Historic Hauntings: The Ghosts of Western Albemarle

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The Swannanoa palace on Afton mountain is believed to be haunted by the ghost of its original resident, Sallie May Dooley, whose portrait can be seen in the 4000-piece Tiffany window that rises over the grand staircase. Photo: Clover Carroll.

If you had lived and died in Crozet or western Albemarle, wouldn’t you want to stay here after death? Based on the accounts I’ve gathered about ghosts and hauntings in the area, many of our prior residents have made just such a choice. Most people think of a ghost as the soul or spirit of a dead person that appears to the living. But Elizabeth Ferrall, certified Elemental Energy Clearer, defines ghost more narrowly. “Each soul is on an evolutionary path, but we can choose to step off it. A ghost is a personality that has decided to stay on earth for some reason. Maybe they don’t want to face the other people they will meet after death, or maybe they are waiting for a partner to die.” Ferrall can see and hear things that radiate a different energy. Sometimes she can even communicate with ghosts and hear their stories. But “ghosts are unreliable narrators,” she laughs. “They’ll do or say anything to stay here.”

Elizabeth Ferrall is a certified Elemental Energy Clearer who believes true ghosts are a rare occurrence. Photo: Clover Carroll.

According to Ferrall, true ghosts are extremely rare. “A ghost is not a spirit. A ghost is intelligent and interactive. It is stuck, and may be malevolent. A spirit [by contrast] is a personality that has made the transition, but decides to come back for a temporary visit. It is an affirming, loving presence.” When she gets a call from someone who is freaked out by what they believe is a ghost, she sends them her handout, “18 Things that are Not Ghosts!”—for example, banging pipes, critters in the attic, or “residual energy” left by previous occupants. “When I go into a house, the first thing I do is try to prove it’s not haunted. Making the residents less afraid starves the ghost—if there is one—of its energy,” she explained. Out of 100 houses Ferrall has cleared, she has encountered only three actual ghosts. “Once I release them, they go back on their path. But I have to wait three days before talking about them, or they might come back.” If you need energy cleared for a new business, house sale, or other concern, you may reach Elizabeth Ferrall at [email protected] 

Phil James has called Pleasant Green, aka the Ficklin-Wayland house, “the birthplace of Crozet.”

Whether ghosts, spirits, or residual energies, there have been many supernatural occurrences in and around Crozet. The Pleasant Green house—which has been much in the news lately (see this month’s Secrets of the Blue Ridge on p. 23)—has been called the “birthplace of Crozet” by local historian Phil James. So no wonder it might be haunted! Starting its life as a log cabin built by Rev. Benjamin Ficklin around 1815 and later owned by Jeremiah Wayland, the house has been added onto multiple times. Soon after Michael Marshall purchased this house in 2000—on property adjoining his own—he rented it out to a family with young children. Their three-year-old toddler kept insisting she saw a woman in a white dress standing on the stairs. The ghost never spoke or told anyone her identity. She may have lived in the northeast corner room, which was always cold, even when the heat was turned up and the vents open. About three years ago, Marshall had the interior of the house painted. While the painter was working alone in the kitchen, he took a drink from his Coke bottle, set it down, and turned back to the wall to continue working. Next thing he knew, he had been hit in the back of the head with the bottle cap!

Nest Realty’s rental sign on Crozet Ave. acknowledges the supernatural aspects of Crozet. Photo: Clover Carroll.

Just down Jarmans Gap Road from Pleasant Green, in Bargamin Park, sits the beautiful Bain house, with its wraparound porch and cupola (Wikipedia’s article on Crozet features this house as the symbol of our historic village). The Victorian mansion was built in 1896 by Russell Bargamin (1876-1971), who came to Crozet from Richmond to open the Crozet bank in 1908. Perhaps Bargamin chose this location because of its nearness to Pleasant Green, home of Jeremiah’s son Abram Wayland, whose daughter Helen he subsequently married. Edward H. Bain purchased the house, along with 17 acres, in 1942—most likely from Bargamin—and lived there for 58 years. Bain’s wife and family matriarch Katherine Bain, who doted on their ten children, was named Virginia Mother of the Year by the Virginia News Leader in 1966. She loved the house so much that she wanted to die there, and her children honored her wish, selling it to developers only after her death. 

The Victorian mansion in Bargamin Park was the residence of the Bain family for 58 years. Photo: Leah Stoler Baker.

Current owner of the Bain house Leah Stoler Baker, who has lived there just under a year with her husband Jordan and two young sons, has had experiences that lead her to believe Katherine is still there. Soon after moving in, with most of their belongings still packed away in boxes, the children began asking for favorite missing toys. Whenever they would talk out loud about, say, a lost Buzz Lightyear or volleyball, the item would appear suddenly the next morning on the top step of the staircase. “They are always in the same place, not carefully positioned, but as if they just fell there,” Baker explained. “These are things that were either lost in the move, or never unpacked. There is no other way they could have gotten there than by supernatural means. In the short time they’ve lived there, this kind of thing has occurred six or seven times. “Once it was my husband’s shaving cream! This is a sweet, comforting presence, not a spooky one,” Baker avers. “She is looking out for my family.”

Old Main at Miller School houses the administrative offices, some classrooms, and the senior stairs. Photo: Kim Kelley-Wagner.

Baker has also had some ghostly experiences at Miller School of Albemarle, which she and her husband both attended for high school. Miller was founded in 1878 with a bequest from Samuel Miller as a boarding school for orphaned children. It has a longstanding legend involving the grand staircase—known as the “senior stairs” because only seniors are allowed to use them—in Miller’s large central, Victorian building known as Old Main (which is on the Virginia and National Registers of Historic Places). An early headmaster named Blessing had a daughter, Sarah, who was a dancer and was the only girl living at the school—since at that time the students were all boys. One day, she tripped on the seventh step of the staircase—perhaps because she was dancing! She tumbled down the stairs to the floor below, and died on the school’s seal that is embedded there. Since that time, many students and teachers have reported seeing Sarah dancing on the seal. They call the seventh step the “Blessing Step,” and always make sure to skip over it when they walk up or down the stairs!

Miller School may be haunted by the ghost of Sarah Blessing, who died after falling down the stairs. Photo: Kim Kelley-Wagner.

Sarah wanders elsewhere in the school as well. The second story of Old Main has two wings in the back, which face each other across a courtyard. Once, when Leah happened to be in the deserted upstairs hallway of Old Main while class was in session, she looked through the window of one wing, and saw a girl in a white dress staring back at her through a window in the opposite wing. Since the student body is small and Leah knew everyone who went there, she surmised that this strange girl must be Sarah. Leah rushed to the other wing to check—but there was no one there. On another occasion, Leah (a day student) and her friend Nicole stayed after school to prepare music for the Spring Honors Showcase. The music teacher, Mrs. Tchotsky, gave them the key to the large, old Arts Building with its signature bell tower—now known as Caton Hall—so they could practice their song together uninterrupted. As they entered the building, the heavy front door slammed shut behind them in spite of there being no wind that day. They heard loud footsteps that ran across the hall, past the two girls, and down the stairs to the basement. They were so scared they fled the building and, needless to say, were reluctant ever to return!

The 7th step from the bottom of the senior stairs in Old Main is known as the “Blessing Step,” where Sarah Blessing slipped and fell to her death.

Another historic haunting is also associated with Miller School. One night soon after moving into their Batesville house in 1999, Logan saw a woman walking through their bedroom. His wife was skeptical—maybe it was only a trick of vision, or the light from cars passing outside. But then their three-year-old daughter started waking them up in the middle of the night. “There’s a woman sitting on my bed, and she won’t stop talking!” the child complained. When this happened repeatedly, Jennifer decided to investigate. The next time her daughter complained, she went to the room and loudly told the ghost to leave her daughter alone. She began to feel an otherworldly presence, and soon the ghost began to tell her its story. It professed to be the wife of the first doctor at Miller School, John Smith, who had built the house in 1902. One winter, he brought several boys who were sick with a very contagious illness home for her to nurse. “I hate children!” the ghost declared. We will never know how effective (or not) her nursing was, but eventually all the boys died. Mrs. Smith blamed herself for their deaths. “After I killed the boys,” she averred, “my husband locked me up in a room and kept me drugged.” 

At first, the family tried to co-exist with the ghost. “I thought of it as a shared living space, like an apartment building,” Jennifer joked. She began researching ghosts, and taught her daughter how to set boundaries and to shield herself from the ghost. But three years later, all three of their daughters became ill. The middle child—now six years old—was so sick, she was placed in the pediatric ICU. One night, after Jennifer came home from the hospital and was putting her other sick children to bed, she heard the ghost laughing. “I hate children,” it repeated, “and yours will all die!” At this point, Jennifer decided she must take action to protect her children. She called in a consultant from Richmond as well as a Feng Shui expert. She finally found Machaelle Wright of the Perelandra Center for Nature Research (www.perelandra-ltd.com,) and used her techniques to banish the ghost for good. Although the ghost was gone, after these experiences, the family sold the house and moved on. 

The Jefferson Room in Farmington Country Club, above, was designed by Thomas Jefferson in 1803. The Farmington ghost is reported to stand on the white balcony inside the Jefferson room, trying to speak and shaking the railing. Photo: Clover Carroll.

Continuing farther afield, the exquisite Jefferson Room is the centerpiece of Farmington Country Club in Ivy, sitting front and center with its two-story marble portico adorned by four white Doric columns. Built by Francis Jerdone in the 18th century, the house was sold to Greg Divers in 1785. At Divers’ request, in 1803 Thomas Jefferson designed a large, octagonal addition with his signature features of triple sash windows topped by carved entablature (lost during renovations) and nine high, round windows flooding the room with light.  The house changed hands several times, and at one point the Jefferson room was divided into two floors and four rooms—then restored to its original form in 1929. In 1860, the house passed to Mary Ann Miller Wood Harper, who protected it during the Civil War. Legend has it that just after the war, her daughter was caught meeting a Yankee soldier in the fields. The girl was sent to her room—the “blue room” upstairs—and forbidden to ever see him again. From that time on, she refused to eat, and ultimately died of a broken heart. Farmington guests have reported seeing her ghost upstairs and on the white balcony overlooking the Jefferson Room, trying to speak and shaking the balcony railing.

The Swannanoa palace on Afton mountain is believed to be haunted by the ghost of its original resident, Sallie May. Photo: Clover Carroll.

Of course, the ghostliest local landmark is Swannanoa on Afton Mountain. Built in 1912 by Richmond millionaire James Dooley for his beloved wife Sallie May, this marble palace is modelled after the Villa de Medici in Rome (see the September issue). The entire mansion is a tribute to Sallie’s love of swans, from the name, to the furniture, to the frescoes and carvings. She died in the Swan Room in 1925, following her husband by only three years. Since then, the palace has changed hands several times and, although still open for tours, is in a state of disrepair. Current owners James and Sandi Dulaney have invested 3 million dollars into renovations, but just can’t keep up. They say their cat will not go up to the third floor. Many have seen, heard, or felt the presence of ghosts, and believe one of them to be Sallie May Dooley. 

The Swannanoa palace on Afton mountain is believed to be haunted by the ghost of its original resident, Sallie May Dooley, whose portrait can be seen in the 4000-piece Tiffany window that rises over the grand staircase. Photo: Sarah Honosky

To confirm this, in 2013 a team of ghost hunters from the Twisted Paranormal Society in Fishersville made a formal visit, bringing their special ghost-detecting technology with them—including K-II meters that detect EMF (electro-magnetic frequency) energy fluctuations. “During their investigation, TPS collected much evidence that justified these claims. They caught images of spectral orbs shooting across rooms and stairwells; recorded ghostly voices,” and hearing footsteps and audible moaning. “Several team members also felt uneasy and ill during the visit.” The following year they brought the crew of the paranormal reality show called The R.I.P. Files. Season 2’s “Spirits of the Palace” uncovers the building’s haunted past and the ghosts who lurk there. To see for yourself, Swannanoa is hosting a “Halloween Spooktacular” Wednesday, Oct. 31, starting at 4 p.m. Staff will hand out goodies to those dressed in costume as they make their way through the main level of the house. The cost is $5 for adults, but children are free (see Facebook for details).

Swannanoa is hosting its firstannual “Halloween Spooktacular” this year at 4 pm. Photo: Clover Carroll.

As William Faulkner recognized, “the past is never dead; it’s not even past.” Ghosts connect us with the past and with history. The spirits of our forebears and ancestors live among us in many forms. You—like many others—may have been visited by departed loved ones, or experienced a “thinning of the veil of time” while visiting a battlefield or historic site. As long as they don’t threaten harm, we should welcome these encounters with different energies and planes of existence rather than fearing them. 

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