State’s historic haunts conjure spooky tales

Tanya Mikeals, left, of Wildwood, portrays Lorena Baker as she gives a tour of an upstairs bedroom during the Spirited Ladies of the Baker House, where actors tell stories of the house’s haunted history.

Judy Robertson didn’t know the Baker House existed — until she heard about the ghosts. Historic places such as the Baker House, a Victorian house located a short drive from Brownwood, are filled with ghost stories that inspire curiosity from tourists and locals alike. And these ghosts don’t go away when people trash their jack-o’-lanterns and wrap their houses in Christmas lights. Destinations that offer year-round hauntings draw many travelers fascinated by the supernatural, or those looking for a fright well beyond Halloween’s end. “It’s a well-kept secret, and I love historical things,” said Robertson, of the Village of Buttonwood, who visited Saturday with her husband. “The rumor that it’s haunted appeals to me. We haven’t been to any supposedly haunted houses.”

Florida’s haunted historical sites can be found everywhere, from the state’s oldest continuously operating hotel in Mount Dora to the small Panhandle community of Monticello, which bills itself as the most haunted town in the South.

Supernatural Sightseeing

Supposedly haunted historic sites may not attract as large a following as events like Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Orlando Resort, but the stories these places tell are why people come, just like the theme park events, said Ady Milman, professor of tourism and hospitality management at the University of Central Florida’s Rosen College of Hospitality Management.

It was the stories of shadowy figures emerging during battle reenactments at Dade Battlefield Historic State Park and a Bigfoot-like swamp monster inhabiting the Green Swamp that drew spiritual medium Deborah Carr Hollingsworth to Sumter County.

Hollingsworth’s research for a book on Sumter County’s haunted history helped inspire last weekend’s Spirited Ladies of the Baker House event. It told stories of the house’s haunted history through the eyes of actors playing three women in the Baker family.

Robertson also played Gladys “Mumu” Baker, a third-generation family member who died in 1993, during the event.

It’s Mumu who’s believed to haunt the house’s stairs, she said. On her visit, she heard a thumping sound coming from the stairs.

“The supernatural is here year-round,” she said. “My belief is energy never dies, they can tap into this and they can tap into you.”

Proving that, Hollingsworth didn’t wait for Halloween to collect her research for the book. It was based on her travels on the Sumter Scenic Heritage Byway from January to March 2019.

She defines a haunting as a spiritual connection to an object or event in a given place.

Robertson said she appreciated the history of the house built by Sen. David H. Baker in 1890. But she doesn’t consider herself a believer in haunted houses.

“I’d have to feel a presence, like something running up the stairs,” she said. “People heard they could feel the stairs vibrating. I would need something more tangible than a picture.”

Also close to The Villages, a group called American Ghost Adventures offers ghost tours at the Lakeside Inn in Mount Dora, which opened in 1883 and is Florida’s oldest continuously operating hotel.

Numerous ghosts are believed to haunt the hotel, including the spirits of two young children.

Even the notorious gangster Al Capone, who used to stay in Room 300 when he visited Florida, haunts the hotel, according to former Mount Dora Ghost Walk guide Andrew Mullen, in a 2015 Daily Sun interview.

American Ghost Adventures only offers the Mount Dora tours by request, though it also operates a daily ghost tour in downtown Orlando, said Ting Rappa, the company’s founder.

By Monday she had tours booked at the Lakeside Inn every day except Tuesday.

“The (ghost) activity shifts every time we do it,” she said. “Most people will say there’s just one haunted room, but there’s nothing keeping the ghost in one room.”

Rappa runs her Lakeside Inn tours Sundays through Thursdays. She avoids Fridays and Saturdays because of how crowded downtown Mount Dora is on weekends.

On her tours, visitors may participate in paranormal investigations of the Lakeside Inn. She and her guests design the tour around respecting both the living and the dead.

“We’re genuine about it,” Rappa said. “We’re not ghost hunters; we’re ghost ambassadors. We’re just relaying the messages the spirits may have there.”

Built on Stories

Florida’s hauntings continue outside the tri-county. Ghost tours are common in St. Augustine, the oldest continuously occupied European settlement in the U.S. Nine are listed on the website of St. Augustine, Ponte Vedra & The Beaches Visitors and Convention Bureau.

These include a haunted trolley tour where visitors can learn about the ghosts that haunt the City Gates and the Old Jail, haunted pub crawls for “spirits with your spirits” and even a ride in an antique hearse.

There is also Monticello, which draws supernatural enthusiasts interested in the historic buildings where ghosts are believed to show up, like the Monticello Opera House and the Old Jail Museum.

Town storytellers like Linda Schuyler Ford lead haunted tours of Monticello at least once a month. But the interest is greatest in October, she said.

About 100 people per night go on the tours in October, which run two hours and stop at seven places, she said.

“I am charmed by the town,” said Ford, who’s in her second full year as a storyteller in Monticello. “It’s a beautiful Victorian village with the courthouse, the town square and historic district ... and the fact there are ghost stories was the icing on the cake.”

Ford is a native of Sleepy Hollow, New York, whose interest in ghost stories came from growing up in the village that inspired Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” about a town believed to be haunted by a headless horseman.

Monticello’s ghosts include Aunt Sarah, who haunts the 1872 John Denham House Bed & Breakfast, according to Visit Florida.

At the Palmer House, a historic home that once belonged to a local doctor, Ford recalled a stroller moving on its own. She said she heard rumors that a murder occurred there.

Both Rappa and Ford like how leading haunted tours inspire their guests to consider an interest in history.

“It brings new people in that would normally not come down to the location, and we explore a lot of mom-and-pop places,” Rappa said. “They’re going past (Walt Disney World Resort), International Drive and Universal Studios to find these locations.”

Hollingsworth, who also studied the haunted history of Bloomington, Illinois, considers studying historic haunted places as a way to celebrate, appreciate and respect the figures of the past.

“We have two deaths, the day we die and the day people stop speaking our names,” she said. “It’s about bringing and keeping history and legacies alive.”

Leading haunted tours helps keep Florida’s past alive, something that Ford thinks makes the tours important to the community.

She also appreciates the fun and camaraderie people have when on the tours, especially when people who never went on a ghost tour before become comfortable with the experience.

“They’re just coming together and having fun,” Ford said, “being nervous together.”

Senior writer Michael Salerno can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5369, or michael.salerno@thevillagesmedia.com.