit returned to the theatre where he made his presence known with spectral sounds and the occasional appearance. According to Kathryn Tucker Windham, his name and story was discovered by students using a Ouija board in the theatre during the 1960s. When the theatre moved to new quarters in 1973, the spirit was invited to move with them and has supposedly taken up residence in the new building, the Telfair Peet Theatre. The building was renovated for use as the university chapel and now serves as a non-denominational chapel for students.
Mrs. Windham’s version of the story reveals some of the cracks in the story. First, there is some question as to when Sydney’s ghost first appeared, some sources believe he showed up when the building became a theatre, others say that he appeared in the 1960s or 70s. Even the history seems questionable. A good deal seems to be known about Sydney. In a 1998 article, the university’s reference archivist states that it is believed that Sidney served with the Sixth Virginia Cavalry and was wounded in Atlanta in 1864. Ten years later, a paranormal investigator investigating the chapel states that Sydney belonged to a Texas regiment.
Regardless, students apparently still have the occasional run-in with Mr. Grimlett in the Telfair Peet Theatre and in the University Chapel. Students during productions may have equipment fail, props disappear and they leave M&Ms candies to appease the mischievous spirit. The Alabama Paranormal Research Team investigated the chapel in 2008 and experienced some odd occurrences in the ladies restroom. Perhaps Sydney is spending his time between the theatre and the chapel where he died so many years ago.
Founders Hall Athens State University Athens, Alabama
Where Indian hunter had pursued the panting deer, and, gazing on the same moon that smiles for us, wooed his dusky bride, now arose a building of purest ionic architecture, devoted to female education. – Robert Anderson McClellan
Founders Hall, with its four columns called Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, was constructed between 1842 and 1845 (most sources are incorrect). This four-columned edifice replaced a small four room house where the female academy had originally been founded in 1822. The school became affiliated with the Methodist Church around the time Founders Hall was constructed. In 1931, the school began accepting male students and in 1975 the school became a state school.
Under the leadership of President Jane Hamilton Childs, the school survived the turbulent period during the Civil War. Union forces under the leadership of Russian native, Colonel John B. Turchin terrorized and sacked the town. An anecdote tells of President Childs confronting troops advancing towards her female academy. Producing a letter supposedly from Abraham Lincoln, she handed it to Col. Turchin. He was apparently satisfied by the contents of the letter and saved the school from the raping and pillaging that might have occurred. The story makes clear that the letter was a forgery.
The Athens State University campus has a handful of haunted structures including McCandless Hall and Brown Hall, but writers have noted that Founders Hall seems to have the most activity. One legend holds that a female student was killed when her hair caught fire from the candles she a friend were holding while trying to sneak out after curfew. Her spirit is blamed for disembodied footsteps, lights turning off and on by themselves, cold spots and a phantom figure seen at the building’s windows. This is the most common story told.
Jessica Penot’s Haunted North Alabama documents the legend of a stable boy named Bart who apparently worked for President Childs. This young man, fancied by many of the young woman at the school, was kicked in the head and killed by a horse. His mischievous spirit may still linger with that of one of the workers who helped build the hall. The worker, who was a bit of a tippler, lost his jug of whiskey in one of the columns. One version of the story has him dropping his jug inside the column when his supervisor approached. In another version, the worker left his jug sitting on a column and went to lunch. When he returned, the column had been built up encasing the jug for posterity.
Annie Pfeiffer Chapel Florida Southern College Lakeland, Florida
Few schools can offer the tremendous collection of architecture that Florida Southern College can offer with its collection of nine Frank Lloyd Wright designed buildings collectively called, “Child of the Sun,” the largest concentration of Wright’s buildings in the world. Like many much larger schools, though, Florida Southern has also attracted an impressive amount of folklore, some of which is associated with the Wright buildings of West Campus. Among those buildings that have acquired stories is the chapel, the first of Wright’s visionary structures to be constructed.
Known at the time as Southern College, the school suffered a great deal during the Great Depression. The school’s president, Dr. Ludd Spivey, approached Wright with the chance to design a campus for the school. Wright embraced the idea wholeheartedly and began work. The school lacking in funds but wealthy in enthusiasm used the labor of students and professors to construct many of the buildings. In the Annie Pfeiffer Chapel, legend has it that the choir screen was incorrectly installed, which has given rise to one of the legends.
Outside of Daniel W. Barefoot’s marvelous Haunted Halls of Ivy, much campus lore throughout the South and the country has been left undocumented, except that of Florida Southern. Dr. Alexander M. Bruce, an English professor and Assistant Dean of Academic Affairs at the school at the time of publication, documented the school’s legends and lore in his 2003 book, The Folklore of Florida Southern College. Not only documenting ghost stories, this book records the stories about the school’s and Dr. Spivey’s relationship with Wright, lore surrounding the construction of the buildings and stories about campus issues like hazing.
Having discovered this book after writing the original version of this article, I was excited to read the ghost stories surrounding the Annie Pfeiffer Chapel. Barefoot records that the spirit of Wright had been reported in the chapel, still contemplating the wrongly installed choir screen. Dr. Bruce states that the story is pure bunk, but he proceeds to record ghostly tales from many of the other campus buildings including dormitories like Joseph Reynolds and Allan Spivey Halls.
While the story isn’t true, it does gloss over some very important history of this architectural masterpiece.
Ponce de Leon Hall Flagler College St. Augustine, Florida
Florida Southern College isn’t the only school with an architectural masterpiece, Flagler College in St. Augustine. Ponce de Leon Hall, the centerpiece of the campus, is an early Moorish Revival masterpiece from the architectural team of John Carrère and Thomas Hastings, leaders in the Beaux-Arts Movement. Constructed by Henry Flagler as the Hotel Ponce de Leon in 1888, this opulent hotel featured intricate woodwork and some of the earliest works by stained glass master Louis Comfort Tiffany. The hotel served many wealthy guests until the mid-60s when competing roadside motels sent its finances plummeting.
In 1968, the hotel began restoration and renovation to convert it into Flagler College, a private, four-year, liberal arts school. The development was lead by Lawrence Lewis, Jr., Henry Flagler’s grandson and the school has expanded by purchasing other historic structures for restoration as college buildings. The school is now ranked by the Princeton Review in the top tier of southeastern colleges.
While college students now roam the halls where America’s elite of the Gilded Age once walked, the occasional specter from the past still appears. The stories and legends of Ponce de Leon Hall are numerous and include not only anonymous hotel guests but the shades of the hotel’s visionary founder, Henry Morrison Flagler and two of his three wives. Legend holds that the first mysterious phenomena occurred just after Flagler’s death in 1913. He died after a fall in his home, Whitehall (which is also haunted), in Palm Beach. His body was returned to St. Augustine where his vision for Florida as a vacationer’s paradise first began to take shape. A public viewing was set in the hotel’s rotunda and while mourners stood by the massive oak doors slammed themselves shut. Shortly after the funeral, a small tile on the floor was discovered that bore a resemblance to Flagler. Students have reported run-ins with a spirit believed to be that of Flagler.
Among the more anonymous spirits are the “Lady in Blue” and the spirit of a young boy. The legend behind her sad spirit tells of a young woman having an affair with a married man. When he refused to divorce his wife to marry her she began to race up the staircase to pack her things. His foot caught on the hem of her long skirt and she tumbled down the stairs breaking her neck. The spirit of the little boy has been encountered in the hallways where he asks if students are able to come and play with him. Like the Lady in Blue, it can be assumed he was likely a hotel guest, but their identities are unknown. Then again, the phantom footsteps, spectral music and disembodied voices heard throughout the hotel simply serve to remind the modern day of the college’s Gilded Age history.
Mountainside Theatre 688 Drama Drive Cherokee, North Carolina
If you’ve read this blog for awhile or have checked the very brief bio to the right of this entry you’ll know that I’m an actor. If you didn’t know, my secret is out. By nature, theatre people tend to be very superstitious and it’s noted that any theatre worth its salt should have a ghost. The Mountainside Theatre is no exception.
Three of the best summers of my life were spent working in Cherokee at the Mountainside where the outdoor historical drama, Unto These Hills, has been performed every summer since 1950. The Appalachians hold a particular charm and having lived there, even just a few months, I truly feel that part of my heart is there. Of course the atmosphere of living among fellow theatre people—who possess tremendous energy, intelligence and creativity—enhances that experience. And the parties and Bohemian life was awesome as well!
Cherokee lies at the heart of the Qualla Boundry Cherokee Indian Reservation, the seat of the Eastern Band of Cherokee. The Mountainside Theatre was built to house Kermit Hunter’s play, Unto These Hills, which tells the story of these particular Cherokee people. The drama utilizes both hired actors and members of the Cherokee community in telling the story and for many of the locals the drama has become a family tradition with grandparents performing alongside their grandchildren and sometimes great-grandchildren.
My first year in Cherokee, I played the role of the Lieutenant, a rather gruff, white Federal officer who viewed the Cherokee with contempt. In the scene depicting the beginning of the Trail of Tears, I led the march just behind Major Davis and took a position standing on a boulder on the side stage, rifle in hand, watching as the Cherokee marched off towards Oklahoma. Nightly I would look into the faces of these people walking in the steps of their ancestors and would see scowls and expressions of outright hatred, even from people that I considered friends offstage. It was a moving experience to see history recreated and see the consequences of that same history juxtaposed into that.
The theatre itself is a huge open air amphitheatre that can seat a few thousand. The theatre is surrounded by forest and the backstage area has been constructed to preserve the tree line that gives the theatre a wonderful sylvan quality. The stage and side stages include trees, shrubbery and boulders to complete the picture. Behind the back wall of the stage there is a covered walkway with a props storage area just off stage left. Below this walkway, the terrain drops a bit further which is spanned by a covered walkway, called “The Bridge,” that connects the stage to the rest of the backstage area. Wrapping around the side of the mountain is a long building with the stage manager’s office, costume shop and dressing rooms. At the very end of this building, parallel to the driveway leading up the hill to cast housing, is the laundry room and a small porch called the “laundry porch.”
Except for the very top tier of the actors hired for the production, most other performers in the show served double duty either doing technical work (the Actor Techs or ATs) or working in the costume shop. I worked in the costume shop and part of my duty was to do laundry once a week after the show. Once the show was up and running, everyone went on to “Cherokee Time” where bedtime was sometime between 4AM to sunrise and wake up time was around noon or sometime thereafter. None of us usually had to be at work at the theatre until 6PM, so many of us became partially nocturnal.
Within a few days of my first arrival on “The Hill,” I began to hear stories and legends about the area. One of the costumers in those first few days had gone down to the theatre late one evening for some quiet. As he sat in the empty theatre he heard the sound of a horse running around the theatre. Interestingly, there were no horses in the area nor had any ever been used in the show. Other stories began to surface from some of the longtime cast members of others having odd experiences in the theatre at night. I can recall hearing one story of someone sitting in the theatre alone only to turn his head to see someone sitting in the row behind him staring straight ahead, trancelike.
Another story involved a particular former cast member, since deceased, who would sit on the laundry porch during the show. It was said that people driving past the theatre would still occasionally glimpse her sitting on the porch. An even further tale told of the techies who fired guns offstage for sound effects seeing a Cherokee dancing among the trees in the dark woods offstage. In some versions of the story he was seeing floating some feet off the ground as he danced.
The one legend that I heard almost invariably involved the Cherokee Little People, or Yun’wi Tsundsdi. I described this mythic race in my article on Chimney Rock, please see the article for a better description. In the lore of the area, the Mountainside Theatre had been constructed on ground that was sacred to the Yun’wi Tsundsdi. During the day, the theatre was lent to humans for their uses, but at night it returned to their territory. We were taught to announce ourselves whenever we went to the theatre at night. When we reached the bridge we would call out, “I mean you no harm, don’t mind me.” Failure to do so would cause the Little People to play tricks on you.
However, theatre people do love a good story. I’m not sure how much of this was truly real and how much had been concocted to scare naïve new “Hillbillies.” Nonetheless, this was the mythology that was in place.
At least I thought this was mostly mythology until one night. It was my laundry night and I had dutifully put a load of laundry in the wash. The evening was fairly quiet and there wasn’t much partying. Not really being a partier myself I had been in my room reading a book about the Yun’wi Tsundsdi. Around 3AM I walked down the hill to the laundry room to put the load of laundry in the dryer. As I walked, I muttered the Cherokee name of the Little People repeatedly in an attempt to commit it to memory. It’s a fun name to say. However, I didn’t realize that it also calls them.
I put the laundry in the dryer and started back up the hill to my room in the Boy’s Dorm. Between the end of the laundry porch and the first of the cabins of “Lower Suburbia” there is maybe 100 feet (by my estimation and I’m a poor judge of distance). On one side of the drive is forest with laurel and rhododendron growing thickly among the pines. From this thick forest I suddenly heard the sound of high pitched giggling. It was not drifting down from the ever present crowd at the picnic table outside of the Girl’s Dorm, it was coming from the forest next to me. I stopped for a moment and tried to peer into the shadows. There wasn’t anything to be seen. I uttered a tentative, “Hello?” but it was met with silence.
Again, the giggle issued from the thick shrubbery and again I said hello. No answer. The night time cacophony of the Appalachians can be quite startling to an outsider from the scream of the bobcat (which I thought was a woman being raped when I first heard it) to the various night birds (nighthawks and owls), but this was none of those. It was a childish giggle. Once more I heard it coming from the thick woods directly in front of me. At that point the instinct of fight or flight kicked in and I flew; up the hill and back to the safety of my room. Having been reading about the Yun’wi Tsundsdi, I assumed that it was them that I heard. This was confirmed the next day by a close Cherokee friend.
I can only describe what happened. I’ve thought about it many times since and searched for a more likely explanation, but I can find none. That was my only experience on The Hill. There were times when I would find myself alone at the theatre during my laundry night and I would feel uncomfortable; that feeling of not being alone and sometimes being watched.
While I cannot say for certain that the Mountainside Theatre is haunted, it’s certainly a place that could easily inspire such stories. The play Unto These Hills, although in a different form from Kermit Hunter’s original version, is still performed nightly during the summer and the theatre is open to visitors during the day. Tickets for the show may be purchased at the Cherokee Historical Association Offices, also known as “The Hut,” (which is also haunted) at the bottom on the hill in the village at 564 Tsali Boulevard.
Winston House Deshler High School Campus 200 Northeast Commons Street Tuscumbia, Alabama
N.B. Edited 4 March 2019.
In recent days, tremendous storms and tornados cut their way across the South. The storms affected Mississippi, Georgia, Tennessee and especially hard hit was Alabama. Northern Alabama felt the brunt of the storm in urban areas like Tuscaloosa, Birmingham and Huntsville; but also in small towns like Cullman, Rainsville, and a little town in Franklin County with the unusual name, Phil Campbell. Just north of Franklin County is Colbert County and its seat, Tuscumbia. It was here that a tornado in the late nineteenth century left a spiritual mark.
On November 22, 1874, as a tornado bore down upon her home, Judith Winston, the lady of the house tried to take cover. She failed, and was crushed beneath rubble. Her sons pulled her from the wreckage still alive, but she lived only a little while. According to Debra Johnson, she breathed her last in the front bedroom on the eastern side of the house.
Tuscumbia, Alabama began its rise to prominence as the town of Occocopoosa, along the military road completed in 1820 by General Andrew Jackson linking Tennessee with Louisiana. The town’s name was changed to Big Spring in 1821 and the next year to Tuscumbia. The richness of the area’s land and the abundance of game brought settlers to the area along with business and eventually the railroad. Tuscumbia rose as one of the leading cities in the region.
Among early settlers were members of the prominent Winston family. Descended from Captain Anthony Winston, a cousin of Dolly Madison and Patrick Henry, the Winstons fought at the side of Andrew Jackson and acquired land in Virginia, Tennessee, and finally Alabama. Further descendants would serve as governors of both Alabama and Mississippi as well as a senator from Alabama.
William Winston began construction on this magnificent edifice in 1824, and it was completed nine years later. This Georgian house is the largest remaining antebellum house in the city. It remained in private hands until 1948 when it was purchased by the City of Tuscumbia for the new campus of Deshler High School. Restoration efforts began on the house in the early 1980s and these efforts were boosted by the home being placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1982. Since that time, the home has served as a house museum and events space.
Mrs. Winston may be the source of some rather interesting phenomena that has occurred in the house. One woman setting up chairs for her daughter’s wedding was disturbed by the chairs rattling by themselves. Upset, the woman questioned the home’s curator and was told that Mrs. Winston simply wanted an invitation to the event. Once the mother of the bride issued an oral invitation, the rattling ceased. Debra Johnston also credits Judith Winston’s spirit with the “weeping walls” in the downstairs entry hall when there is the threat of a storm.
Jessica Penot, author of Haunted North Alabama and the Ghost Stories and Haunted Places Blog, identifies one of the spirits in the home as William Winston, the home’s builder. She states that his spirit has been seen standing at the top of the stairs and wandering through the halls. She also speaks of white figures seen through the windows of the house at night after it is closed.