Some legend trips are about the excitement of the moment or the depth and mystery of the mythology behind the story. Others are about the anticipation of being in the dark with the weight of what has happened there breathing down your neck and making your hairs stand on end. At the heart of all of them is the hope that there is a connection between the history of the location and the ghostly stories that develop around them. As we look into the stories what’s looking back at us are lost moments waiting for someone to pick them up again and share with the world. They become more than legends or ghost stories. They become a way for the dead to live again and for lost history to dust itself off.
As we started looking into legends throughout South Florida to begin our journey, we sent out e-mails to historical societies and libraries in the area asking for insight into their hidden treasure other people may not have heard about yet. We didn’t get many responses, but one came from the coordinator of the DeSoto County Historical Society’s Research Library with a reference to an article in the September/October 2016 edition of Gasparilla Magazine. One of the locations writer Marcy Shortuse explored in her Haunted Arcadia was Oak Ridge Cemetery in Arcadia, Florida. Arcadia was a little over an hour away, not too far for a quick drive and a perfect training ground for Natalie’s first official, researched, legend trip, especially given its proximity to what we thought was a primary location for the Singing River legend.
What drew us in were stories that came out of the location. The first was a talking Mary statue located in the cemetery. According to Shortuse’s article and further research we conducted into the story, people had talked for years about a stone woman looking over a patch of graves who spoke to people who stopped to pay their respects or just spent time around her. The article spoke of people having entire conversations, but most of the other accounts online were sporadic occurrences, happening randomly and with no specific connection to people or times. This was of interest to me as I had researched haunted statues throughout the country.
The idea was to try and find the statue and get her to speak with Natalie. Many of the reports involved woman speaking with Mary, so we hoped that whatever was talking to people would be more drawn to her empathic, almost psychic side. Our plan was to also record the whole session with a digital recorder to try and gather some EVPs if we couldn’t hear anything with our own ears.
The second legend was more connected to the history of the town and drove us into research mode before we arrived in Arcadia. The real centerpiece of the cemetery is a memorial to the British Royal Air Force pilots who trained and died in Florida during the World War II era. This was a part of Florida history neither of us knew anything about, and as we have spoken to more people over the course of the last year, we discovered most outside of Desoto County haven’t either. In reaction to the Lend Lease Act, FDR decided to allow British pilots to train in the United States because the sky over their own country were a bit too dicey to allow new pilots to get the experience they needed. Arcadia petitioned to use Carlstrom Field which had been opened during WWI but had closed after peace had been established and the need for American war pilots had decreased.
The first class of RAF pilots graduated in 1941 but were not without their issues. Many of the foreigners were not used to the hazing which was a vital part of American troop training and that damaged their moral. As explained in Wing Over Florida, many of the trainees also suffered from homesickness and overindulgence. It seems the young men had come from a land of war into a land of plenty, and many became overwhelmed with how much food and Florida oranges they were able to get at a moment’s notice. It would also seem they were distracted by the number of Florida women with “loose morals” in the area they also could find at a moment’s notice.
Even given the distractions, many of the airmen went on to distinguish themselves in combat. 23, however, died in training in or near Arcadia and are buried in Oak Ridge along with their commander who requested to be buried with his men 40 years after he helped to train them. The cemetery is their final resting spot, along with a memorial commemorating Arcadia and the fallen pilot’s, contribution to history.
The stories coming out of the memorial are traditional haunted folklore for soldiers’ graves. People are seen standing before the headstones and then disappear moments later. A dark figure is said to move from grave to grave mourning each and leaving memorials, much like the legend of the man who leaves flowers at Edgar Allen Poe’s grave in Baltimore. There are also reports of phantom planes, seen but mostly heard above the cemetery, maybe explained away by airports nearby, many of whom host airshows which feature older, WWII planes. If these stories are not merely legend, it might make sense. Part of the mythology of the paranormal includes spirits being at rest. These pilots would be more likely to walk their graves because they are not buried in their own country but in a foreign one far from home and they may not be able to find peace or find their way back home.
One of the other unusual stories we unearthed mentioned the Union Jack flying at the memorial. People have reported the flag sometimes disappears although no one is there to remove it. According to reports, the flag was taken down and put up daily, but that no one currently moves it. The flag is supposed to fly at all times. In addition, many of these reports involve the Union Jack disappearing or being moved to half-mast while they are visiting although there is no visible caretaker present. I noticed while we were there, however, that in certain locations on the grounds the pole was obscured by trees, perhaps giving the feeling it had temporarily disappeared.
We arrived at the cemetery a little after noon on a fairly windy Sunday. We entered through the wrong gate, which turned out to be a blessing in disguise because it allowed us time to explore the cemetery as we searched for Mary. One of the things we noticed was the seemingly segregated nature of Oak Ridge. A large field separated the main part we entered through and a large section towards the back. As we walked the graves it became clear that African American were buried in one part of the cemetery, separate from what might be considered the main section. As a Northerner, I also was taken aback by the colored graves and how many graves had colored pictures built into the stone, something I had never seen in the hundreds of cemeteries I had spent time in while living in New England.
And all the time we kept our eyes on that Union Jack to make sure it was still there.
By the time we made it to the RAF memorial, the wind had mostly settled and it was a bit after 1:00 PM. We had seen several stone statues of women but narrowed down which one we believed was the one from the story based on the description and the picture from Shortuse’s story. First, we wanted to pay our respects to the airmen and see if we could touch some of the stories attached to them. We spent some time reading the headstones and the memorials. We said each airmen’s name and left a penny on each grave, a British military tradition. To try and spark a response, Natalie read the poem In Flanders Fields, written by Canadian poet and soldier John McCrae, which has a deep connection to British veterans of both World Wars. We also played the song “We’ll Meet Again” by Vera Lynn about English soldiers and pilots going off to WWII.
Nothing unusual happened while we were at this part of the location, although the rope on the Union Jack, which never disappeared the entire time we were there, went crazy clanging against the pole even though the wind had basically died down. On the recording you can hear it, but no wind. When we read the poem, every noise, including the birds and the rope, stopped entirely.
After spending time at the memorial, we moved on to the statue, which seemed to be looking over a plot dedicated to the Hollingsworth family, who we researched later and found to be an important family in the history of Arcadia. We determined, based on its location to the fence (some reports came from people who had played near the fence as children when they heard the voice) and the mere age of it, that this had to be the woman from the stories.
The first thing we noticed was how cold the statue was, especially in relation to the other headstones and statues we had touched. The other was an abandoned wasp’s nest, which in at least one of the stories we had read was used as an explanation for the voices heard. It was clear that the statue was not of the Virgin Mary based on the way she looked and was wearing. Natalie, trying to get in touch with her sensitive side, got the name Agnes and went with calling her that, although an Abby Hollingsworth was one of the dominant graves in the family plot. We spent about a half hour at the location, recording about 26 minutes of audio before leaving. Natalie felt she heard some unexplained noises she was unable to account for, but nothing that felt like a voice speaking words to her. She also was overcome at one point by the smell of incense.
It was not until we got on the road and listened to the recording that we fully understood just home much Mary may have been talking to us. Even through the speakers of the car with no enhancement we could hear unexplained voices and noises on the tape. Several times we hear an odd honking, more of a train whistle or harmonica or accordion than car horn. It also sounds a bit like bagpipes, and there have been reports of ghostly pipes being heard at the RAF site. The noise also seems to be deliberately interrupting what Natalie is trying to say. At the time we heard nothing that resembled this, as we make a point to speak about noises we hear as they happen. This could be attributed to the sensitivity of the recorder itself, as we have been amazed at some of the things we have heard from a great distance with it. At several moments we also hear the recorder being played with although neither of us moved it.
Throughout most of the recording there are voices under what we are saying or under other noises from the cemetery. At one point Natalie asks who is speaking to people and a voice is heard saying something like, “I’m a Hollingsworth” or a first name followed by Hollingsworth. We also heard someone saying “Hey” trying to get our attention.
Please listen to the audio yourself to find out more…
We found some other connections in the research we did after we went, but nothing that was able to explain who might be looking over the graves or talking to people who spend time around the graves. Of course, that’s the nature of the beast when it some to trying to track down a legend. What is clear after being there and looking the history of the town and the cemetery is that Oak Ridge Cemetery is a crucial link to heritage of Arcadia.
And a damn good ghost story for them to be proud of.
Like every state in the Union, Tennessee has its local legends, ranging from First Nations stories that predate the arrival of Europeans to the land to modern urban legends the likes of which reflect modern fears and unease. Among these legends are legends of local monsters. Given the centuries of human habitation in the state, […]
Some interesting side stories to follow up on if we go to Tennessee…
Natalie Crist and Christopher Balzano went out in search of the Devil’s Tree at Oak Hammock Park in Port St. Lucie.
We’ve got a full write up of the context and what happened coming later this week, but you can catch the two podcasts they did on the topic. The first is a trek down different Devil legends and the second is their field report on the Devil’s Tree.
If the folklore of a town is both a reflection and the building block of that community, what does it say if a local legend can’t be confirmed, embarrassed or even really defined. Venice is a strange area of Southwest Florida, not unique in its complexion or population from its neighbors, but a more of a mix of the personalities of the surrounding towns. Like the places that neighbor it, there is a balance struck between the old and the new, between generations of Venetians and recent transplants who seem in search of something the coastal towns of the Gulf promise. Businesses drift between a touch of rundown quaintness and neon glitz, giving the whole area a sense of identity crisis. However, anyone who is not new to the scene understands this is an identity, a bit manufactured based on what tourists expect but at the same time thumping with a heartbeat that connects the communities up and down the coast.
The story of the Phantom Train of Venice had that feel. It was referenced in a book, but no one seemed to know about it. Last year I spent the weeks leading into Halloween trying to track down the details and sent feelers out to the writer of the book and the historical society who maintained the site. As I reported last year, no one was forthcoming with information or knew what I was talking about. I still can’t make sense of the e-mail I received from Kim Cool when I asked her to allow me to walk in the footsteps of her research to try and track details down.
I had given up on it and moved on to other ideas. The legend was not done with me, however. In the weeks leading up to Halloween this year, some odd tumblers fell into place and seemed to draw me to Sarasota County. The first was born of my own paranormal confusion. Frustrated by what I was working on, I challenged the universe to give me a sign. What followed was a series of random song generator moments. In other words, I would start thinking about wanting to hear a song, and my Ipod would randomly play just the song I was looking for. Hardly the concrete research of the Rand Institute, but it got my mind moving. In the few days leading into the holiday, this happened so often I could not overlook it. I was also seeming references to trains and Venice all over the place. Cognitive bias to be sure, but the fact my mind wanted to see these things felt like a sign in and of itself.
Then came the dance. I had written previously about the connection between Ringling and the two dollar bill. To show the people of Venice his employee’s impact on the town, it is said he paid them all with two dollar bills. At the end of the day, count them up and see how much they were pouring into the local community. I became enamored with the idea of making that part of my trip there. I would use the money as a type of offering or tulpa to jump start the activity. Problem was, in the past I had a hard time getting my hands on one. During my schools Halloween dance though a student paid for their candy and soda with a two dollar bill. I pocketed it, making sure to stick two ones in the drawer, and was convinced this was the last sign to go out.
After I had said goodbye to my kids and their candy haul, I met up with my partner for the Legends Project, Natalie Crist. It was an hour ride out to Venice, and we were cutting the time extremely short. I gave her a recap of the legend and a brief outline of what we were going to do. Natalie has an amazing passion for research and is a sponge for information, so speaking with her often allows me iron out the details of what needs to be done.
We got to the Venice Train Depot around 11:30 and decided to tour the area around it, including the nearby bridge that goes over Highway 41, a major freeway through Southwest Florida. Our purpose was to get into character, but also to understand the sound complexion of the train station.
We were unsure of what we might see and hear and wanted to be able to tell the difference between a train blast and a siren or an elephant trumpet and any geese in the area.
We went live on Facebook counting down the moments leading into midnight. We placed the two dollar bill in between the rails of the track, in between us, and placed our hands on the rail to notice any change in vibrations. In retrospect, this would have also been a good time to do an EVP session, but I had not planned the night too well due to its suddenness. After about 10 minutes we left that area and walked the tracks before touring the whole area again, shooting a second Facebook live video, and heading home.
Here’s where the story gets exciting and I tell you about the lion who jumped out of the ether and the train lights that threatened to run us down. Only, that’s not this story goes. We did hear unexplained train whistles and later confirmed that no trains were running at that hour in Venice or the surrounding cities. Natalie did get an odd scent of cinnamon at one point which was out of place, sudden, and fleeting. But that’s about it.
…and also not really the point. As an investigation, the trip would have been a failure, but as a legend trip, it was a complete success. The difference between the two is hard to tell at times, like trying to split hairs over whether something is a legend or folklore. The main separation might spring from the intention and what is considered a victory. Tripping is about the journey and the moment, both of which were rich and satisfying. Nothing happening is not a notch in the paranormal investigators movement to determining whether someplace is haunted. Something did happen. We touched a local legend and become part of it.