Sunday, November 13, 2016

Spirited Alabama Sojourn Ramblings Part I

During the first few minutes of the first annual Haunted History Tour in the small town of Wetumpka, Alabama, my tour group was shuffled into a room in the unrestored portion of the town’s Chamber of Commerce Building (110 East Bridge Street). The old room was in rough shape with a collection of folding chairs set out for tour participants. I glanced through a doorway into an adjoining room and was greeted by a scarecrow with a mischievous grin painted on its burlap face.
 
The Wetumpka Chamber of Commerce just before
Wetumpka Haunted History Tour, 2016. Photo by
Lewis O. Powell, IV, all rights reserved.
The thought ran through my head, “Someone has put out some tacky Halloween decorations out for this tour. Oh my God, I hope the rest of the tour isn’t like this!” My fears were allayed however when the guide began talking about how this scarecrow moved on its own around the third floor. Passersby on the streets outside have noted the scarecrow peering down on them from one of the third floor windows. When they look again the scarecrow is often looking down from a different window. Employees of the chamber of commerce have also noted the scarecrow’s erratic movement, even once finding it torn apart on the floor of the bathroom. Even more shocking was when the scarecrow reappeared “in pristine condition”—to use our guide’s words—the following day in its usual position overlooking downtown.

The chamber's scarecrow that moves on its
own accord. Photo by Lewis O. Powell, IV,
all rights reserved.
The scarecrow is overseeing, along with the other spirited compatriots, a revival that’s taking place in downtown Wetumpka and throughout the state of Alabama. The state is beginning to awaken from its long, sad economic dream state and confidently stride back towards a fully awakened existence. Utilizing its own history, hominess, natural hospitality, stories, and even its ghosts, Alabama is brushing off the dust of its past and creating a more hopeful future.

Some of you may have noticed my absence during October. Please forgive me, I have been traveling throughout Alabama taking part in investigations and ghost tours. The life of a blogger can be rather dull when you’re only writing about these places rather than experiencing them. Last Halloween I promised myself that I would leave my schedule open this year so I could take advantage of the various investigations and ghost tours that crop up during the Halloween season. With one exception, all my investigations and tours were in Alabama, a state that I have discovered really wants its stories told.

My first jaunt, the first weekend of October, took me to Sylacauga, the Marble City. Located in central Alabama, Sylacauga (pronounced sil-uh-CAW-guh), is about 45 miles south east of Birmingham. The town was built primarily on marble quarrying: carving up the fine marble vein that spans thirty miles under this section of Talladega County. Near the downtown, the Comer Museum (711 North Broadway Avenue) is situated in an Art Deco-styled marble-clad building built in the 1930s as the town’s library. Sculptures and carvings from the local marble grace the entrance of the elegant building that serves as a virtual attic for the area squirrelling away and displaying an array of historic artifacts.

I was in town for an investigation at the museum with S.C.A.R.E. of Alabama, a group founded by authors Kim Johnston and Shane Busby (who wrote Haunted Talladega County together, Johnston is also the author of Haunted Shelby County, Alabama and Haint Blue: The Rockford Haunting). Members of the group include haunted collector and author Kevin Cain whose book, My Haunted Collection, is now a part of my Southern Spirit Library, he’s also written a number of supernatural fiction works; and Kat Hobson who hosts the radio show “Paranormal Experienced with Kat Hobson” on which I appeared a few months ago and will be appearing at the end of this month. The group hosted this investigation as part of a series of public investigations that they host as fundraisers for the places investigated.

The investigation was fascinating an concentrated on a number of objects throughout the building that may have spirit attachments. See my run down of the investigation here, “The Haunted Collection in the Marble City—Alabama.”
 
Entrance to De Soto Caverns, 2016. Photo by Lewis O. Powell IV,
all rights reserved.
On the way to Sylacauga I passed through several small dried-up towns—including Wadley in Randolph County, with nary a single storefront that appeared to be occupied—and was reminded of the harsh economic conditions that have plagued much of rural Alabama. On the route I decided to stop outside of Childersburg to check out DeSoto Caverns & Family Fun Park (5181 Desoto Caverns Parkway). As I waited for the cave tour I watched a young father carry his child off the porch of the gift shop heading towards the family’s car. In his arms the child squirmed and cried in the depths of a temper tantrum. As they passed the statue of Hernando de Soto the father said, “Hey look, it’s Hernando de Soto!” The child only screamed louder. Goodness knows that de Soto inspired similar reactions from the natives when he marched through this area in 1540.
 
Interior of the caverns with a replica of a native burial in place.
Photo by Lewis O. Powell, IV, all rights reserved.
Scholars suggest that Spanish explorer and conquistador Hernando de Soto may have stopped in the area as he hacked his way through the forests and natives of the region. While there is no proof that he visited the cave, there is evidence that it was known to the local natives. Several native burials were located in the main room of the cave as well as the remains of a white trader who was killed after he carved his name in the cave which was considered sacred to the natives. Being a cave fan, I was happy when Johnston and Busby included the cave in their book on haunted Talladega County.

While I have had some creepy experiences in caves (see my experiences at Lost Sea Cave in Sweetwater, TN), I didn’t have anything odd happen. Johnston and Busby note that a young daughter of the cave’s owners had experiences with Native American spirits during her childhood on the property. Worried that these spirits may have been upset by the family’s use of the cave as a tourist attraction, the owners brought in members of the native tribes that once owned the land to cleanse the property and rebury the bones of their ancestors that had originally lain quietly in the cave. Apparently, the spirits have been appeased, though I do wonder if there is any residual energy that may cause some activity on occasion.

Sylacauga itself seems to be waking up however: a number of buildings in its downtown were occupied and open for business including what appeared to be several new restaurants. For dinner I considered Buttermilk Hill Restaurant (300 East 3rd Street) which occupies an early 20th century house just outside of downtown. Listed in Johnston and Busby’s book, the restaurant shares the house with an assortment of spirits and a dark history that includes a murder within the past decade. While the menu looks delectable, it was a bit pricey for my current budget, though I did take some pictures.
 
Buttermilk Hill Restaurant, 2016. Photo by Lewis O. Powell, IV,
all rights reserved.
My second sojourn to Alabama took place over the penultimate weekend of October. Due to work on Friday, the trip turned out to be rather rushed and I didn’t have much time to really enjoy it the trip up. S.C.A.R.E. of Alabama sponsored an investigation of Jemison-Carnegie Heritage Hall Museum (200 South Street East) and the adjoining Armstrong-Osborne Public Library (202 South Street East) in Talladega. Despite  NASCAR races taking place the same weekend at the nearby (and cursed, supposedly) Talladega Superspeedway in Lincoln, the leafy streets of Talladega were quiet and still. South Street boasts some fine institutions and a handful of ghosts. On this peaceful night, antebellum Manning Hall (205 South Street East), the huge, main edifice of the Alabama Institute for the Blind and Deaf, across the street from Heritage Hall was lit up like a beacon. Heritage Hall’s smaller, more feminine, Beaux-Arts fa├žade was lit up as if in graceful answer to Manning Hall’s heavy, masculine Greek Revival colonnade. According to Johnston and Busby, Manning Hall does have some spirits of its own, quite possibly including the shade of the Institute’s founder, Dr. Joseph Johnson.
 
Manning Hall at the Alabama Institute for the Deaf and Blind.
Photo by Lewis O. Powell, IV, all rights reserved.
The Jemison-Carnegie Public Library was the dream of Louisa Jemison, a member of the prominent Jemison family who now have a handful of haunted places associated with them. Designed by noted Alabama architect Frank Lockwood, the library was built with a donation of land from Louisa Jemison and the Carnegie Foundation. When the library opened in 1908 local lore tells of a little 8-year-old girl sitting on the top step the first day and her being the first person to check out a book. The little girl, Gentry Parsons, would eventually pen her own books and donated many books to this library.
 
The facade of Heritage Hall on the night of the investigation.
Photo by Lewis O. Powell, IV, all rights reserved.
Since portraying the Atlanta architect Philip Schutze at the Atlanta History Center’s Swan House, I have come to know the power of good architecture. In creating beautiful spaces, the architect can physically manipulate those entering the space; the eyes and chin are raised and the dignity of the space encourages those entering to straighten their back out of respect. Those entering have their senses heightened and the feeling of awe can mellow into a sense of inspiration, lightness, refinement, and freedom. Like the great cathedrals of Europe, the architecture of Heritage Hall does exactly that. The high ceilings, airiness, and grace raises the senses of those walking up the front staircase and entering the front door. The main bay of the building is a large open space with a dramatic staircase directly ahead leading down to the main librarian’s desk.
 
Interior of Heritage Hall just inside the front door.
Photo by Lewis O. Powell, IV, all rights reserved.
The interior of Heritage Hall looking down the stairs just inside
the front door towards the old librarian's desk. Photo by Lewis O.
Powell, IV, all rights reserved.

After entering for the investigation I was greeted by the museum’s director and given an excellent tour of the building. The open space inside with the walls lined with art from local artists gives the place a sense of veneration and the art displays the tremendous talent throughout the region. I was also introduced to some of the paranormal activity that has been experienced here. With this building being a community center for such a long period of time, the energy that has passed and continues to pass through it has likely left a psychic imprint. That can be one explanation for the disembodied footsteps and doors opening and closing on their own accord. As a library, this building has also inspired passion for many people, people who return to this beloved spot in spirit. Some of the spirits believed to still oversee business here are Miss Willie, a former librarian; Tom Woodson, a long-time director of the museum who died a few years ago; and Louisa Jemison who may return to check on her beloved library.
 
Main entrance of Armstrong-Osborne Public Library, 2016.
Photo by Lewis O. Powell, IV, all rights reserved.
Spooning Heritage Hall like a protective older sibling is the Armstrong-Osborne Public Library which opened in 1979. Sadly, the architects of the newer building did not take their cues from Lockwood’s design. The building is minimalist and angular with no ornamentation; utilitarian modernist at its worst. The interior is very typical late 20th century library design which emphasizes function over design. While the architecture is nothing to write home about, the institution itself seems to be very well stocked and the librarians and staff present were delightful and very interested in the investigation.
 
Adult reading room of the Armstrong-Osborne Public Library.
Photo by Lewis O. Powell, IV, all rights reserved.
Hall of Heroes entrance. Photo by Lewis O. Powell, IV, all rights reserved.
The Hall of Heroes is lined with the photos of men and women
who served in the armed forces from Talladega County. Photo
by Lewis O. Powell, IV, all rights reserved.
Looking into the Genealogy Room before the investigation.
Photo by Lewis O. Powell, IV, all rights reserved.
The library itself has experienced a modicum of strange activity particularly around the genealogy room and its adjacent hallway which are actually part of a 2006 addition to the building. That hallway is now the Hall of Heroes, honoring the many men and women of Talladega County who have served in the armed forces. The hall is lined with photographs ranging from World War I to the most recent conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. In this hallway the spirit of a woman has been seen while the sounds of a party sometimes emanate from the genealogy room itself when it’s empty. The investigation of the library and Heritage Hall didn’t really uncover much evidence-wise. After sitting with Ghost Boxes in the main reading room of the library we adjourned to the genealogy room and the Hall of Heroes. Fitted out with computers, microfilm readers, and shelves of books old and new, the genealogy room isn’t particularly creepy, even in the dark. We did an EVP session and at one point seemingly heard a “no,” though I was one of the few people to hear it. It may have also been gastric noises from one of the participants. After relocating to Heritage Hall we didn’t pick up much activity, though we had some K2 spikes when some of men began lounging on Miss Willie’s library desk.

My sojourn is not quite over, though I’m just realizing how much I’m rambling. Join me for more of my Alabama adventures in part two.

Sources
Johnston, Kim and Shane Busby. Haunted Talladega County.
     Charleston, SC: History Press, 2015.
History.Talladegas Public Library.  Accessed 12 November 2016.
Our History.” Jemison-Carnegie Heritage Hall Museum. Accessed
     12 November 2016.
Wetumpka Area Chamber of Commerce. Wetumpka Haunted

     Heritage Tour. 28 October 2016.

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