The Sunshine State has no shortage of ghost stories — spectral pirates still guarding their treasures, spirits of suicides who haunt the places they died and old buildings where something “just doesn’t feel right.”
Books chronicle the more famous tales. Web sites offer first-hand experiences of close encounters of the ghostly kind. Area residents retell stories they heard as children.
Are the legends based on fact, or just colorful stories made up to scare children or entertain the tourists? Like some details in the ghost stories, it all depends on who you believe.
For a spooky Halloween tour of sites where there have been sightings, consider some of the local “haunts.”
• Kenilworth Lodge, 1610 Lakeview Blvd. in Sebring: A number of ghost stories surround this building, which dates back to 1916. Strange feelings are reported on the staircase, and visitors claim to have seen doors have been opening and closing on their own. The ghost of George Parker, a former manager who died in the hotel in the 1950s, has reportedly been seen there.
• Harder Hall, 3300 Golfview Drive in Sebring: This hotel was built in the 1920s, and urban legend maintains that every owner of this hotel has died under “strange circumstances” — often within the limits of the property. There are also ghost stories of guests who died in the hotel and never left. The hotel is on the National Registry of Historic Places, but is currently closed and trespassers are prosecuted.
• Avon Park: A ghostly mailman reportedly has been seen walking the streets near the intersection of Main Street and Lake Avenue, especially on foggy mornings. He disappears the moment you try to contact him.
• Lake Arcola: Lake Arcola dried up decades ago and is now just fields with some water, but drivers on North Buckingham Road, which skirts the western edge of what used to be Lake Arcola, sometimes report seeing a barefoot woman “fishing” in the area with a cane pole. Some area residents believe she is the ghost of a woman who died in the lake.
• Everglades Cemetery: Legend has it that on misty mornings, just as the sun comes up, a woman in white sometimes strolls through Evergreen Cemetery on U.S. 441 N. in Okeechobee. As the sun pierces the morning’s fog, the ghostly figure evaporates.
• The Desert Inn: The Desert Inn, at Yee Haw Junction on U.S. 441 at Highway 60 is connected with a number of ghost stories. According to “Ghostly Legends and Haunted Folklore,” by Greg Jenkins, Yeehaw Junction started out as a resting stop for cattle drives and a depot for Flagler’s East Coast Railway. The upstairs of the building served as a bordello. After the bordello closed, the inn provided lodging for weary travelers. Over the years, there were many deaths connected to the area including bar fights that turned into shootouts and automobile accident victims who were taken to the inn for shelter and who died before medical help arrived. Incidents include furniture apparently moving by itself, doors opening and closing and the sound of someone pacing upstairs when no one is up there — and the door to the upstairs is padlocked.
• The “old bank building”: The building referred to as “the old bank building” on State Road 70 in downtown Okeechobee, was actually only a bank for about two and a half years before the land speculation “bubble” of the 1920s burst. According to the story, the bank was the site of a robbery by the infamous Ashley Gang and a member of the gang was somehow locked in the safe. Reportedly, photos taken of the wall in front of the safe show a red tint. Some visitors to the building reported a feeling of unease.
• Okeechobee Battlefield: The Okeechobee Battlefield Historic State Park, 3500 S.E. 38th Ave. in Okeechobee (off U.S. 441 S.E.) was the site of the Battle of Okeechobee in 1837, the biggest and bloodiest battle of the Second Seminole War. Visitors to the area have reported strange sounds and feeling discomfort. Some even reported feeling as if someone had touched them, when no one was there.
• Lake Okeechobee: Do the spirits of Native Americans dance on the banks of Lake Okeechobee? One person who claimed to have seen these spirts said it was just at sunset when he saw what he thought were Seminole Indians, but when he tried to get closer, they vanished into thin air. This legend could be connected to the Seminoles who fought in the Battle of Okeechobee.
• SR 80: Just south of Clewiston, between State Road 80 and the dike, some residents have reported seeing the ghost of a man who either died in a car crash or who was killed in a robbery after his car broke down, depending on which version of the story is told.
• Jonathan Dickinson State Park: Legend has it that the ghost of Trapper Nelson haunts Jonathan Dickinson State Park, 16450 S.E. Federal Highway in Hobe Sound. “Trapper” Nelson was born Vincent Nostokovich. The ghost is reported to flirt with some of the female visitors. He is also said to be protective of park areas that were Indian burial grounds.
• DuPuis Wildife and Environmental Area: The DuPuis Wildlife and Environmental Area is in northwestern Palm Beach and southwestern Martin counties. The entrance is on Highway 76 (off U.S. 441 S.E. near Port Mayaca). According to online forums discussing the paranormal, there are reports that horses have spooked just before the appearance of a semi-transparent woman in a long cloak. There are also reports of ghostly Indians who disappear when the viewer attempts to get closer.
• The Elliott Museum: The Elliott Museum, 825 N.E. Ocean Blvd., Hutchinson Island in Martin County, was established in 1961 by Harmon P. Elliott in memory of his inventor father Sterling Elliott. It is not so much the building itself that is reported to be haunted, but rather some of the historical items in the museum may have ghostly “attachments.” Reports of paranormal activity at the museum include items being moved from one display to another, audio systems failing and doors opening and closing seemingly by themselves. Some visitors can’t shake the feeling of being watched. There have also reportedly been sightings of an apparition of a young girl wearing a long white Victorian style dress who vanishes when approached.
• House of Refuge: Gilbert’s Bar House of Refuge, 301 S.E. MacArthur Blvd., Hutchinson Island is the oldest building in Martin County. Ten such buildings were installed along the east coast of Florida in the 1870s to house those rescued from shipwrecks. The House of Refuge’s very existence is testimony to the number of shipwrecks along that shoreline. According to one legend, the house is haunted by some who found refuge there or by those who lived there as caretakers. Some claim to have smelled beef stew cooking although the kitchen has not been usable since the 1940s. There are also reports of seeing shards of a broken mirror in a bed, but when someone tries to examine the bed, the shards disappear.
Palm Beach County
• Riddle House: This Edwardian house built in 1905 in West Palm Beach has been moved to historical park Yesteryear Village at the South Florida Fairgrounds, Royal Palm Beach. It was a funeral parlor until Karl Riddle bought the home in the 1920s, for use as a private home. It is reportedly haunted by Joseph, a Riddle employee, who hanged himself in the attic.
Online sources for this article included www.hauntedplaces.org, www.weirdus.com; the shadowlands.net, www.hauntedflorida.com.
Published sources include: “Haunting Sunshine” by Jack Powell; “Haunt Hunter’s Guide to Florida,” by Joyce Elson Moore; “Ghost Stories of Florida, by Dan Asfar; and “Ghostly Legends and Haunted Folklore,” by Greg Jenkins.
The Okeechobee News is published every Wednesday, Friday and Sunday.