If you want to hear a good ghost story or two, there’s no need to travel far. Farmville, like many historic towns in Virginia, abounds with ghost tales and legends. L. B. Taylor, Jr., author of the Ghosts of Virginia series who spoke at a local library recently agrees.
“We are fast losing a wonderful part of our heritage; the legend and lore of our ancestors,” he wrote. “We are in too big a hurry, and I, for one, think it’s a shame.”
He further explained his fascination with the ghostly realm by quoting a favorite author H. P. Lovecroft: There is something marvelous beyond the horizon of death and the limit of our sight. It becomes personal knowledge when our minds are coaxed out of the shadows of the purely material world an into the brilliance and brightness of the world of spirit...that lies just beyond the limit of our sight.
In other words, there is merit to ghost tales.
During my years as a reporter, I’ve compiled my own collection of local ghost stories. I’m quite sure that I inherited my love of otherworldly tales from my grandmother who was born shortly after the Civil War. She told tales that made me quiver under the quilts far into the night.
Every time I conduct an interview in or around an historic house (which includes a large portion of Farmville and the surrounding counties), I toss out this question – “By the way, do you have a ghost?”
Very often, the answer is “yes.”
One of my favorite local ghost tales is the “House of the Hobnailed Boots,” also know as the Venable-Wade-McKinney House.
This impressive brick house on Beech Street was built in 1842 by Joseph Venable, a charter member of the Farmville Savings Bank and founding trustee of Farmville Female Seminary now Longwood University.
The next owner was Christopher Lockett. During the closing days of the Civil War, Judith Lockett buried the family’s silver and became so frightened that she forgot where. After her husband’s death, Judith sold the house on Beech Street to Samuel B. McKinney.
Samuel died in the house in 1898, and his wife, who was 59, died a year later. The couple left five children.
Jeannie Wade, who operated Wade’s Confectionery Store on Main Street, bought the property and ran a boarding house there until 1932.
Quite a few people lived in the house, which, of course, increases the ghost potential.
In 1996 when the Venable-Wade-McKinney House was on the Historical tour, George Paris was the owner. He had been restoring the house for several years when I spoke to him.
“The floors in the house are original,” he told me. “There were no signs of any footprints on the floor until we tried to restore them.”
A contractor was hired and the floors were sanded and varnished. The next morning Paris came in to find clearly visible footprints on the wood floor that started at the front door and proceeded down the hall.
When Paris complained, the company returned and sanded the floor a second time. There were no footprints in the hall – until the varnish was applied again.
Paris consulted a local historian. “She told me that these were not footprints from modern times,” he said. “They were made by hobnailed boots, probably dating back to the 1800's.”
Paris decided he would live with the footprints – as long as the one who made them remained out of sight, that is.
Dr. James Jordan, professor of anthropology at Longwood University, is also a collector of local ghost tales. On Halloween night he will give a lecture titled “Tales From Under the Ground: Some Glimpses of Scary Happenings from Longwood’s Olden Days” at 7 p.m. in Jarman Auditorium.
One of those scary happenings involves the statue of the Confederate Hero. Every year on October 11, Dr. Jordan brings his classes to the statue on High Street. The statue was dedicated on that date in 1900.
Looking up at the larger-than-life soldier, Dr. Jordan relate the “Shadow of the Soldier” story. It was told to him by Mrs. Lucy Lancaster who was born on High Street about the time of the statue’s dedication.
“Mrs. Lucy Lancaster operated a gift shop on High Street for many years,” Dr. Jordan explained. “She told me that at night the statue sometimes cast a shadow on the Longwood campus on the wall of East Ruffner Building.”
The key word is “sometimes.”
“Mrs. Lancaster remembered this legend as a child,” Dr. Jordan continued. “She said that when you could see the statue’s shadow on the wall it meant the soldier was in the statue and everything was fine. When you couldn’t see the shadow, the soldier was somewhere around town with his rifle and something bad always happened.”
For several years after the Longwood fire on April 24, 2001, the Confederate Hero had nowhere to cast his shadow. East Ruffner was destroyed by the fire.
Dr. Jordan believes the Confederate Soldier was not pleased when his building burned. Longwood student Phil Taylor brought Dr. Jordan a photograph taken during the fire that shows a startling image in the flames. A silhouette of the soldier – complete with rifle – appears to be standing guard over the burning building.
Now that East Ruffner has been reconstructed, townspeople will be able to keep tabs on the soldier once more.
Just look for the shadow.
Speaking of tabs, there is a ghost tale connected to another historic building on campus – Tabb.
Tabb is a dormitory that usually hoses freshmen. It was evacuated during the fire of 2001, but not destroyed.
Perhaps the ghost of Tabb was on watch that night.
Two fires in Longwood’s past prompted this tale. One was in 1927 and the other in 1949.
“When something bad is about to happen – sometimes related to fire and sometimes not – the residents of Tabb will hear a hysterical woman’s voice,” Dr. Jordan related. “Upon each hearing of the shrieker, danger is averted and no one is hurt. This always occurs in Tabb, the closest building to the original east and south wings.”
To date, no one has reported hearing the shrieking ghost on the night of April 24, 2001 – but perhaps they will.
Another ghostly tale from Longwood concerns Edith Stevens, a professor and head of the Natural Science Department in the 1920's and ‘30's. At the time, that department was located in the basement of East Ruffner.
“A fire occurred in the laboratory, and several students were caught in the explosion,” Dr. Jordan said. “Edith Stevens was credited with saving the students’ lives.”
Unfortunately, Edith was badly burned and died a short time later at Southside Community Hospital. The date of her death was October 31 – Halloween.
Edith Stevens had a close friend, Leola Wheeler. When Leola died a few years later a marker in her memory was placed near East Ruffner.
“The story is that Edith Stevens still lives where the fire occurred,” Dr. Jordan added. “When Leola’s marker is not tended properly by the grounds-keepers, Edith gets very mad and appears as a ball of fire in the attic of the Stevens Building.”
Soon the Stevens Building will be replace by a new science building, already under construction on High Street.
“The new science building sits right in front of the old Stevens Building, blocking the view,” Dr. Jordan said. “This is the first year you won’t be able to see Edith if she appears.”
Dr. Jordan isn’t sure what Edith might do, but he is advising caution on Halloween night.
“Halloween was on a Sunday when Edith died in 1945, “ Dr. Jordan advised.
In other words, in passing the science building Halloween night, it might not be wise to experiment with Edith’s ghost.
Most people on campus are aware of another prominent ghost on campus. Dr. Jarman, who was president of Longwood for many years, is remembered at every program held at Jarman Auditorium. A special reserved seat, marked with a program and a single red rose, belongs to Jarman’s ghost.
“Every now and then they forget to put out the rose and program,” Dr. Jordan said. “Then the electricity and the sound board and the lights don’t work as they should.”
Those who attend Dr. Jordan’s talk on ghostly happenings Sunday night at Jarman Auditorium can see for themselves.
“Jarman seats 1,128,” Dr. Jordan concluded. “Of that, 1,127 seats will be available.”
One seat, of course, is reserved – for Jarman’s ghost.
by Marge Swayne from her column “Down the Back Road”, The Farmville Herald, Friday, October 29, 2004
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