The Ghosts of Darke County

By David Nilsen

Local author Rita Arnold has been interested in ghosts since spending time on her grandmother’s farm near Hillgrove as a young girl. “She knew some of the legends and old stories. I started hearing other people tell the stories, and the more they told me, the more interested I got,” says Arnold. That interest has led to a number of books about paranormal activity in Darke County, and those books in turn have inspired an annual haunted fundraiser for Darke County Center for the Arts.

DCCA’s Ghost Walks have occurred in late October for the last thirteen years, and were inspired by Arnold’s books. DCCA’s Artistic Director, Keith Rawlins, came up with the idea, and he and board member Marilyn Delk approached Arnold about establishing ghost tours based on her books. The author was thrilled by the idea.  The walks serve as a both a fundraiser for the arts organization and a chance for local families to learn about aspects of local history they might not find anywhere else. “For many, this is the first time they have heard these stories of our past,” Says Michael Bitner, the event’s coordinator. “We tell of the only hanging that took place in Darke County, we speak of Henry and Ella St. Clair, Anthony Wayne, Tecumseh, Frank McWhinney, and the fort. I feel this helps tie us to our community and shows us where our town came from and how we got to where we are. These people and events have an effect on our lives in a way we may not even know.”

Our town’s history is fascinating at any time of the year, but when the chill Autumn wind begins to blow us toward Halloween, interest turns toward the unexplained stories from our past. There are more of these stories than many people realize, and many of these tales have been around for a while. When Rita and I sat down to talk about her books, she discussed how much she’s enjoyed reading through the microfilm files of our town’s old newspapers from the late 1800s (available at Greenville Public Library). “The writing is just beautiful in those newspapers. We would find stories of unusual events. They wouldn’t know how to classify them, and they wouldn’t always say ‘a ghost,’ but things happened. I found that interesting.” Sometimes, of course, they went ahead and called a spade a spade in the old papers. “There was one about a sheriff who got sent out to a farm house because a lady heard somebody screaming. He ran out there thinking someone had broken in. There was nobody out there. That happened two or three times, and finally the lady moved. Nobody would move into the house. The sheriff said, ‘The only thing I can figure is it’s haunted.’ Nowadays, they’d never be able to say that.”

People seem to be a little more guarded in sharing their suspicions of supernatural activity today. Many of the stories Arnold has collected for her books have been told to her under condition of anonymity. “They still think some people might make fun of them, or might say they’re crazy,” she explains. “Some people think it might hurt the value of their property. When they go to sell their home, they don’t want someone to say, ‘I’m not buying a house that’s haunted.’ Maybe it’s not haunted, it just has creaks and groans. And then maybe it is haunted. I don’t know.”

One building in the downtown area rumored to be haunted is one many of our readers will be well-acquainted with: Greenville Public Library. Completed in 1903, our library building has seen a lot of souls pass through its doors in the last century, and it seems one of two might not have left. Arnold tells of one devoted librarian who died shortly after retiring in the 1940s. Not long after her death, library employees began noticing strange occurrences when they came to work each morning–the spines of books perfectly straightened on shelves when they’d been left uneven the night before, chairs neatly arranged, misshelved books shoved onto the floor for proper cataloging. If this was the work of a ghost, it was the work of a very tidy one, and the deceased librarian had been known for such exacting standards. “Ever since then,” says Arnold, “there have been people who work in the library who have told me–as long as I don’t identify them–that if they’re there shortly after closing or after everyone leaves, they can hear things happen.”

DCCA’s Ghost Walks depart each year from St. Clair Memorial Hall, a beautiful building adjacent to the library that has its own share of reported hauntings, from a finely-dressed lady who sits in the balcony to watch rehearsals (reported to be Ella St. Clair, the wife of benefactor Henry St. Clair) to a maintenance man who fell to his death while changing a light bulb many years ago and who now reportedly lingers in the tunnels under the Hall. School children still spook each other with stories about the “phantom” of the Hall, a tradition I was surprised (and secretly pleased) to discover when my second grade daughter came home telling the story after a school musical last Spring.

Michael Bitner says he believes the walks provide a new element to the appreciation people are able to have for our downtown locations. “Before the walk, they passed by these sites or visited the businesses without knowing that these mysterious events where going on. After learning these tales it adds a whole new experience to step into this shop or drive by an area.” Some locations, it seems, are more haunted than others. “The Palace has many reports of activity, and is also the only place that during the walk we have experienced unexplained events. The block of Third St. and Sycamore has reports from a number of businesses of sightings on the street. We believe that this area of the fort was used as a burial ground for soldiers and may explain why there are so many tales from this area.”

This year, attendees of the Ghost Walk will depart from Memorial Hall at 7:30 p.m. on October 28, 29, and 30, and will visit various haunted downtown locations. Each group will be led by a tour guide who will regale his or her group with stories about various reported hauntings along the way, and provide important town history as well. The groups will be met along the way by costumed actors to provide authenticity to many of the stories. The walks are family friendly, and are not intended to be scary. Whether or not you believe in ghosts, make plans to attend one of DCCA’s Ghost Walks this October. Tickets can be purchased online, and 100% of the proceeds go toward DCCA’s efforts to bring excellent live music and theater to Darke County.

Will you see something you can’t explain on one of these tours? Are there really ghosts in Darke County? “I don’t know, to be honest,” says Rita Arnold. “I really don’t know. I know there are things that happen that I cannot explain.” Maybe on one of these walks in late October, you’ll see something you can’t explain either. There’s only one way to find out.

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