GHOSTS OF THE PRAIRIE

History & Hauntings of America


CURSE OF SOLITUDE FARM?
GHOSTS, HAUNTINGS & MISADVENTURES
WITH THE CREW FROM “EXTRA!”

BY TROY TAYLOR


To say that things started off all wrong would be an understatement.

A staff member from EXTRA first contacted me a week or so before we began our strange adventures in West Virginia. When she asked me if I might be interested in doing a segment on ghosts for the show, I immediately answered that I wouldn’t be interested... at all! In fact, I had once stated that I would never work with the program again! Just a year and a half before, EXTRA! had filmed a segment about the 1998 AMERICAN GHOST SOCIETY National Conference and to say that they presented us in a bad light would be yet another of my colossal understatements.

Despite my initial misgivings, I did listen to what the researcher had to say and once more told her “no”. I explained my bad feelings, she assured me that she could understand my concerns. After a few more minutes of small talk, we bid each other a pleasant goodbye and hung up. Thinking that I had heard the last from them, I immediately forgot all about it. But they would not go away that easily!

A short time later, I heard from the same staff member who wanted to try once more. She gave it another valiant effort and told me that she had gone back and watched the 1998 segment. She could understand why I had been upset and if it was any consolation, the original reporter for the piece had been fired. It had not been because of that particular segment, but he had been sent packing anyway. Once more, I thought about it and this time, reluctantly agreed to listen to her pitch.

“What did they have in mind for me to do?” I asked.

According to the researcher, they had contacted the owner of an allegedly haunted antebellum mansion in West Virginia and he agreed to let a ghost hunter and a reporter spend the night in the house. Why I would be willing to do this... with all expenses paid, of course?

She promised me that it would be a well-done segment and would hopefully make up for the last piece that I had done with them. The reporter assigned to the piece handled all of the paranormal-related segments they did on the show and was known for having an open mind. Would I do it?

To be honest, it sounded like fun and I was in the midst of the winter dry spell for ghost investigations anyway, so I agreed. I would be limited to only the amount of equipment I could take on an airline, but it sounded like just the sort of old-fashioned adventure I loved. I would really be able to get back to basics with the investigation and would bring along only my camera, a flashlight, notebooks, video camera, IR thermal meter, geo-magnetic field detector and of course, my laptop computer. All of the equipment, save for the laptop, would have to be shipped in my checked luggage, for obvious reasons. Can you imagine trying to explain the uses of a thermal scanner to an airport security guard? No sir, I would say, it only LOOKS like a gun!

“Sure“, I told her, “it sounds like fun. I’d be glad to do it.”

After hanging up, I envisioned some distant date many weeks away as she told me that someone would get back to me with the details. About five minutes later, the phone rang and this time it was the segment’s producer, Farrell Roth.

“So, I understand that you’ve agreed to spend the night in our haunted house?” she asked me. I told her that I had and added that I really hadn’t been given too many details yet, nor did I know when this would all be happening. To my surprise, she told me that I would be flying to West Virginia in just five days!

We soon got to work on travel arrangements and the first glitch in our adventure occurred. I should have had some sense of foreboding, but it seemed a simple enough mistake at the time. The fax machine rang and my travel itinerary began printing from the machine. As I picked up the first page and read it, I saw that my flight was scheduled to leave O’Hare Airport in the early morning hours of February 16. The problem was that this particular airport was about a four-hour drive from my home! The travel department, upon hearing that I was based in Illinois, automatically assumed that I must be near Chicago!

As you can imagine, airfare that is booked only five days in advance is far from affordable, but somehow, the flight problem was corrected and I was booked out of St. Louis instead. One possible disaster had been averted, but there were more to come!

Wednesday morning came and I was able to smoothly catch my flight out of Lambert International Airport. My first stop was Pittsburgh and then I would catch a connecting flight to Charleston, West Virginia. This was the closest airport to Solitude Farm and even then was still a two-hour drive from our final destination.

Shortly after arriving in Pittsburgh, I heard my name being called over the airport intercom. I had a message and could I call Farrell Roth in New York? I soon got her on the line and learned that I was still supposed to catch my flight to Charleston, although I would not be joined there by the reporter who had been supposed to meet me. Apparently, he had taken ill the night before and was now so sick that he had been admitted to the hospital! The source of his illness was a mystery.

While this was bad (and apparently was nearly fatal for the segment), they wanted me to continue on and possibly do most of the on-camera work that was supposed to have been shared by the reporter and I. All that I had to do now was to wait for his replacement to arrive in Charleston, which would prove to be a mind-numbing seven hour wait at the tiny airport. His name was Steve Graham and he was a producer for the show.

“We’re really sorry about this,” Farrell assured me, “but the show is still going to work out fine.” What else could go wrong?

So, I grumpily boarded the plane that would take me on the next leg of my journey. It was a crowded flight (who would have though so many people would be going to West Virginia?) on board a fairly dirty and very uncomfortable US Airways plane. After arriving in Charleston, I headed for the baggage claim area. It was a short walk as this is a very small airport. The buzzer sounded and the luggage carousel began to spin, unloading the various pieces of baggage from my flight. The rotating bags drifted past me for several minutes and I waited patiently for my suitcase to appear.... my suitcase with over $3000 worth of electronic equipment inside.

You may have already guessed where this is going, but if you haven’t, I’ll tell you. They lost my bag! Somewhere between Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and Charleston, West Virginia, my case vanished into the ether! No one had any explanation for what had happened to it but they promised they were on the lookout for it. The (very nice) people in the luggage claims office assured me that if it didn’t turn up on this day, they would deliver it tomorrow to Solitude Farm. I appreciated the thought, although that would make it hard to use the equipment during the overnight investigation we had planned!

What else could go wrong? That was a good question.... and I hadn’t even gotten to the haunted house yet! Luckily though, another disaster was narrowly averted when my suitcase showed up at the Charleston airport three hours later. Apparently, someone had forgotten to load it back in Pittsburgh.

So, after Steve arrived, we were off for the tiny town of Cashmere, West Virginia. The hamlet is located just a short distance from the Virginia border and not far from Greenbrier County, which was once home to the Greenbrier ghost. This specter had once been a young woman named Zona Shue and she allegedly appeared to her mother during a murder trial. The proceedings were conducted to try the murderer of Zona! Her mother’s testimony, about the fact that Zona’s ghost had given her information, was so convincing that it was allowed in the courtroom. The case, which ended with a guilty verdict, marks one of the only times when supernatural influences helped to decide a legal issue in America.

On the way to Cashmere, I made it a point to learn more about Solitude Farm. The house had been built in the early 1840’s by a man named William Peck, the designer of a place called the old Red Sulphur Hotel. The house had been constructed using slave labor. All of the wood flooring and joists had been cut on the property and the bricks used for the walls and foundation had been made at the small creek that cuts through the farm. The stories vary as to who exactly designed the house, although it is believed that Peck sent one of his slaves to England to study architecture and brick-laying. Upon his return, the house was then built.

Originally, the house had been an L-shaped structure, two stories high, but a dining room was added with original bricks in the late 1880’s. Sometime after the turn-of-the-century, a more modern wood edition was tacked onto the back of the house. The house had only seen five different owners during its existence, including the Peck family. It was later purchased by a Mrs. Lowe, who owned the house for a number of years. Her family started the Lowe’s hardware company, which is now a national chain. After that, it was purchased by the Mann family, who lived in the house from 1967-1998. They later sold it at auction to a cattle rancher, who never lived in the place, and then in 1999, it was purchased as an investment by Bill Gadd, the current owner.

Stories of ghosts had plagued the house for years and shortly after moving in, Bill Gadd had the first of his many unsettling experiences in the place. One night while he was working on his computer, he heard four sharp footsteps cross a room in the older portion of the house. The sound was followed by the slamming of a door, more footsteps and then another door, which opened and closed. “If it had only been one door,” Gadd told me, “I would have dismissed it as just the wind... but two doors, and the footsteps? Well, I didn’t have an explanation for that.”

And this was only a small sampling of the many tales of Solitude Farm, as I was soon to discover!

When Steve and I arrived at the house, the camera crew was there waiting for us. They had spent the last hour or so setting up gear and getting ready for interviews with Bill Gadd and Sean Mann, a son of one of the former owners. He had grown up in the house and had agreed to come and talk about some of the occurrences he and his family had experienced during their three decades on the farm.

Shortly after we arrived, Bill gave us a tour of the place and along with Sean, I learned about the many strange happenings, ghost sightings and inexplicable events in the mansion.

We entered the house through the back door, which opened into the newer addition of the house. This was the only section of the place that was heated and strangely, had never been bothered by the ghosts. They seemed trapped and determined to continue their existence in the older, original part of the home. I soon discovered that the old part of the house was empty and had been literally stripped of the decades of antiques that had once been there. They had been sold during the auction several years before, leaving the house bare and empty.

To be honest, this actually added to the eeriness of the house. The rooms were all filled with shadows and each footstep echoed as we crossed the hardwood floors. The curtains had been removed from the windows, leaving them open to the black night beyond them. The farm was located in a remote and secluded valley. There were no lights visible from neighboring houses and this only added to the feeling of seclusion and isolation. I could understand why some people might be attracted to such a place, but for me, it was a little off the beaten path.

The downstairs portion of the house was shown to us first. To the right of the huge front door was the former music room. It was here that a piano was once located that had the unnerving habit of playing by itself. To the left of the door, and across a narrow foyer, was the front parlor. A staircase curved lazily up from the foyer, connecting to the upper floor of the house. It was on this staircase where witnesses in the past have claimed to experience one of the many phantoms of the mansion.

This particular ghost was that of a Confederate military office, complete with a gray uniform, sash, saber and a large plumed hat, which he had the habit of removing in a graceful flourish to women he encountered in the house. A number of ladies have reported the officer in the past, including Mrs. Lowe and an aunt of Sean Mann. Shortly after Bill Gadd moved into the mansion, he was visited by an old friend named Linda. On the very day she arrived, she told Bill that she saw the officer, peering a through a window located near the top of the staircase. This window, which had once looked outside, now only displayed the new portion of the house. The officer had looked directly at Linda, she explained to Bill, then had bowed and removed his hat, which had a large feather in it. Moments later, he vanished.

Coincidentally, Sean Mann stopped by the house that same afternoon. It was his first meeting with Bill Gadd but he didn’t hesitate to mention the fact that the house was haunted. Linda chimed in with her own encounter, but left out all of the details of the story. Sean immediately told her of his aunt’s experience with the officer and added a number of details, including the hat and the bow, that Linda hadn’t mentioned. Sean’s additional information convinced Bill that something unusual was going on in the house!

At the top of the main staircase, is an area that I believe is probably the “center” of the haunting in the house. From this landing, the supernatural seems to spread outward into the most active areas of the mansion. Many of the strange sounds in the house seem to radiate from here, including the many episodes of “phantom footsteps” that have been reported pacing up and down the stairs and roaming the second floor bedrooms.... when no one is present on the floor. Doors open and close and inexplicably slam shut. Voices, whispers and moaning sounds are commonplaces, as is the chilling sound of a crying infant. This tiny spirit is another of the mansion’s famous ghosts.

Legend has it that many years ago, the mistress of the house became pregnant. This would not be so out of the ordinary except for the fact that when the baby was born, it was obviously racially mixed. At this time, such a birth was not acceptable. The man of the house went searching among the slaves for the most likely culprit and when the young man was found, he was hanged from a tall oak tree on the property. The lore of the house does not mention the woman’s fate, but the baby was allowed to live on the house.... at least for the next year of so. At some point, a short time later, the child fell (or some say was pushed) down the main staircase and he died. His piercing cries have filled the night at Solitude Farm ever since.

It is believed that another ghost of the house is also connected to this same incident. Directly on the left side of the upper staircase landing is the door to the unfinished attic of the house. According to Sean Mann, this door has had a habit of opening on its own for many years. Family members and friends often reported the sounds of ghost footsteps on the landing and then the sound of the door opening. Even though it was locked tight the night before, it would be found standing open the following morning. In addition, witnesses in the house have also claimed to see the apparition of a black slave standing on the narrow attic stairs. It is said that he is always clutching a red brick in his hand. He is believed to be one of the architects who were sent to England to learn the craft.... and the man who seduced the mistress of the house. Although he was murdered many years before, he still does not rest in peace.

Next to the attic door is the doorway to the “Pink Bedroom”. This bedchamber was dubbed with this nickname thanks to the fact that it boasted a hand-painted, pink wallpaper for many, many years. There are also many stories of ghostly voices and weird incidents in this room, including one occurrence when Sean Mann actually saw the ghost of a little girl standing at the foot of his bed. He awakened in the early morning hours to see a young woman, approximately 14 years of age, hovering over him. He described her as wearing a white, old-fashioned dressed that was edged with lace. His first impression was that she was dressed for a summer picnic.

Sean’s first reaction to this very visible spirit was to pull the bed covers up over his head! He waited for a few moments and then looked again.... only to find that she was still there. The girl looked at him closely and cocked her head in seeming confusion. Then she spoke. “Why are you in my bed?” she asked him.

At that, Sean shut his eyes very tightly in fear and when he opened them again, the girl was gone. Although Sean didn’t know it at the time, this girl was part of another legend of the house. The legend claimed that the girl had once been a family member in the house. More than a century before, she had fallen in love with a young black man who lived in the valley. They made secret arrangements to meet one another during a church picnic. When her father found out about the two of them, he immediately went looking for the boy with his gun in hand. The story goes that when he shot at the young man, he accidentally killed his daughter instead. Her ghost has haunted the house ever since.

Directly across the landing, is the “Big Bedroom”, so named for its large size and for the antique set of bed furniture which had once been located there. The bed, dresser and bureau set had been so big that it had to be dismantled to get it out of the room after the auction.

This was the room where Bill Gadd heard the first unexplained footsteps in the house. They had crossed this room and had opened and closed the two doors on the opposite sides of it. The haunting in this room was notable because of a mass sighting that took place here in the middle 1980’s. The Mann brothers had invited a number of friends out to the house one evening and were sitting around in the “Big Bedroom” talking and sharing experiences of the house. Suddenly, as one of the Mann’s was speaking, everyone in the room jumped to his or her feet and with a collective scream ran out of the room.... and all of the way out of the house! All of them refused to go back inside. Apparently, as Mann had been talking, a large, white misty shape had appeared directly behind him. That was more than enough excitement for the young people for one evening!

It would be in this room where I would encounter my own supernatural incident in the house... and where I would choose to bed down for the night!

After our tour of the house, we all returned downstairs to join Dave and Paul, the camera and sound technicians, for the interviews with Sean and Bill Gadd. The interviews and various film set-ups lasted for a number of hours, until finally it was almost 1:00 in the morning. At that point, the crew planned to follow me as I took them on my own tour of the house... one involving thermal detection, an IR camera and my geo-magnetic field detector. It was time to look past the legends and search for a scientific explanation for the strange activity in the house.

Unfortunately, science would provide us with no plausible explanations!

The tour began in the downstairs portion of the old house. With my trusty Tri-field Natural EM Meter in hand, I scanned each room carefully, followed by the camera crew and Steve Graham. However, despite my searching, the meter remained very quiet. I was able to detect no activity downstairs and even the staircase, where the Confederate officer had been seen, was silent and empty of supernatural beings.

We then went upstairs. I was sure that the “Pink Bedroom” would reveal something anomalous. Sean assured me that when he had lived in the house, this had been the most actively haunted room. And it may very well have been... but it wasn’t on this night! Once again, my search discovered nothing out of the ordinary.

Finally, we crossed the landing to the “Big Bedroom” and it was here that all of the equipment began to suddenly react. The EM readings began to spike nearly off the scale! There was something in this room causing a disruption of the natural electro-magnetic field... and it was apparently of massive proportions. As I scanned the room, I noticed changes in the field, as though whatever energy source was present was not stationary. It was moving back and forth and about the room. The device I was using, a Tri-Field Natural EM Meter, was designed to pick up natural radiation disruptions, not electrical outlets or fixtures. Besides that, this room was not fitted with electrical conduit or fixtures, save for the overhead light and one plug that had been wired into the doorframe! When the house had been built, electricity was still decades away and the little wiring that had been done had been added later.

There was simply no explanation for the bizarre energy that I detected! I searched for a possible explanation and even inspected the outlet that was present, but I could come up with no logical to explain it. Of course, I am the first to admit that it may not have been a ghost... but whatever the source of the energy, it was completely unexplainable. The mystery would continue later that night, and the next morning, when I checked the room again. Whatever the energy had been that night.... it had now completely vanished!

So, would I consider Solitude Farm to be a haunted place? I would have to answer that with a “yes”. No, I didn’t experience anything ghostly there, save for the unexplained energy, but the testimony provided by reliable witnesses was compelling, to say the least. My night in the haunted bedroom was uneventful as well... but that does not lead me to believe that “something” is present in that house and may only be active on certain occasions.

Should you ever want to experience Solitude Farm for yourself, Bill Gadd maintains an open invitation to any ghost hunters who want to brave the place. The amenities may not be first class, but he will certainly make you feel welcome.... maybe, just maybe, so will the ghosts!

Oh, and one last thing... whatever happened with the curse?

I would have been willing to pass that all off as coincidence, and perhaps so will you. Regardless, I will let you judge those incidents for yourself. Just keep this last piece of information in mind as you do so....

On my way home, my flight was cancelled two times and delayed once. I was originally supposed to arrive back in St. Louis at 7:55 pm. I made it instead just a little after 1:00 in the morning! Was it the curse? I don’t know, but it sure seemed like it to me!

COPYRIGHT 2000 BY TROY TAYLOR

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