By APRIL DIODATO
OBSERVER Lifestyles Editor
Anyone who is fascinated by tales of spirits still dwelling in their old haunts needn't look any further than Fredonia. Settled in the early 1800s, the village is home to Civil War heroes, the mother and sister of "Mark Twain," a sprawling cemetery containing the remains of the last man hung in the county, and many ghost stories.
OBSERVER Photo by April Diodato
Forest Hill Cemetery on Lambert Avenue in Fredonia, where the Harvest Moon Cemetery Tours are held
"Fredonia is a really strong town for supernatural folklore," said Mason Winfield, a "paranormal, supernatural historian" and author of several books on Western New York hauntings. Winfield visited the village several months ago to do research on his latest work, "The Paranormal Almanac of Western New York," and has amassed "a whole file" on Fredonia alone.
I have lived in the Fredonia for most of my life, and have been fascinated by its haunted history since one of my closest elementary school friends told me that she had spotted an apparition in her home. Located on Risley Street (originally called Garden Street), the house is estimated to have been built in the 1820s or '30s and part of a parcel of land owned by the Risley family.
While at her home for a sleepover, I kept my eyes open the whole night through when she told me that she had once seen a woman walking through her room in the middle of the night, disappearing right through one of the walls. She had heard that it was where the home may had been adjoined to the larger home next door.
It wasn't until years later that I did some research. Late one night in my apartment on Risley Street, I stumbled upon an article on the house which mentioned that it was very possible that it been connected to the house next door; old records showed that there was only one large home on the site. A shiver crept down my spine.
I have never encountered a spirit myself, but I have been in search of any local lore pertaining to the undead since that sleepless night years ago. With Halloween just a few days away, I have spent many hours attempting to substantiate the many claims I've heard over the years, searching for facts among the fiction - and what I've found are stories. Some inquiries have lead to a dead end no pun intended such as at the 1891 Fredonia Opera House; Executive Director Rick Davis said that he hasn't witnessed anything paranormal in his tenure. Some sources would only divulge their experiences on the condition that they remain nameless.
Though some tales will have to remain shrouded in mystery, here are some that I have been able to shed some light on.
Honors for the most famous ghost story in the village probably go to the White Inn, the site of a horrific murder-suicide that claimed the lives of Helen and Jack Maloney she, bludgeoned by her husband, and he, succumbing to an overdose on barbiturates. Along with the couple, Isabelle White, the last to live in the home, is said to pay frequent visits to her old stomping grounds, particularly room 264. Dr. Squire White built a wood frame house at the site in 1811, which was destroyed in a fire, according to the White Inn's website. A more grand structure was built by his son in 1868, and expanded in 1919 to become a hotel.
Old Main, forever connected to a tragedy that occurred a century ago, is another Fredonia landmark with just as many if not more accounts of strange, hard-to-explain experiences that continue to occur.
The land for the academy was contributed by Hezekiah Barker in 1821 and the project quickly commenced. The academy was opened for classes in 1826. In the 1850s, the period of the academy's highest enrollment, the building was remodeled and doubled in size.
It fell into financial disrepair during the Civil War, closing in 1867, and then was succeeded by the Fredonia Normal School, which opened the following year. The young ladies attending the school were encouraged to board at Old Main.
A fire tragically struck the school on Dec. 14, 1900, claiming the lives of six female students and one janitor. The blaze broke out at about 6 a.m. on a Friday morning - beginning in the basement boiler room - and the fire quickly spread through the entire structure. Three days later, the seven bodies were dug out from the debris and a mass funeral was held, attended by nearly the whole village. The remains of the seven who perished were buried in one grave at the Forest Hill Cemetery.
"Ever since (the fire), people have reported hearing things and seeing things in there for many, many years after that, because of the fact that the new school building was built right on top of the old one," said Town of Pomfret Historian Todd Langworthy. "The old one was almost completely destroyed by the fire, there was almost nothing left."
Only the gymnasium built in 1899 remained. Old Main was rebuilt only three years later, and Langworthy said that rumors of a haunting started shortly thereafter.
The new Old Main was used for students of the Normal School and the Campus School, a training school for teachers attended by many Fredonia youngsters, until Mason Hall was opened in 1941. The Campus School remained until its closure in 1967, according to an OBSERVER article published Aug. 28, 1979, and the university abandoned the building in 1973. It fell into a state of disrepair, and several proposals were considered until work began in 1979 to convert the building into 91 units of senior housing, which is One Temple Square today.
On the 74th anniversary of the fire, 16 young men and women spent the night in the cold, desolate building, in search of spirits. The quest was detailed in an OBSERVER story published Dec. 14, 1974. According to the article, "most all of the 16 persons present experienced 'something' during the night." One participant, Tobie Hewitt, told the OBSERVER that she heard distinct voices several times during the morning, "Especially a girl's voice singing." Unearthly footsteps were also heard.
"There were two of us walking down a corridor (all of the individuals worked in teams of two or more during the experiment) and we both heard three other sets of footprints," Hewitt said.
On the Harvest Moon Cemetery Tour held Oct. 19, passengers on the horse-drawn trolley were told that someone continues to bring flowers for those who lost their lives on Dec. 14, 1900, but no one is sure who. More than 100 years have passed, the tour guide mused, so what could be their connection to the deceased?
"Flowers are still left on the tombstone for the seven people that lost their lives in the Normal School fire and I have never witnessed who it is that leaves the flowers there," said Mary Jane Starks, organizer of the Harvest Moon Cemetery Tours held each October in Fredonia. "If you go to the cemetery now you will find flowers atop the black granite stone memorializing the final resting place of the young ladies that died in the fire."
Sure enough, just off the main road in Forest Hill Cemetery on Lambert Street, dying flowers adorn the grave.
George G. Grover graduated from Old Main in 1954 and later became a university police officer. For approximately two months prior to the sale of the building, the officers were assigned to check Old Main nightly, inside and out.
"We would always try to do the Old Main checks prior to darkness since the building did not have electric at that time," Grover said. "The neighborhood kids had gained access to the building and were using the basketball court, which we attributed to some of the noises, but it didn't matter if it was light or dark, the building always had noises like kids playing or running in the halls and doors closing, but we never caught anybody actually in the building."
Mike McEntarfer of Fredonia, a Campus School alum who organized its first reunion in July, did not have any ghostly encounters as a student. His mother, a sharp, 88-year-old resident of One Temple Square, has had some experiences in the building that would leave hair standing on end.
"She wears hearing aids during the day - and at night she takes the hearing aids out when she goes to bed," McEntarfer said. "She has told me that when she is in bed at night (and totally unable to hear any other sounds) that she sometimes hears people talking and having a conversation. She is unable to actually make out what they are saying - but it is clear they are not talking to her. They are having a conversation."
THE SPIRITS OF ST. ANTHONY'S
On a horse-drawn trolley tour during the Victorian Dazzle Days (now called Fredonia History Days) taken several years ago, the trolley took a turn down Moore Avenue. The guide told of the sound of children being heard in the former St. Anthony's school building while none were present.
An account of the haunting is included in Winfield's "The Paranormal Almanac of Western New York."
"On Moore Avenue is a fairly nondescript building once used as the pre-school of St. Anthony's Roman Catholic Church. It may be unused today, but during its stint as a senior center, the residents and at least one director reported the ghostly sounds, sights, and activities of children," Winfield wrote.
"I was familiar with the ghost stories at 32 Moore Ave.," said Jeanine Smith, director of the Fredonia-Pomfret Senior Center from 2007 to 2011.
Smith said that she was told of children's laughter and voices heard while the building was nearly vacant. Much to her disappointment, she never experienced it herself.
"I was alone in the school end of the building a lot of time during the period I was Director of the Fredonia-Pomfret Senior Center," she said. "When I was alone the ghost stories always came to mind!"
St. Anthony's Church itself is more than a century old. According to documents at the Barker Historical Museum, the St. Anthony Roman Catholic Church Society was incorporated in Dec. 2, 1905. Members donated their spare time to complete the excavation of the church cellar and donated the first organ. Less than 50 years later, on Sunday, Feb. 24, 1952, a fire severely damaged the church, with damage estimated over $100,000. During the rebuilding, services were held in St. Anthony's auditorium. According to the parish office and the Barker Museum, the school building dates back to 1958 or 59.
"Chautauqua County, a lot of its supernatural material appears related to religion - there's a lot of really cool religious material there," Winfield said in a phone interview.
Several Fredonia residents close to the parish shared their experiences, but preferred not to be named. One woman recalls hearing a classroom full of children while she was in the school building alone. Another, who had heard similar lore, had never encountered anything at the school herself but the parish office, located at 66 Cushing St., was another story.
The property has a lengthy history. According to the Historical County Structures Database, "A home and small farm at today's 66 Cushing were shown on the 1854 Wall Map of Chautauqua County, on the 1867 Atlas of Chautauqua County, and on the 1881 Atlas of Chautauqua County in the name of H. Marsh or H. N. Marsh. In later years, Moore Avenue was constructed along the northwesterly line of the Marsh farm." Henry Nelson Marsh was born in 1815. One of Henry and Martha Marsh's sons, Oscar, attended the Fredonia Academy. According to an 1865 census and an 1867 village map, Oscar and his family lived in a house next door to his parents on Cushing Street.
The house at 66 Cushing St. was once used as a convent for the nuns serving the parish and one witness claims that they have a habit of showing up unexpectedly. It happened whenever she was in the office alone - the sound of footsteps.
"We know something's going on there," she said. "One day, the guys were out mowing the lawn - I was the only one in the office. There were no screens in the windows for the wind to blow or anything. I heard a door slam in the office ... I looked around and didn't see anybody. I heard footsteps and there was nobody there."
A teacher who once led a baptism class in the parish office shared a haunting story with her as well.
"She said she had everybody at the table, doing the baptism class, and in the corner, there was another person."
But there was no other living person present.
THE SOLDIER WHO STAYED BEHIND
Alonzo Cushing of Fredonia died at age 22 in the last day of the Battle of Gettysburg on July 3, 1863. The brave solider, who fought to the bitter end despite his wounds, his battery left with two guns and no-long range ammunition, has been recommended for the prestigious Medal of Honor in a hard-fought campaign that continues 149 years after his death. Though Cushing's grave isn't located in the village, his spirit still might be here in his hometown.
The Alonzo Cushing monument on Main Street, located at the front of Pioneer Cemetery, stands only 20 yards away from the grave of Zattu Cushing, his renowned grandfather who became one of Fredonia's first residents in 1808 and fought in the War of 1812. Alonzo was born in Wisconsin but grew up in Fredonia, where he moved after the death of his father, Dr. Milton Cushing, in 1847. "Lon," as he was called by friends and family, attended a local nursery school and later the Fredonia Academy. He went to West Point in 1857 - his pranks occasionally earning him "demerits" - and graduated in 1861, immediately assigned duty in the 4th U.S. Artillery. While in Washington, D.C., General Winfield Scott and President Abraham Lincoln offered their congratulations to Alonzo.
Langworthy, who wrote the book, "The Cushing Boys of Fredonia - Soldiers of the Civil War," headed the effort to create a monument for Alonzo. A dedication ceremony was held in the cemetery recent years, was attended by members of Cushing's "battery," a reenactment group that Langworthy has involved with, for the monument designed and built by Fredonia High School students.
"A few of the people from Cushing's battery told me that they felt very, kind of, strange around the monument," Langworthy said. "They had a very funny feeling, like they were being watched the whole time."
Members have had more than one unsettling experience.
"Some of them have come back to town since then the members of the unit always go and visit the monument, some of them lay flowers and everything because their unit is named after Alonzo Cushing," Langworthy said. "They still say that every time they're around it, they get a very strange feeling."
One of the ladies who comes back to Fredonia often and leaves flowers at the monument each time has shared a similar testimony with Langworthy.
"She said that she gets a really cold, almost like a shiver, when she gets near the monument like there's something standing next to her," Langworthy said. "She's told me that she wonders if he has a presence there, and watches everything that happens She said, 'I don't know if he knows that I'm bringing flowers and is touching me or something to let me know that he's there and appreciates the flowers.' A couple of times she's been in tears when she's left she feels almost like a sadness associated with the monument. He was killed and he was so young. She thinks his presence may be there."
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