What if the houses in Apalachicola could talk? What stories would they tell?
The Apalachicola Area Historical Society invites you to come find out, by viewing storyboards posted in front of about 30 homes and businesses between Sunday, May 2 and Saturday, May 15.
The storyboards, created by property owners, tell tales of past residents, neighborhood events and personalities, and historical facts. Maps for the If This House Could Talk event will be available beginning mid-April on the historical society’s website and Facebook page, as well as at the Raney House at 128 Market Street and the Flatauer House at 73 Avenue E. Follow the map to storyboard locations all over town!
To whet appetites for this event, we’ve profiled the house at 34 16th Street. It’s a lovely, two-story Queen Anne-style home built in 1902 by William Lenholf Marshall, brother of the more well-known local builders, George and John Marshall, who came here from Baltimore.
In the late 1890s, William, born in 1873, met his future wife, Grace Spiller, of Tallahassee, on an outing they both attended at Lanark Village. Grace was accompanied by her fiancé, Edward Burdine, but the day ended badly for Mr. Burdine. Grace returned her engagement ring to him on the train back to Tallahassee because she had fallen head-over-heels in love with Will Marshall and knew that he would become her husband.
Will and Grace courted for three years, with Will travelling by steamboat to and from Carrabelle where Grace, a graduate of West Florida Seminary, the precursor to Florida State University, had a job teaching children. During their courtship, Will was building a grand home on the corner of 16th and Avenue B, and with scraps and leftover stock from that job, he built a home for Grace and himself next door at #34. The couple married on May 29, 1901 and soon took up residence in their new house.
Their first child, Lenholf (“Skinny”) Marshall was born in 1902 and, as a tribute to him, Will built the baptismal font at Trinity Episcopal Church where he and Grace were members. Will helped his brothers with their numerous construction projects in the city, and he built a classy schooner with workboat origins which he named “Grace.”
Soon, though, Grace Marshall felt the pull of her hometown, and selling their home to Will’s brother Richard, yet another carpenter/contractor, she and Will moved permanently to Tallahassee where he again built a house for his family. Will became a Master Mason in 1917, a 25-year member of the Kiwanis, mayor of Tallahassee in 1932, and the father of three more children. He passed away in 1957.
Not much is known about 34 16th Street until 1957 when a couple from Virginia sold it to S.B. Henderson, a plumber, and his wife, Thelma, who in turn sold it to Bobby and Valerie Miller in 1972. Next year will mark the Millers’ 50th anniversary of living there.
Once, when Bobby was making some repairs to the inside of the house, he found a board from the fireplace mantel with “W.L. Marshall, 1902” scrawled across the back of it. Asked about any unusual experiences that they may have had in the house, Valerie tells about the time she was vacuuming upstairs and thought she heard a door slam downstairs. Figuring it was her husband, she kept on vacuuming and then, in just the amount of time it would take Bobby to get up the stairs, she felt a warm hand on her shoulder. Thinking to give him a fright, she whipped around and let out a yell, but there was no one there. Valerie has also heard footsteps in the house while she’s been outside gardening, and both she and Bobby say it’s not unusual for them to hear doors closing. Valerie also sometimes sees a shadow passing quickly by. But neither one of them thinks much of these occurrences anymore. “It’s just Thelma visiting again,” says Bobby.
If 34 16th Street could talk, it would surely tell about its neighbor, Miss Wright, and the house she lived in. She was an eccentric, an easy-going and affable woman who wore winter clothes all year round. Very frugal, she always shopped at yard sales, although she was apparently quite well-off. She taught at Chapman and was for a while, the highest paid teacher in Franklin County. Her house was elegant with a curved porch, shaded by live oaks, that overlooked the bay. It had a widow’s walk and decorative shingles, and its front door featured a beautiful etched glass window that was once part of Will and Grace’s house.
Miss Wright died at age 90, just after the new millennium. Around 2008, as Bobby was coming home one day, he smelled fat lighter and, looking up, saw smoke pouring out of Miss Wright’s house. The fire department arrived only to discover that the closest fire hydrant wasn’t working. By the time they finally got water to the scene, the house was enveloped in flames and it burned to the ground. Lost in the fire also were the seven or eight enormous live oaks that graced the corner. The lot remains vacant today.
Bobby and Valerie have always been told that both their property and Miss Wright’s were once part of a cemetery, and in fact Louise Wright found two graves on her lot, one belonging to a baby, and another grave unearthed a few doors to the east on Avenue B. These discoveries stand to reason, since nearby Lafayette Park is the site of Apalachicola’s first cemetery, but all the graves there were eventually moved.
If 34 16th Street could talk, its most exciting tale might be of the decade it was “haunted” every Halloween by Bobby and Valerie. Every October, the couple would spend a week or more with help from friends, like Chuck Marks and Mark and Ida Elliott, readying the house for trick-or-treaters who, as the years went by, grew larger and larger in number.
They draped the fence around the yard with branches, palm fronds, and Spanish moss to make the place look abandoned, and they wrapped the outside of the house with a wide roll of paper from the Port St. Joe paper plant on which Eastpoint artist Lamar Mitchell painted scary scenes. Life-like spiders, bats and cobwebs hung from the ceiling. The yard was converted into a cemetery with moving headstones and waving hands, accomplished by attaching them to cables hooked up to an old windshield wiper operated by a 12-volt battery. A black light under the porch beamed onto the gravestones. On the roof, a witch slid down a cable, bumping loudly on the gutter as she hit it with her boots, to spook incoming visitors who were already jumpy from the ear-piercing noise and gust of cold air coming from the air hose Bobby had positioned at the front gate. On the porch, Ida Elliott stirred dry ice in a cauldron.
Every year, Bobby got a casket from Andy Middlebrooks, owner of the funeral home. Terry Nobles, the music teacher at Chapman Elementary School, done up to look like a vampire, would lie in the casket and periodically raise himself to sitting position, giving visitors the evil eye. Bobby Siprell, dressed to look like Frankenstein, stood in a corner of the garden, and a ghost floated back and forth across the street. Creative use was made of lighting and motorized special effects, thanks to Bobby Miller’s ingenuity.
Children, teens, and adults flocked from all over town to the haunted house. In fact, so many people came that it was almost impossible to find a parking space between 98 and Avenue B. Children would run from the house screaming in terror, and it made such an impression on some that there are grown people alive today who won’t come near the house because they are convinced it is haunted.
For more stories about other Apalachicola houses and businesses, be sure to take part in our self-guided tour, May 2 to 15. Maps will be available online and in hard copy format in mid-April. Properties cannot be entered, but storyboards will be out in front at all participating locations.
If you would like to add your house to the group, please contact Pam Richardson at the historical society at 653-1700 or apalachicolaareahistoricalsociety.org.
Pam Richardson is a member of the board of directors of the Apalachicola Area Historical Society and can be reached at email@example.com. Donia Smith is the great-granddaughter of William and Grace Marshall and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally appeared on The Apalachicola Times: Chasing Shadows: Talk about a talkative house!