Friday, February 22, 2013

Rolling Hills Asylum

Image by Sharon Coyle for Roadside America

Located between Buffalo and Rochester in East Bethany, Rolling Hills Asylum dates back to 1827 when it opened as the Genesee County Poor Farm, aka "The Old County Home." Its original building was a carriage house and stagecoach stop, operating since 1790, but the land was chosen because it was mid-county and accessible to all.

Its 200 acres (most are now a park) weren't exactly a nineteenth century government housing community. Rolling Hills' population was made up of paupers, debtors, the physically handicapped, unwed mothers, the aged, orphans, the chronically ill and the insane.

At any rate, the times weren't all that kind to folk on the dole for one reason or another. They worked the farm and did other chores, while the mentally ill were no doubt treated with the cures of that century, ice baths and electric shocks. It's thought that hundreds, if not thousands, may have died on the property, and many were buried in now unmarked graves (a memorial was later erected on the grounds)

In 1938, it became a sanitarium, and by the early 1950s, the facility was a nursing home that closed in 1972. After sitting empty for a couple of decades, the building was transformed into the Carriage Village mall. In 2003, it became the Rolling Hills Country Mall, a set of shops that dealt mainly in antiques that are now closed.

During its marketplace era, the shopkeepers and their visitors were spooked by some unexplained going-ons. The reports sure indicated that more than a pack of mall rats were haunting the place.

Doors and windows shut and opened by themselves. Many heard disembodied voices speaking (especially by the kitchen area). People have passed through cold spots, or worse, felt cold hands touching their necks. Hair and clothes are tugged at by unseen hands. Toys in the "Christmas Room" were moved and rearranged by themselves.

Knocks from the walls and footsteps were reported. The sounds of screams and sobs were heard coming from the building and fields, especially at night. It's said that a black mist can be found in the boiler room. Some claim to have seen people inside, staring out the windows when the building is empty. There are stories of shadows and a full-bodied male apparition who roams the hallways at night.

There are also outre tales of boys sold into apprenticeships or worse, Satanic cults, baby sacrifice and that sort of thing floating around that are associated with Rolling Hills. We kinda discount them. Heck, its band of bedraggled souls roaming the halls is plenty enough excuse for some psychic mayhem. And spooky lore suggests that those early psychiatric "cures" and unmarked graves usually result in ghostly blowback, too. It's just what you'd expect from orphaned, destitute and/or insane collection of spirits.

The building has been featured on shows such as the Sy-Fy Channel's "Ghost Hunters" and Travel Channel's "Ghost Adventures" while being probed by many paranormal groups.

Rolling Hills is now private property, owned by preservationist Sharon Coyle, but is open to the public on select dates and hosts some highly regarded evening and Halloween tours, so you have ample opportunity to check out one of New York's main spook centrals, if you care to dare (and call in advance).

Friday, February 8, 2013

Old Overholt Spirits

Image from Karens Barnches
"West Overton is the only pre-Civil War village still intact in the state. The exhibits explain the history of the family who first settled here and the thriving industrial complex it grew to be. Tours include the largest brick barn in Pennsylvania and the birthplace of Henry Clay Frick," per the state historic plaque that honors the distillery grounds, now home to a museum and some buildings amidst the historic district.

Around 1810, Abraham Overholt and his brother Christian began to distill whiskey at their family's farm in Westmoreland county. It started from a few barrels of hootch to a big business; the West Newton plant was expanded a couple of times to increase production, and was one of the first to go vertical, with its own supply of grain and lumber with grist and saw mills to make everything on site.

Abraham bought his brother out and went into business with two of his sons, Jacob and Henry.

In 1846, Abraham Overholt hired John W. Frick, a Swiss immigrant, to work in the grist mill located in the village. While working, he met Abraham’s daughter, Elizabeth, and they were married in 1847. On December 19th, 1849, their son, Henry Clay Frick, was born in the springhouse; maybe he picked up the his future business model from his thrifty and hard-driving grandpap. Frick eventually ended up owning the area coal fields, coke ovens, and the distillery, while his family set up the museum...but we digress.

In 1854, Jacob teamed up with his cousin Henry O. Overholt to open a new distillery in Broad Ford, near Connellsville. This, by the way, is where the famed rye whiskey known as Old Overholt was made (West Newton distilled "Old Farm"). It was said to be Abraham Lincoln's favorite whiskey, only taken, of course, in medicinal doses by Abe. (The Broad Ford distillery, abandoned for years, burned down in 2004.)

OK, if you all haven't headed to the nearest tavern for a quick snort, here come the ghost stories.

According to local lore, Jacob and his dad had an altercation over business and money while at West Newton; Abraham was said to be famously tight-fisted. During the fight, the father allegedly killed the son in the heat of the moment. Now we can't verify the legend; the best cause of death we've found in researching Jacob is that he succumbed to his "last illness." Don't we all? But the legend is a better tale, and we'll stick to that.

Anyway, following Jacob's 1859 death, Abraham inherited Jacob's 2/3 share of the Broad Ford distillery and added it to his operation. Soon afterward, workers reported seeing a figure who resembled Jacob watching over them, along with other unexplained phenomena. Two fires at the distillery, in 1884 and another in 1905, were claimed by some to be Jacob's revenge. Jacob Overholt is still said to been seen haunting the distillery.

But the star spook here is Clyde, the last Overholt to live in the ancestral house. He committed suicide by shotgun in his bedroom in 1919 after his older brother ended up with the Overholt estate following the death of their father. People have said over the years that they've heard noises in the attic and people running up and down the steps when they're the only ones in the house, along with other otherworldy mischief blamed on Clyde.

He's not entirely at fault for the spookiness, though. Tales claim that one Overholt hung himself on the property, and another died in a room now used as a storage area, with reports of his face peeking out of the room's window. There are also tales of a rude ghost that's found by the springhouse who reportedly asked an investigator "Why are you in my house?" There are also stories of floating objects and things disappearing from one place only to be found in another.

The ghosts and the legends are chronicled in the book "Weird West Overton" by Mary Ann Mogus and Ed & Brendan Keleman.

Looking for a day trip with a little history? Not only are their ghostly remnants of the old Overholt days, but the museum also features the rough-and-tumble steel making age of Henry Clay Frick. Frick? Hmmm, about that rude ghost by the springhouse...?