Military museum might be home to more than historical exhibits

Linda Hicks Contributing Writer Published October 24, 2013 at 12:00 a.m.
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Linda Hicks / Contributing Photographer

Museum member Robert Swain, a Civil War historian, dresses in a period uniform for a program at the Museum of Veterans and Military History in Vilonia. Neighbors and one-time residents of what was once a family home have reported strange occurrences at the location.

— Visitors to the Museum of Veterans and Military History on College Street in Vilonia have claimed to see apparitions in the windows, hear the laughter of a child and glimpse mysterious orbs of light.

Museum officials said objects mysteriously move or vanish — as far as hauntings go, not too sinister.

During the early 1900s, the museum served as a girls dormitory for the Arkansas Holiness College. Museum members have been told that an underground tunnel led from the dorm to the college. The tunnel provided the girls a place to walk out of the “elements,” said Robert Swain, a museum member, Civil War historian and missionary. Swain grew up in Vilonia and has heard many stories regarding the building’s history.

After the college closed, the building was converted into an orphanage, he said. Swain said he’s not sure how long the orphanage was there, but when it shut down, the house was converted into a residence and housed families for more than 50 years.

As a teenager, Swain was friends with one family who lived there. On one of his visits, he saw a wooden cage upstairs, he said, which was believed to have been a relic of the orphanage.

No one, he said, ever made reference to him about any strange happenings in the house prior to the museum moving in.

“But, you know, with a family living there, maybe nothing happened, or maybe it wasn’t anything they would talk about,” Swain said.

The residence received extensive damage in a tornado in April 2011. The family living in the home moved out that night, leaving most of their belongings behind. The home was left in disrepair for about six months. In October 2011, the use of the house was granted to a museum committee. Volunteers almost immediately began restoring the downstairs, taking down the ceiling materials that had been damaged from a leaky roof and removing the leftover household items. The cleanup took several months, and the museum opened in November 2012.

While setting up a Civil War exhibit in the museum, Swain said, he was in the house alone on more than one occasion. A couple of times, he said, he had an eerie feeling like something was present.

“It’s a creepy building,” he said. “I kept looking over my shoulder, but nothing touched me or whispered in my ear.”

At a museum meeting one night, he said, he was sitting at the base of the stairwell, and he saw a small red light in the upstairs area that could not be explained. When he mentioned it to the others in attendance, he said, no one else had seen the light. He also learned there was no electricity in the upstairs to power a light. The next day, he said, he returned to the exact location specifically to check out the source. He went to the upstairs landing and found a knothole in the wood, and he believes that is where he saw the dot of light.

“I don’t know what it was or where it came from,” he said. “All I know is what I saw. It wasn’t my imagination.”

Many other museum workers have experienced unexplained encounters in the building. Flashlights have gone off as workers walked through dark rooms. Recorded battle sounds in one room, controlled with motion detectors, have been tripped without anyone entering the room. Display items have been turned upside down. Commodes have been flushed in empty bathrooms. And one new handle freshly installed on a commode went missing during the building’s renovation and has yet to be found. The old one, however, which had been tossed into the trash, was found back in the bathroom.

An Iraqi veteran, during the staging of a display, was working alone in a backroom, and he said he was touched on the shoulder.

A large print, framed and under glass, has had some eerie circumstances surrounding it. The print is of a historic photograph taken on Feb. 23, 1945, by Joe Rosenthal depicting five U.S. Marines and a U.S. Navy corpsman raising an American flag atop Mount Suribachi during the Battle of Iwo Jima in World War II.

“We come in, and it is over on one side or the other of the frame, or maybe even centered where it should be,” said Paul Hicks, a museum member who handles maintenance. “I have worn out the clips on the frame trying to keep [the print] centered,” Hicks said.

A 10-foot ladder must be used to take the print down from the wall by a “human type,” he said, yet the print is regularly taken off the wall and found in other rooms and sitting on the floor. Security cameras provide continual recordings, and Hicks said he has reviewed the security tapes, and there is no evidence of the actual moving of the picture. About all he has seen, he said, in the recordings are a few black orbs on a wall and rippling in the green wool window coverings. Once, he said, he placed screws in the frame to secure it to the wall. The frame bowed from something, he said, resulting in it requiring replacement.

“I can’t explain it,” he said. “I can just tell you what happens.”

Ben Comer of Vilonia is an Afghanistan veteran stationed at the Little Rock Air Force Base and a museum member. He said the movement with the print doesn’t freak him out as much as another repeated occurrence.

“I always feel like I’m being followed,” he said, “like something is walking just behind me and looking over my shoulder.”

Since the museum’s opening, a few of the former tenants of the house have visited and shared their “unexplainable” encounters. One mother talked about “spirits” interacting with her young daughter. Another talked about hearing the sobs of a child.

Neighbors also have their tales of the building. The image of a woman standing in the window of the museum has been seen by two families. One of the families who lived next door for several months reported watching lights come on in the museum when no one was inside and hearing sounds. One tenant moved out after spending one night. She said she wasn’t prepared to deal with any “ghosts” living next door to her.

The museum has been contacted by a few people who want to do studies on the ghostly encounters. Earlier in the year, a woman toured the museum and told the guide afterward that she is a medium. She said the spirit of two women and three children are living in the museum. She said that although they didn’t die in the house, they died tragically in Vilonia in a house not too far from the museum. They mean no harm to anyone, she told the tour guides.

As far as museum members, they joke about all of the incidents. Some share the stories as they give tours and refer to the inhabitant as “probably Mr. Love.” Members were told that a man with the last name of Love lived in the house for more than 45 years and that, as a young man, he was a highly decorated soldier serving in Saipan. Some docents said it is only natural that such an honorable soldier would want to stand guard to honor his peers and their sacrifices.

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