Haunted Happenings


Looking for a close encounter of the supernatural kind? Then join us as we first take a spine-tingling tour of the historic Opera House in downtown Arcadia, Florida, where residents and visitors alike have been spooked by the supernatural. Tenants on the first floor, for example, often hear children’s footsteps racing up and down the hallways upstairs, long after the second floor has emptied out for the day. Paranormal investigators confirmed that the property has “multiple benevolent presences.” Far from scaring folks away, its haunted reputation has drawn attention from television producers, national media, and out-of-towners seeking an encounter with the paranormal.

Then we turn to Bonaparte, Iowa, subject of a recent Story of the Week, where the tiny town's Main Streeters organized a historic cemetery tour to lure folks to the community to hear stories about its earliest settlers. But having a group traverse the uneven ground in twilight hours was a scare of its own, and a threat to a fragile site, prompting a change of venue that is now a win-win for Bonaparte. The National Trust’s Amy Webb brings this story home with ideas on how to promote your community’s heritage without trampling it.Arcadia Opera House 

Arcadia's Old Opera House – Full of Wonders 

Dick Chernoch, owner of the J.J. Heard Opera House for the past 15 years, would much rather boast of the treasures in its first-floor antique shops and museum than its haunted house reputation. He does concede that the building has more than its fair share of strange and unexplained stories, however. For example, the previous owner was alone in the building one day and heard children laughing in the hallway. She ran out to see who was there but saw no one. After hearing the laugh again, she ignored it, and turned to walk back to her office. That’s when she felt something brush up against her leg. Shortly thereafter, she sold the property. 

Others have reported that when walking down the stairs, they felt someone walking behind them.  People standing in front of the old stage get a strange feeling that raises the hair on their arms or gives them goose bumps.  In the former office of J.J. Heard, a woman became hysterical after seeing a man’s face in the window. When Chernoch showed the woman a picture of Heard, she recognized him as the face in the window.  She became short of breath and had to leave the building.  

Perhaps the spookiest story is one Chernoch tells of a long-time Arcadia resident who lived in a nursing home and asked her family to bring her to the Opera House so she could see it one last time.  She was carried up the stairway and once there, she conveyed her memories of the old theater space, where her family had come to watch vaudeville acts. Adults would gather to share the news of the day in the theater while the children ran up and down the hallways, playing tag, chasing each other, and laughing. The woman reminisced on how sad it was that so many of those children had died young... A bit creepy, no?

But don't fear if your downtown can't summon supernatural spirits to draw a crowd. Kathy La Plante, Senior Program Officer at the Main Street Center, has some great tips for identifying local assets that are marketable (see sidebar below). 

Tapping Your Local Heritage

Looking for your next promotional event? Take an inventory of your community’s assets under each point listed below. Identify your strongest asset, then allow yourself ample time to stir up creative ideas that can honor and celebrate your place in history.

Unique assets may include:

  • Architecture. Recognize significant buildings, especially those located in historic districts or listed in the National Register of Historic Places, as well as buildings designed by famous architects. Celebrate the history of mills, tobacco warehouses, grand hotels, public institutions, colleges, etc.
  • History. Fur trading, railroads, the Civil War, the Wild West, forts, manufacturing, and historic events all provide a wealth of ideas for promotions. Even obscure historic events or recent history can make for fun promotions such as the Manitowoc (Wis.) Sputnik Fest, which celebrates an event in 1962 when a piece of Sputnik crashed into downtown.
  • Culture. Celebrate the diversity of your community’s population. Milwaukee, known as the City of Festivals www.mkefestivals.com/hilton-milwaukee/, hosts dozens of events, including Arab Fest, Irish Fest, Polish Fest, Pride Fest, Bastille Days, Greek Fest, Indian Summer Fest, Mexican Fiesta, Fiesta Italiana, and German Fest.
  • Claims to Fame. From Home of Pollyanna, Home of the Hamburger, Home of Elvis Presley to the birthplace of the blues, jazz, country, alternative, or hip hop, claims to fame can bring visitors flocking to your community. Many towns have achieved international recognition for their unique heritage, such as the Ice Cream, Fire Hydrant, Lost Luggage, Fruitcake, Cowboy, Cow Chip, and Jell-O Capitals of the World.  And setting a Guinness Book of World Records in any category can help establish a history for your community.  

Bringing a Cemetery to Life

Bonaparte CemeteryWhen Bonaparte, Iowa, went looking for inspiration, they weren’t above looking at what was buried in the ground. Their historic cemetery tour was created to bring the town’s history to life, so to speak. Volunteers from the community dressed in period-garb and hovered around specific graves, relaying stories from Bonaparte’s past to tour groups.  The outdoor tour depended on compliant weather, as well as bus and port-o-john rentals which raised overhead costs. There was also concern for the health of the resource itself, in light of the large crowds. These issues were neatly resolved by Bonaparte’s decision to bring the costumed characters indoors to the Opera House where they now delight dinner theater guests. The profits raised from the event benefits the Bonaparte Cemetery.  



Conservation vs. Authenticity—Can You Use the Real Thing Without Using It Up?


Out-of-towners and residents alike are looking for authenticity, but it is critical to balance access to historic resources with responsible stewardship.  As you consider ways to share your heritage, keep in mind that if you don’t protect historic resources for the long term you’ll risk losing the unique appeal your Main Street community has to offer.  Heritage tourism is a great way to build an appreciation of the special historic assets that define your community, and when done right, it can offer sustainable experiences that do not endanger historic resources.  To be sure that your historic resources aren’t being “loved to death,” ask yourself these key questions before launching new programs:

  • Does your community have extremely significant and fragile historic resources that need to be treated especially carefully?
  • What is the potential impact if historic resources are shared with visitors in the way that is being proposed?
  • Are there ways to encourage more interactive experiences in other places or different ways that do not put our historic resources at risk? 
  • Are there ways to structure heritage tourism experiences to proactively encourage preservation efforts (perhaps through a donation of time or money towards restoration efforts)?