The demolition of the century-old Granite Hotel in downtown Winder may be unleashing something that city officials haven’t put in the contingency plans. According to a night watch commander at the Barrow County Detention Center, the hotel built in 1899 out of blocks of granite may have harbored dead spirits – or worse – that shop owners over the years have felt, heard and even seen.
Over the past week, a couple of those shop owners have told chilling ghost stories to the Barrow Journal.
Questioned about those claims Tuesday night, Sgt. Daniel Coles, a longtime paranormal investigator in Barrow County – who has stopped looking because he found so much scary stuff going on in the historic buildings across from the hotel – said that while all of the claims have not been independently verified, he would not be surprised if ghosts had inhabited the historic structure.
Granite, he said, is a known magnet for ghosts “because of its ability to stay cool, like an insulator” and keep the energy that the spirits need to be active… and to let their presence be known.
According to one paranormal group, buildings made from granite “can make good hotspots for paranormal activity – intelligent and residual.”
“Intelligent hauntings” are those in which dead spirits allegedly interact with the living; “residual hauntings” are so-called “recordings” of past events.
In downtown Winder over the past five years, folks say they have experienced both.
GHOST TALE UNFOLDS
This ghost tale began to unfold during a Feb. 16 interview of Chris and Bill Humble, who owned the last business that operated in the Granite Hotel.
The brothers, educated and trained in the restaurant field in New York, opened their coffee shop, “Humble Grounds,” on the first floor of the hotel in November 1997. It operated there until city officials in 2006 condemned the building.
Bill Humble is the elder brother and the one who chose the hotel site for their restaurant 15 years ago. He left the industry after a health problem a few years ago.
Chris Humble and his new partner, Suzy Hibbert, now run the popular Casey’s Dawgs restaurant on North Jackson Street.
Bill Humble said he fell in love with the hotel’s restaurant site the first time he saw it.
“I just enjoyed the small restaurant atmosphere and the small town atmosphere. We had a counter with 10 stools at the counter. It had that old homey diner look and that was what I wanted. It’s what I had wanted since I was in high school in New York.”
He said there is more of a “pub” atmosphere in New York that is family oriented and is where the community gathers for weddings and funerals and high school graduation parties.
Added Chris Humble: “We would sit with our grandparents in the pub. It was very socially acceptable, and that was the atmosphere we tried to set up here.”
However, as outsiders – and Yanks – their arrival was not immediately embraced by the living or, as it would soon turn out, by the dead.
“We would have old timers snicker and say, ‘Look at these guys. They are going to flop,’” said Chris.
“Winder’s old men,” explained Hibbert.
But the outgoing, and by no means humble, brothers refused to be run off.
“When that would happen, we would address it,” Chris said. “We would say, ‘You are being rude.’”
Added Bill: “I would call them out in front of everybody.”
Things started to change about a year later when it became apparent that the brothers would not be intimidated, and when they decided to offer more than coffee and Danish.
“We opened at night about a year later, and we got a beer permit, which changed everything,” said Chris. “The music got louder; it turned into a pub atmosphere. Later we put in steak and seafood, lobster and salmon.”
However, the brothers said they continued to run into opposition from uninvited guests from the unseen world.
“Almost daily, one of us or one of our employees would report being touched, or the lights or the TV would go on or off, or there would be doors opening and closing on their own,” Chris said.
He explained: “In the restaurant business, if you are working and I want to go by you from behind, I would touch your shoulder to let you know there was someone there. This would happen to me while I was working.
Someone would touch me on the back, and I would step up and wait for them to pass, and nobody would be there. I had one that kept grabbing my butt. I would have somebody slap me on the rear end and I would turn around to see who it was, and there would be nobody there.”
Agreed his big brother: “That would happen all the time.”
Chris said the paranormal activity was so frequent that he and his brother began writing down what was happening.
“We kept a journal,” he said. “We called it the ghost journal.”
The only actual sighting was by a waitress who was alone washing dishes when she heard a door open and watched a man walk in.
“But she turned around and the door was closed and there was nobody there,” Chris said.
He said he personally stopped working alone in the restaurant.
“I would not be there alone. I wasn’t one of those big ghost guys. But I mean, to come to the point of saying (to whatever presence he’d felt in the room), ‘Come on!’”
Chris said he once talked to a woman who recently ran another business on the same block and mentioned that he had once owned the hotel’s restaurant.
“She said, ‘You know that place is haunted, right?’” he said.
“I said, ‘Oh yeah, I know. We used to keep a ghost journal.’”
The woman told the Humbles that she had taken photographs of ghosts in her own shop and also in the hotel.
She has now closed her business, and the newspaper could not reach her, but Chris Humble said the photos she showed him were compelling.
He said one of her photos was of an interior portion of the first-floor of the hotel – a shot similar to one published recently by the Barrow Journal showing a deteriorated wooden ceiling.
But in the woman’s photo there were 20 or 30 sets of legs sticking down through the wooden slats – legs dressed in period dresses or overalls.
Chris said he also saw a photo the woman had taken in her shop. In the photo was a man in a Civil War uniform standing in the back of the store.
BEYOND THE HOTEL
Sgt. Coles, who with a group of other paranormal investigators, spent a few years looking into reports of local sightings, said he once met with the Humble brothers about their claims, but they were unable to document their experiences. Coles said he also had never seen the neighboring shop owner’s photo collection.
But he was intrigued by a third report relayed to him by a reporter who over the weekend interviewed Sheila Morris, who until last October operated Ham and Jam Creations at 62 N. Broad St., which is a few doors down from the Granite Hotel.
Morris and her family have now vacated the site, which stands vacant. But on Saturday she recounted this gripping otherworldly tale of her time there:
“Before we moved in, we had gone over to start sweeping and vacuuming things. I had gone to the back and was sweeping. Hugh (her husband) and my daughter and her husband were in there while I was in the back.
“I was sweeping away and felt somebody touch my arm. I turned around and nobody was there. It happened again, and I thought my daughter was aggravating me. But she was nowhere around.
“I went looking for her, and they were all outside watching the rain. So it wasn’t her. I figured it was no big deal, that maybe it was just me imagining something.
“Then after we moved in, we didn’t have our stereos going. I was sitting at the computer and heard ladies talking and laughing like they were all right there, but there was nobody there.
“They were not speaking English. But they were laughing. It sounded like two or three ladies.
“I went up front and looked and wished I knew what the joke was. But there was nobody there. It quit, and I figured it was no big deal.
“Not too long after that, when we had two puppies I took to the store with me every day, I came I and unlocked the front door and looked back and there was a lady standing in front of our counter.
“A lady. I saw a lady. She was standing there with her hands clasped in front of her. She had her hair pulled back. She wasn’t an old lady. She had a high-topped dress that was very old-fashioned.
“She never smiled. She was standing there looking at me. She looked like anyone would. She was just looking at me, not smiling, looking directly at me.
“I thought, ‘How did somebody get in here?’ The door was locked. The alarm would have gone off.
“I had enough sense to walk over and check the alarm. The dogs acted like they were excited about something. They were running around. They were not afraid.
“Then she was gone. There was nobody there.
“I had all this work to do, so I walked around to the computer and thought, ‘This is too weird. Where did she go? This is my ghost. This has to be my ghost’.
“I was never afraid of her. When she was around, it was a very warm sensation, so I never felt afraid. But what is so strange is that (first) morning, nothing worked. The computers were out. There were no lights, no power. I had all of this embroidery I was trying to get done, and the embroidery machine wouldn’t come on. It was just dead.
“It was raining outside again that day. Anytime anything had happened, it was raining outside.
“I thought maybe the building had gotten hit by lightning… In the back, everything worked.
“For like an hour, I tried to get everything on, and nothing would work. I turned everything off and on, off and on, and nothing would work.
“I said, ‘I have to call the people about the embroidery machine.’ By that time I’m crying. Every piece of equipment is ruined and I don’t know what I’m going to do.
“I am crying and saying (to the ghost), ‘What did you do?’ And all of a sudden, I had the phone in my hand to call and slipped the thing on, and it came on. I walked over and turned on the computer. All of a sudden, everything worked.
“I didn’t see her again. But I could walk through and could feel her touch my shoulder. I always knew when she was there. There was warm air around me. It was almost comforting when she was around.
“All the kids said, ‘If this happens to me, I’ll never step foot in this store.’ I told them if you ever experience it, you will not be afraid of her.’
“She didn’t’ have that image that morning of being a friendly, nice person by no means. But I never heard her again after that. I only felt her.
“But then one morning after that, I took the dogs in and we stared walking to the back. I opened the door, the alarm beeped, and I was walking with the dogs.
“I don’t know what was there, but our little boy dog, who is never afraid of anybody – whatever was there that morning, they did not like.
“His hair stood up on his body like static electricity, and he snarled and set his teeth. And they both growled. And it was freezing cold in there. Freezing, freezing cold. I just stood there and almost ran back out the door.
“I said, ‘Whoever you are, you need to go away. You are not nice. Go away and leave.’
“This went on for a few minutes. Whatever it was, apparently it walked toward (the dogs), because Rowdy, the boy dog, was backing up, snarling, his hair standing up.
“Whatever it was must have been coming toward him, because then he cowed down and whimpered. And it must have disappeared, because then they both were looking around.
“That scared me.”
She said she called her husband and he came over and said he had heard a show about some Atlanta ghost hunters.
“He said, ‘Sheila, I think we should call the ghost hunters and see if we can get them in here. I don’t want them hurting you.’
“He pulled up the Atlanta ghost hunters website, and all of a sudden the computer shut off and we could not pull up that site again.
“Hugh called up my stepson, and all the other kids could pull it up. It was just us, whatever it was didn’t want us talking to the ghost hunters.
“There was somebody out of Athens that we made an appointment with. They were going to come in on a Friday night and stay overnight with us and see if they could find something. But Hugh went into the hospital and they never did it.
“After that (three months after opening the shop), nothing ever happened again. It was like they disappeared.”
She said when she called the Athens guy to tell him the activity had ceased, he told her that the spirits don’t like to be found out.
“They don’t like people to investigate them. He said, ‘You’ll probably never experience them again. They sure don’t want anybody to know they exist.’
“And sure enough, it never happened again.”
Sheila Morris said her encounters occurred from mid-October 2009 through the end of January or early February of 2010.
She said: “I used to tell people, am I losing my mind? Am I going crazy? Am I absolutely batty? Have I totally just lost my mind?”
Morris said she later told a couple of other shop owners on the same block about her experiences.
The owner of a restaurant told her that she had had such things happen there.
“Glasses were falling off and things were happening to her,” Morris said. “Whatever it was, she didn’t’ feel like it was a very nice spirit. “
Morris vacated the North Broad storefront last October.
“As soon as the lease ended, we moved it,” she said.
“Hugh said, ‘I hope you didn’t bring these people home with you.’
“So far, we haven’t.”
A BIGGER PROBLEM?
Coles said there is a logical explanation for many reported paranormal experiences.
But he said what Sheila Morris experienced likely was an authentic encounter due to its three distinct elements: the dogs’ reactions, the change in the room’s temperature, and the equipment becoming inoperable.
“Usually one little thing happening by itself, you can rule out,” Coles said. “But if you get two to three things at the same time, there is usually something going on.”
He said the warmth Morris felt wasn’t necessarily a good thing.
“Usually you are going to get a cold feeling from their spirit absorbing the energy around them,” he said. “The heat in the air gets taken out. But if you get heat, you can be involved with a demonic kind of spirit. And those are the ones that can hurt you. Make you miserable. Make people sick.”
Coles said he and some other deputies making routine security checks of the historic courthouse in downtown Winder around 2006-2007 did encounter some of those less desirables. The courthouse is one block from the hotel and on the same side of North Broad.
Shortly after going to work in Barrow County’s jail in downtown Winder in the late 1990s, he said he began hearing tales from colleagues who claimed to have had encounters with ghosts initially in the jail.
“Everybody in the jail always had stories,” he said. “There was an old man walking in the jail that tons of people reported seeing. They called him Frank; they had named him because he was so common. He was an old man with a white beard, and everyone said he had dead eyes, like he was looking through you.
“There were even people (outside the jail) who called to report seeing an old man walking around the place.”
He said he hasn’t heard any reports from the jail since his department relocated to the new Barrow County Detention Center, but with that old facility slated for renovation and reuse by the Barrow County Health Department, he said he would be interested to hear if the reports start again.
“We’ll find out if they start seeing things,” he said.
While the Granite Hotel and adjacent shops might be a haven for the not-so-completely departed, Coles said he thinks the historic courthouse across West Athens Street actually might be the most active paranormal site downtown.
That courthouse and adjoining annex within a year are to be the core site for Barrow County’s government.
Coles said the courthouse itself is “a madhouse.”
He said there are “20 officers that can tell you crazy things, with chairs turning around in front of you, shadows crossing the floors.”
He said most of the officers’ encounters occurred during pre-dawn security checks around 2006-2007 before the opening of the new courthouse on Barrow Park Drive. The sheriff’s office is still inside the courthouse until a planned relocation this year.
On several occasions, teams of deputies came running helter skelter out of the downtown courthouse claiming to have experienced something unsavory, he said.
“We would usually take two or three people upstairs in the courthouse, because we didn’t like to send anybody up there alone,” he said.
Coles even took a recording device used by paranormal researchers to try to capture voices that the human ear cannot hear.
One time, he said, the security detail told whatever was in the courthouse to leave but heard and saw nothing.
But the machine played back something after all.
“We heard a voice that sounded like this little girl at 3 a.m. saying, ‘I’m not leaving.’”
That was the clearest recording he obtained, he said.
But Coles said the more encounters officers had, the more aggressive whatever was in the courthouse became.
“Two different people got scratches,” he said.
One of the victims was a female officer Coles had accompanied upstairs to the Superior Court courtroom. He said she felt something go across her back all of a sudden and yelled out, “Ow!”
“You laugh at it,” Coles said. “But when we went back out, she had three scratch marks under her shirt, down the center of her back, from her shoulder to her side. They were pretty evident scratch marks. They were not bleeding, but the skin was raised. It left welts. They were three very defined lines. I was right there with the person, so I know what happened.
“She said, ‘That didn’t really happen did it?’ I couldn’t rule it out.”
When a second officer also was scratched during a security check, and Coles sensed the presence of something dark even when he was away from the historic complex, he backed away from his lifelong hobby.
“Coming home and you feel that same feeling you had there, that someone was right with you, and you don’t feel alone, you don’t feel safe,” he said.
“There’s something there, and it’s probably not something I’m supposed to be poking at. I had enough that happened, with stuff following you home, that I learned my lesson pretty quick.”
THE MOUTH OF HELL?
Folks who search out such things believe that dead spirits can be trapped near the site of traumatic past events.
Based on his research of Barrow County’s history, Coles thinks some of the paranormal activity is due to the history surrounding a four-acre volcanic bog that the county’s original settlers – the Creek Indians – called “Nodoroc” and viewed as the mouth of hell.
Coles said the Indians sacrificed the bad, and sometimes the good among them, to a supernatural beast they called the Wog – a large wolf-like creature with flaming red eyes whom they believed to be Satan himself – by throwing the victims live into what at that time was a bubbling, fiery pit.
The volcanic site, dormant since an eruption years ago, is at the head of Barber Creek and just across the railroad tracks from the Barrow County Airport.
Coles said his research into the spiritual causes of Barrow County’s active paranormal environment always led him back to that period, as well as to how the Indians later were treated by the white man.
“Everything led me back to Nodoroc, and when everything turned around to Nodoroc, I started researching what the Indians were doing here and how they got here,” he said. “They eliminated some of the Indians from here by taking them on the Trail of Tears to recolonize. This is one of the areas where they took a bunch of them.”
Barrow County, he added, “has a lot more history than people think.”
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