Friday, November 7, 2014

Sunrise to sunrise in Fort Pierce, Florida

The sun was rising on what had been a small backwater town in the early twentieth century. The population was growing rapidly and one of the most prominent of local businessmen, Rupert Koblegard, wanted to invest some of his fortune into something that would benefit the citizens of what was being called, “The Sunrise City.” When he approached the city council, the response was, “build a theatre.” After getting a design from architect John N. Sherwood, Koblegard presented the plans to the city council again. He was told that the theatre was too big, to which he replied, “better too large than too small.”

Described as the largest theatre between Jacksonville and Miami, the Sunrise Theatre (117 South 2nd Street) opened on 1 August 1923 with a grand parade through downtown. Onstage, the Fort Pierce Band gave a concert. On screen, the newsreel was followed by a pair of films including a Charlie Chaplin comedy, The Vagabond. The opening of this grand, vaudeville theatre was heralded by the local paper as, “one of the most important events in the development of the town into a wide-awake city.”
 
Sunrise Theatre, 2009, by SebasTorrente. Courtesy of Wikipedia.
The stage attracted some of the top vaudeville acts including cowboy entertainer Tom Mix and his wonder horse, fan-dancer Sally Rand and actor Edward G. Robinson. Management passed from Rupert Koblegard, Sr. to his son, Rupert Jr. in 1928 just as the first talking picture equipment was installed in the theatre. Even as other businesses generally limped through the Depression and through World War II, the theatre remained quite vital. The theatre closed in 1983 when its business was sapped by strip malls and development away from downtown.

After sitting derelict for many years, the theatre was purchased by the St. Lucie Preservation Association and was restored in 2006 as a centerpiece for a renovated downtown. The theatre features top-rung entertainment and, quite possibly, some resident spirits. In 2009, three years after its grand reopening, paranormal investigators from the Florida Ghost Team explored the theatre.

In two investigations, the team found evidence to support the assertion that the theatre had paranormal activity. While a group of investigators were investigating the third floor apartment of the theatre’s founder and owner, Rupert Koblegard, Sr., several members of the group had the batteries in the cameras drain. Shortly after, knocking was heard in possible response to an investigator’s questions. Another team member watched as an exit door opened and closed on its own volition. While the evidence is scant, it may very well prove the existence of some spiritual activity within the theatre.

From the stage of the Sunrise Theatre, one must only make a short jaunt to see real sunrises over the Atlantic Ocean from the steps of the majestic Boston House (239 Indian River Drive) which has wistfully been staring out to sea since 1909. Now sidled up next to a starkly modern neighbor, the house seems to retain its peaceful, old-fashioned aura as well as some of its tales. Like the Sunrise Theatre, these tales originate in the sunrise of the city of Fort Pierce.

Along the Atlantic Coast of Florida, many tales begin with Henry Morrison Flagler. Originally a partner of John D. Rockefeller in Standard Oil, two visits to Florida in the late 1870s provided him with the impetus to develop this rural state into a vacationer’s paradise. Flagler’s project built a railroad line, the Florida East Coast Railroad (FEC), from Jacksonville all the way to Key West. Along the way, the trains stopped in towns and cities graced with Flagler’s grand hotels. This little Florida project for Flagler developed into a lifelong obsession for him and a coup for a backwater state that has turned it into one of America’s greatest “Vacationlands.”
 
The Boston House, 2009, by SebasTorrente. Courtesy of Wikipedia.
It was the FEC that brought William Turpin Jones to Florida, initially as a mechanic but he rose to be an engineer and was relocated to Fort Pierce. Around this time, Jones was an engineer on a train that struck dynamite that was left on the tracks by careless workers. Jones was seriously injured but after his recovery he returned to work. He was awarded a settlement of $6000 for his injuries. With this princely settlement Jones constructed a magnificent home in Fort Pierce which he named Cresthaven. The house was completed in 1909 and William Jones moved in with his wife and five children.

Jones retired from the FEC and worked on maintaining his groves of oranges and pineapples and selling real estate until he was unexpectedly appointed as sheriff of St. Lucie County in 1915. This unexpected turn of events took place after the previous sheriff, D.S. Carlton, was shot to death downtown by Marshall D.J. Disney in what was described as a “wild west shootout.” Known for his honesty, the governor appointed Jones to the position and he held it until he resigned in 1920. Though he had commanded much respect as sheriff, Jones’ business interests were taking a financial loss and he resigned to turn his attention back to those interests. Eventually, he returned to work for the FEC.

During his time as sheriff, a shade of tragedy was drawn over this home. In 1918, Jones’ 10-year-old son, Clifford, was involved in an incident with one of his playmates. The boys were playing in the home’s living room. Clifford reached for his father’s gun and it fired striking his young friend, William Fee. The young friend was mortally wounded and died later that evening in the hospital.

After the Depression hit, Jones struggled just as many did throughout the country. From a friend he accepted a loan using his home as collateral. The friend passed away and the note on Cresthaven passed to Rose Whitney, a sister of the friend. Unable to meet the terms of the loan, Jones was forced to sell the house to Ms. Whitney who moved in with her sister. Since the sale of the house to the sisters, the house has passed through a series of owners. Subsequent owners have used the large house for offices and most recently it housed law offices. The grand edifice is currently for sale.

Some of the earliest stories of paranormal activity in the house date back to the early 1970s. These reports include the sightings of Native Americans on the home’s front lawn, a red-haired maiden and “hanging victims.” There is also mention made of possible séances being held in the house, though there is no record to support that assertion.

The activity that seems more believable (to me, at least) is the activity reported while the house was occupied by law offices for almost 30 years. During that time employees would sometimes open the building in the morning to be greeted by the odor of coffee brewing. The smell of flowery perfume has also been associated with activity.

The second and third floors seem to have hosted much of the activity. One office employee was shocked as her keyboard levitated and a plant bent over. The daughter of one of the partners watched as random letters appeared on the screen of a word processor monitor, though it was turned off. Lights would turn off and on and on one occasion a passerby called one of the lawyers to report that every light in the building was on late one night. When the lawyer opened the building the next morning, not one light was on.

Even more curious is the apparition of a woman. One poor copy machine repairman was surprised to see a woman in Victorian clothing on the third floor. The figure disappeared into a wall. One of the lawyers watched as the silhouette of a woman appeared in a third floor window. He was standing with a group of eight people and all but one saw the shadow.

At some point in the past few decades a story has sprung up to explain this feminine shade. The story states that the elderly spinsters who took over the house after William Jones lost it utilized the house as a bed and breakfast. Among the vacationers staying there was a family named Perkins. The father and his young son went fishing and did not return. The spirit of the wife, Mrs. Aleacon Perkins, is still waiting for her family to return.

Research conducted by members of the GRIM (Ghostly Research into the Metaphysical) Society has found no historical record to support this tragic story. However, the group has compiled an impressive history of house, some of which was used in compiling this profile. So for now, the lady staring into the sunset from the upper windows of the Boston House remains lost in the twilight of history.

Sources
Brown, Alan. Stories from the Haunted Southland. Jackson, MS: University
     Press of Mississippi, 2004.
Grigas, Catherine Enns. “Living History: Boston House Home to Haunting
     Tales.” Indian River Magazine. 21 January 2011.
GRIM Society. “The Historic Boston House.” GRIM Society Blog. 14
     October 2007.
Harrington, Tim; W. Carl Shiver and Brent A. Tozzer. National Register
     of Historic Places Nomination form for the Sunrise Theatre. September 2001.
“Koblegard Theatre Interests Sold.” The News Tribune (Fort Pierce, FL). 3 April
     1955.
Mattise, Jonathan. “At Sunrise Theatre, things did go ‘bump’ in the night,
     Paranormal investigators said.” Fort Pierce Tribune. 28 September 2009.
Mattise, Jonathan. “Unsettling experiences noted when Florida Ghost
     Team returns to Sunrise Theatre in Fort Pierce.” Fort Pierce Tribune. 5
     October 2009.
Pincus, J.h. and Michael F. Zimny. National Register of Historic Places nomination
     form for Boston House. 20 February 1985.
“The Restoration of the Sunrise Theatre.” Palm Beach Post. 19 February 2006.
Sunrise Theatre. “History.” Accessed 5 April 2013.

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