(Lee County Road 148)
Stairs and staircases figure into numerous ghost stories. One reason, certainly, must be that stairs are dangerous and can be the cause of dangerous accidents; perhaps even serving as the modus operandi in a murder. I prefer to imagine that ghosts are just trying to find the most dramatic way to enter. Regardless, stairs appear regularly in stories and even have figured into two of the more famous ghost photographs: the photograph of the “Brown Lady” of Raynham Hall and the Tulip Staircase photo from Greenwich, England’s Queen’s House. So, it’s no surprise that the story from the next Southern location involves a staircase as well.
With a name meaning “big swamp” in the language of the Muskogee Indians who once lived in the area, Opelika is a town in east central Alabama adjoining the city of Auburn. The area was sparsely settled until 1848 when the building of the Montgomery & West Point (Georgia) Railroad opened up the area to further development. A stop on this railroad line, just south of Opelika was Yongesboro, a stop that bore the name of William Penn C. Yonge.
It is likely that the summer camp held for many years, starting in the 1930s, in Spring Villa Park created the story about Mr. Yonge being killed on the staircase of his home by a vengeful (vengeance is another item that figures into many ghost stories) slave. It was this murder that of course led to his ghost haunting the house and the grounds. Just like the myth of the Ezekiel Harris House in Augusta, history and legend don’t match up.
William Penn C. Yonge (no source has yet provided his full name) 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 Columbus, Georgia builder. Godwin had moved from South Carolina to Columbus, located just 30 miles southeast of Opelika, with Horace King to build a bridge across the Chattahoochee River, the river divides Georgia from Alabama from Columbus south to Florida. 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 created 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.
Horace King, John Godwin’s building companion, is a fairly important name in the South. An African-American, King distinguished himself as an important architect and builder, especially of bridges. King constructed massive town lattice truss bridges over most major rivers throughout the Deep South. At the time of the building of Spring Villa, King was a freedman, but as a slave, Godwin had been his master. Though records do not exist, it is quite possible that King was both the designer and builder of Spring Villa with some aid from the owner’s father-in-law, John Godwin.
|Spring Villa from the front. Photograph by the author, |
2010. All rights reserved.
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 (the name for the company changed slightly) 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 likely created the legend. The grounds were then turned into a city park and remain so to this day.
The legend of Spring Villa states that William Penn C. Yonge was a cruel slave-owner and one of his slaves, with revenge in his heart, hid in a niche on the stairs and stabbed his master to death on the thirteenth stair. Of course, there are some major issues with this. 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.
|The staircase of Spring Villa during the 1934|
restoration of the house. Photograph taken
by W. N. Manning for the Historic
American Buildings Survey (HABS).
Courtesy of the Library of Congress,
Prints and Photographs Division.
So far, I have not seen the story of Spring Villa in any books of ghost stories, though my library is lacking in books on Alabama. Online I have found reports of investigations by two Alabama based paranormal investigation organizations: the Alabama Paranormal Research Team and Southern Paranormal Research. Interestingly, the City of Opelika website for Spring Villa Park features a history written by Southern Paranormal Research that presents the legend of William Penn C. Yonge, usually governmental organizations shun ghost stories and legends about their properties.
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. Mr. Harrellson, reportedly 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, though again, no citation is given. 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 recent Sunday, I visited Spring Villa. After driving around and around and having to take a detour (part of Spring Villa Road is closed for repair), I finally discovered the park. My iPod seemed to pick up on the location and began playing a recording of the folk song, “Garry Owen,” which certainly set the mood. 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 describes Rome just before the fall of Julius Caesar where “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.
Spring Villa Park is owned by the City of Opelika. The website for the park does not state if the house may be toured.
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.