My best friend’s grandfather knew Joshua Wilton.
But then, of course, everyone did. Joshua Wilton was a bank president, owned a hardware store, and his house on the corner of South Main and Bruce Streets in Harrisonburg had something no one else’s did at the time: electricity. To say I’m separated by three degrees to the richest man of his day is unremarkable, especially now when most people only know Joshua Wilton by the restaurant and inn that bear his name.
Except in October.
It’s ghost tour season in October.
Death, Taxes, and the Un-Dead
We put out the call asking for tales of the paranormal in 2007 when I was working for Harrisonburg Downtown Renaissance. We heard back from people in a range of professions: housekeepers, executives, restaurant servers, and even the city manager.
Ghost stories, I learned, are a great equalizer. If death and taxes are the only two guarantees in life, then belief in the unknown, in the possibility of a spiritual form that outlives the physical body, is also universal. Embedded in our ghost tales are our beliefs. They give us a safe place to wonder and they help us remember. Our dead make our history come alive.
There was the accountant whose office is on Water Street. The Williamson House, as it was known, was thought to be used during Prohibition as a house of moonshine and other…right-light activities. One night, the accountant was working late when he heard a door open. Upon going to investigate, he sensed a cold figure about the size of a man come toward him, pass through him, and continue down the hallway. A moonshine runner, perhaps? Or a patron of the Williamson’s other entrepreneurial endeavor headed home after a late-night visit?
Then there’s the JMU employee at Duke Hall. One day when the students we’re on break, he was leaving the academic building when he passed a gentleman in a hat and coat entering. Sensing something strange, the JMU employee turned around to follow the man back into Duke Hall — only to be confronted by an empty foyer and a portrait of the late JMU President Samuel Duke hanging on the wall. It was the same gentleman who he had just seen entering the building.
History Comes Alive
“You know someone who KNEW Joshua Wilton? That’s so cool! How many children did he have? When did he die? Did lots of people live in his house?”
During this magical time in October, having third-hand knowledge of a man society no longer remembers raises my status. Children and adults of all ages crave details about history. For one hour on the tour, they are invested in the people of Harrisonburg. They believe.
Yes, my best friend’s grandfather knew Joshua Wilton. It is said that the spirits of children remain in the house to protect it and look after the guests. And we, once a year in October, look after them.
There are three more tours in this year’s Haunted Harrisonburg season – tonight, Friday, October 26 at 9pm, tomorrow, Saturday, October 27 at 9pm, and on Halloween, next Wednesday, October 31. Ticket information and more details can be found at www.harrisonburgghosttours.com. A portion of the proceeds from the tours are donated to Harrisonburg Downtown Renaissance.
Lisa Ha is an assistant director for University Marketing at James Madison University and has been leading the Haunted Harrisonburg Walking Tours since 2007.