Sharing my recent cover story, written for Dalton Magazine (Photo by Matt Hamilton of Emily Krout):
Mark Twain once said, “I don’t believe in ghosts, but I am afraid of them.” Whether or not we believe in those things we were told didn’t exist when we were children is of little significance. What really matters is, are you ready for some good old-fashioned ghost stories?
Since ancient times, people have sought the thrill that accompanies the fear derived from listening to spooky tales around camp fires. With Halloween upon us, the time is ripe to inject a little harmless fright into our entertainment schedules. If we’re willing to admit it, most of us have that one super scary movie or book that creeps into our consciousness on the darkest of nights, preventing us from dangling an arm or a leg off the edge of the bed for too long – just in case. But the best stories are those that spring from our own back yards, and when it comes to things that go bump in the night Dalton has plenty to offer.
One of the city’s best-known cold spots is located at 210 N. Pentz Street in historic downtown. The two-story brick structure is home to Dalton Little Theatre, Georgia’s oldest continuously performing community theater. Dalton Little Theatre, or DLT, has provided live entertainment to the area since 1869, only breaking for World War I and World War II. Many of the actors, directors, and patrons who spend time at DLT claim the theater is quite haunted.
“I have heard walking overhead when no one was upstairs,” shared Randel Ovbey, a local actor who first performed with DLT in 1977 before the troupe claimed the current location as their own. “Once I was in a cast photo – for, I believe it was, ‘Curious Savage’ – that has an image of a clearly defined phantom crossing behind us. I have also been present when the sound system would come on in an empty sound booth.”
William Brooks, another seasoned local thespian, said he too has heard disembodied footsteps. “Many of us have,” he added. “And I’ve heard people say they can smell cigar or pipe smoke but no one smokes inside.”
Who haunts DLT? Local lore points a finger at late fireman Carl Johnson. Originally, the 100-plus year-old building served as a fire hall. It is still routinely referred to as “the Old Firehouse.”
“I heard Carl was a fireman who came back from a run and had a heart attack, dying on location,” Randel offered.
Legend asserts a group of firemen were called out in the 1950s. After extinguishing a fire, they returned to the Firehouse. Everyone went upstairs to shower and change clothes – everyone except Carl. Carl wasn’t feeling well. He laid back in a recliner on the first floor and dozed. Later, some of the firemen attempted to wake Carl, only to discover he was dead. His heart had quit.
Soon after Carl was laid to rest, various firemen began claiming he was still there. Many saw Carl out of the corner of an eye. Some spied him dead-on. His footsteps and knockings have been heard by untold numbers over the years. Carl is said to manipulate electrical equipment and to move objects around. Whenever props or personal items go missing at DLT, Carl is often blamed.
Though there are those who refuse to be left alone in certain areas of DLT, Randel Ovbey doesn’t mind sharing his beloved theater with a ghost. “I love it,” he said. “I think it’s awesome. I feel that as a fireman he’s probably there to protect.”
In the late 1960s officers from the Dalton Police Department were summoned to Hotel Dalton. A young woman had checked in the night before and was found dead the next morning by housekeeping. She’d shot herself. Today the 5-story low-rise that once housed Hotel Dalton is called the Landmark Building. Owed by attorney Randy Bates, it sits at 101 E. Crawford Street and is used for office space. There are several individuals employed inside who swear to ghostly goings-on.
Jessie Krout of Rocky Face is a tour guide with Dalton Ghost Tours. “I once had a woman along the route ask me who haunts the Landmark Building. She informed me that she knew it was haunted because she works there and has heard weeping on the second floor. She said the energy there is heavy with sadness.”
Jessie’s grandfather-in-law, Troy Hall, was one of the officers to work the suicide case at Hotel Dalton.
“It was a long time ago,” Jessie said. “Unfortunately he doesn’t remember the girl’s name. He said she was in her late teens or early 20s. She had been a carhop at the Cherokee Drive-in theatre when it happened and she was distressed over an unwanted romantic break-up. Newspapers generally don’t report suicides so it has been difficult to learn more about her.”
“One of the attorneys who works with Randy Bates has experienced odd happenings on the top floor,” Jessie said. “Another attorney, whose office sits on the back side of the building, on a lower floor, has witnessed unexplainable door slamming. One time an electrician left the building abruptly, refusing to return because of something frightening that happened to him. At the Landmark Building, paranormal activity abounds.”
According to Jessie, dozens of tour guests have witnessed lights come on at night while standing in front of the Landmark Building and listening to her spiel. “It isn’t uncommon for lights on the second, third, and fifth floors to suddenly come on,” Jessie said. “No one is working inside that late and a glance around the empty parking lot supports that it’s empty in there. After all this time, I think the lingering spirit is lonely. She just wants us to know she’s there.”
Leon Hurst moved to Dalton in June of 1971, along with his wife and two sons. At the time there were four theaters in town – two drive-ins and two walk-ins. Martin Theaters brought Leon onboard as city manager of all four. Not one member of the Hurst family believed in ghosts or the paranormal upon arriving in Dalton, but soon enough each began to experience events inside the walls of the historic Wink Theatre that would forever change their perspective.
Built by J.C.H. Wink, the art modern theatre opened in 1941 with a showing of “They all Kissed the Bride,” starring Joan Crawford and Melvyn Douglas. The three-story brick edifice sits near the end of W. Crawford Street in the historic district and now houses the Dalton branch of Rock Bridge Community Church.
“Dad was the first to see and hear things,” Leon’s son, Dale, revealed. “He spent more time down there than any of us. He witnessed the door knob to his office turn numerous times when no one was there to turn it. He heard a little girl with bells on her shoes laughing and playing outside his office while alone in the theatre. He saw and heard plenty of things that I, at first, reasoned away.”
One of the things Dale speaks of involved his father hearing 35 mm film cans being tossed down a side staircase. No one was around to have moved the canisters from the room in which they were stored. Like every other strange thing that had happened up to that point, Leon was alone inside the Wink and there were no witnesses to back up his claim.
“He described that night in great detail,” Dale shared. “Bump, bump, bump… the cans went down the stairs. Dad said it was an unmistakable, metallic sound. He was adamant. When he went to check it out there were no cans to be found. I felt like, ‘Daddy doesn’t know. There’s nothing going on here.’ Then things started happening to me.”
Dale worked at the Wink his junior year of high school. Sometimes he acted as a projectionist and other times he took on janitorial duties.
“I often had to close the theatre,” Dale remembered. “The incident that made me a believer happened sometime after midnight. I heard somewhere once that the hour between midnight and 1 a.m. belongs to the living dead. I can tell you, I spent a lot of time in the Wink during that hour. Your imagination can run wild with you. People were already talking about all the odd things they saw and heard in the Wink but I was still telling myself those things stemmed from overactive imaginations or were happening because the building was old and settling.”
As Dale pushed a broom down the auditorium aisle on the evening in reference, he listened to music on a portable radio. Suddenly, the volume decreased to a near inaudible level. Dale felt the hair all over his body stand to attention. Then he heard “giant footsteps running down the aisle” toward him. Turning, he saw nothing and no one. The volume on his radio rose – seemingly of its own accord – to a menacing screech.
“I put my broom down and exited the building,” Dale said. “I locked the doors but left all the lights on inside. It was the scariest thing. Other things happened afterward but that was my turning point. Dad hadn’t been wrong about that stuff.”
Some of those “other things” that happened to Dale occurred during daylight hours, but it was the ones at the night that were the most unsettling. “It got to the point that I was on pins and needles waiting for the midnight hour,” he confessed. “I convinced myself that if I could just make it to 1 a.m. I’d be okay. Maybe it was just… the timing. It was the 70s and I was young.”
Today Dale lives in Columbus. He still thinks about the Wink a lot. “I really enjoyed working there,” he said. “If I had a chance to revisit any period in my life, it would be then.”
In 1980 the Wink closed its doors for almost two decades. The last film to light up the silver screen was Disney’s “The Black Hole.” During its solitary years the Wink deteriorated, playing host to pigeons and rats. Just in time to save the historic building from demolition, entrepreneur Troy Hall stepped forward and purchased, renovated, and reopened the Wink. (Incidentally, Troy – who personally doesn’t believe in ghosts – is one of the former DPD officers who worked the Hotel Dalton suicide in the late 60s). For several years after reopening, the Wink operated as a performing arts venue, and almost immediately reports of supernatural stirrings began.
Among dozens of terrific tales, one stands out. Dalton resident Judy Hall went upstairs to use the restroom during a musical showcase. Judy described the elegant upstairs setting as unnerving.
“Something was off,” she said. “I felt like someone was watching me but I didn’t see anyone else upstairs. Certainly I was alone in the women’s bathroom but that didn’t stop a toilet from flushing several stalls down from me.”
Exiting her own stall, Judy looked underneath the adjoining doors for feet. She wondered if someone had come in and somehow she hadn’t noticed. One by one, Judy began pushing the doors open. When she got to the last stall, she eased the door back. No one was there but the toilet flushed before her eyes.
“I will never go up there alone again,” Judy vowed afterward. “I may never even go up there again at all. People don’t believe these things until something happens to them. It was more than the toilet flushing on its own, it was the whole weighty, strange feeling that was around me from the moment I began walking up the stairs.”
Read more about Dalton’s supernatural underbelly in “Haunted Dalton, Georgia,” available at Books a Million, Walnut Square Mall, and through Amazon.com. Or, take a 90-minute tour with Dalton Ghost Tours. Tours are offered each Friday and Saturday throughout the month of October at 8 p.m. For more information call 706-673-2167.