1474 Spring Villa Road (Lee County Road-148)
N.B. This article was revised 6 December 2018.
In a clearing amid remnants of the pine forests that once covered this landscape, Spring Villa still stands proudly, though faded. Like a tired, aged matron, her paint needs to be reapplied and a piece of ornamental woodwork hangs above a window like a fallen false eyelash. From her back a modern addition juts out like an ill-fitting headpiece and only sharpens the harsh angles of her architecture. Even in this state of dishabille, the home’s Gothic symmetry and angularity still shines through.
The large Gothic gables give the house a villainous and haunted appearance. During the 1930s, when this estate was used as a 4-H camp, campers would be taken into this house at night where they heard the legend of this house. That legend centers on the small, closet-like staircase that claustrophobically rises to the second floor, from living quarters to sleeping quarters, mirroring the trajectory of the soul. In this cramped staircase a vengeful slave supposedly hid in the small niche and leapt out one evening as his master, William Yonge, ascended the staircase. The slave stabbed the master he hated and fled, leaving Yonge to bleed out on the thirteenth stair.
William Penn C. Yonge was, according to Horace King’s biographers, from Marianne, Florida and had returned to the South after going to California for the Gold Rush. He married, Mary, the oldest daughter of John Godwin, a builder in nearby Columbus, Georgia. Quite possibly, money that Yonge had earned in the Gold Rush provided the capital for him to build a house as well as going into business. Yonge, with two other investors opened the Chewacla Lime Company in 1851 and it was around this time that he also built Spring Villa. It’s important to note the area’s geology includes large amounts of limestone as well as quartz, both of which are believed to provide energy to spirits. (see my article on Sylacauga, Alabama’s Comer Museum for more about stone’s ability to conduct energy)
Godwin, Yonge’s father-in-law, moved from South Carolina with his slave, Horace King, to build a bridge across the Chattahoochee River in Columbus. More important in this equation is Horace King, a fairly important name in the history of the region. Born a slave with African and possibly Native American ancestry, he distinguished himself as an important architect and builder, especially of bridges. King constructed massive town lattice truss bridges over many major rivers throughout the Deep South. At the time of the building of Spring Villa, King was a freedman, after purchasing his freedom from Godwin. Though records do not exist, it is quite possible that King was both the designer and builder of Spring Villa with some aid from John Godwin.
The home’s design utilizes the Carpenter or Vernacular Gothic Style which became popular in America in the mid-to-late nineteenth century. The façade is identical on both sides of the house and sports three steeply pitched gables decorated with wooden millwork and topped with a decorative finial. All three gables also feature latticework balconies that may perhaps be a nod to Kings use of lattice in bridges.
The house is described as having initially been a showplace with gardens and lakes where the Yonge’s held lavish parties and events. Following the death of her husband, Mary Godwin Yonge sold the entire 455-acre plantation to the Chewacla Lime Works and later the estate passed into the hands of the Renfro family. The Renfro’s sold the property to the City of Opelika to use as a water supply. The house was restored by the Lee County Civil Works Administration in 1934 and a matching kitchen added perpendicular to the back of the house. The grounds were developed to accommodate a summer camp, the same camp that created the legend. The grounds were then turned into a city park and remain so to this day.
Returning to the legend, by all accounts the story is preposterous. William Penn C. Yonge died in 1879 and was buried in a small cemetery near the house. That presents a problem if a slave murdered him as slavery had been abolished in 1865, 14 years earlier. The second issue is that Mr. Yonge reportedly died of natural causes. Even though the legend is entirely derailed by history, that fact does not preclude the house from being haunted.
Over the years visitors to Spring Villa have reported a variety of paranormal phenomena, though I have been unable to determine how long visitors have experienced anything unusual. Phenomena reported has included people seeing figures in the upper stories of the house and the 1934 addition, though currently the second floor of the addition cannot be reached without a ladder as the breezeway between the buildings has been torn down. Voices, music from a piano (the house is not furnished) and the sound of footsteps have also been reported. Visitors also report feelings of unease and also feeling hands pushing them on the thirteenth step.
The Alabama Paranormal Research Team has investigated the house on numerous occasions and it has included an investigation report on its website. One interesting account that they report involves a camp counselor called “Magic Mike” who reportedly witnessed a man playing the piano in the empty house. A Mr. Harrellson, the director of Opelika Parks and Recreation, found the man sitting on the floor of the empty residence crying and shocked at the scene he had just witnessed. Unfortunately, the team fails to include a source for this story.
The team also reports that one of their researchers located the details of the deaths of three young girls who drowned in a lake on the property. The evidence that the group presents includes a few examples of EVP (electronic voice phenomena – when voices are picked up on recording devices, though not heard by those present at the time) and some interesting video.
Southern Paranormal Research, who investigated the house and grounds in 2008, presents a more complete report as well as some very compelling evidence. In their investigation of May 24th, investigators made some interesting discoveries in trying to debunk some of the phenomena. They explain that matrixing may be responsible for figures being seen in the upper stories. In other words, the minds of witnesses may simply be fooled by the odd interplay of light and architecture into seeing figures. The team also notes that sound carries very well throughout the house which might explain some of the sounds heard by witnesses.
The remaining investigation appears to be mostly of the grounds where the team did have some odd experiences, hearing things in the woods and seeing a large, shadowy figure on the road. Some EVPs were also recorded that are rather interesting including a growl and laughter possibly from a child. The director’s final verdict suggests that further study is needed, though there is apparently a good deal of paranormal phenomena going on. The report for the team’s second investigation is incomplete, but does include an EVP of a man screaming that is rather haunting.
On a hot and muggy Sunday in 2010, I visited Spring Villa for the first time. The park was almost spookily devoid of visitors or any other humans and seemed the proper setting for the opening of a horror film. Birds and bugs chirped and chortled as I approached the house. The house certainly appears to be haunted and the dreadful condition of the house only adds to the feeling. Paint is peeling, a few balconies are missing, one of the boards from a balcony hangs by a single nail, the windows of the main house appear to the covered with black plastic from the inside and the buildings appear to have not been well maintained since the 1934 restoration.
As I approached one of the side chimneys to take a photograph, I was met with the titter of bats in the eaves. I immediately thought of a line from one of Horatio’s speeches in Shakespeare’s Hamlet where he notes that “The graves stood tenantless and the sheeted dead/ Did squeak and gibber in the Roman streets.” Perhaps the sheeted dead still squeak and gibber here just as the bats; it’s certainly not hard to imagine so.
- Alabama Paranormal Research Team. Investigation Report: Spring Villa Mansion, Opelika, AL. Retrieved 7 August 2010.
- City of Opelika. Spring Villa. Retrieved 7 August 2010.
- Lee County Heritage Book Committee. The Heritage of Lee County, Alabama. Clanton, AL: Heritage Publishing Company, 2000.
- Lupold, John S. and Thomas L. French, Jr. Bridging Deep South Rivers: The Life and Legend of Horace King. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2004.
- Opelika Parks and Recreation. Spring Villa Park. Retrieved 7 August 2010.
- Southern Paranormal Research. Investigation Reports for Spring Villa, May 24, 2008 and September 20, 2008. Retrieved 7 August 2010.