Creepy Local Legends Revisited

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It’s that time of year again; Halloween, my favorite holiday. After taking a walking ghost tour of our town this past weekend, I thought it might be fun to resurrect my blog from last year, “Creepy Local Legends,” with a new installment.

Not on our town’s ghost tour, but never-the-less a house of historic … and ghostly significance, is the house right around the corner from me. It’s a place I always point out to out-of-town friends and family as we walk through the neighborhood, telling the tale of its haunting.

Like many of the houses in town, including ours, this house was built in the late 1800s when the booming lumber, fruit, and tourism industries made South Haven a bustling port on the shores of Lake Michigan. It’s a grand old house with a cupola atop, recently repainted in colors reminiscent to what they would have been at the time.

In the 1800s, only a handful of houses stood in what is the current neighborhood; much of the land was either apple or peach orchards back then. In the early 1870s, over 3,500 barrels of apples, and nearly 30,000 packages of peaches were shipped by large steamships to the Chicago market. One of the suppliers of the peaches was the man who built the house which stood on the edge of his property, over-looking his prized peach orchard.

Frank Pritchard was a wealthy man to begin with, and the continued success of his peach crop made him even wealthier. He took a huge financial risk when he planted his orchard with what was to become, and still is, the world’s most popular peach, the ‘Red Haven’. It was a brand new variety at the time, developed by fellow townsman, and plant scientist, Stanley Johnston. The gamble paid off for Frank. While the lumber barons’ found their “Green Gold” in Michigan’s white pine, the area had another kind of precious commodity – the peaches that were referred to as “Michigan’s Gold,” and the new ‘Red Haven’ proved to be the cream of the crop.

Who can resist temptation to bite into one of these beauties, its skin blushed and still warm from the sun, so sweet and ripe the juice runs down your chin. This is surely what is meant by “nectar of the gods”. Not many people could resist, and certainly not a ten year old boy.

Mr. Pritchard was continually having problems with a group of area boys “scrumping” – an old word for stealing fruit from orchards. The “No Trespassing” signs went ignored, his verbal warnings were unheeded, and even being chased out of the orchard by the fruit-pickers hired by Frank, didn’t help. The boys would just return at night to loot the orchard, and make off with their booty under the cover of darkness.

The small group of boys stealing a handful of peaches did not make a large enough dent in the success of the peach crop, of course, but for Frank it became a matter of principle. They’d been told over, and over to leave his peaches alone, but they refused. He would have gladly given them some if they’d only asked first. But they never did, seeming to prefer making off with stolen goods, perhaps the thrill of the forbidden making the fruit taste that much sweeter.

Frustrated with his futile attempts to keep them out of his orchard, and angry over what he saw as their disrespect, Frank resorted to sitting in a chair up in his cupola each night during harvest season, a shot-gun laid across his lap. From this high vantage point, with waist-high to ceiling windows all the way around, his entire orchard was in view. He always fired a warning shot once he spied the would-be peach pilferers, intentionally letting it fly high over their heads. But it served its purpose well enough – the boys ran scared from the orchard, leaving more often than not, empty-handed.

Night after night, each year as soon as the peaches became sun-kissed and ripe, he sat in his cupola with his shot gun. He became quite obsessed with protecting his crop, and he continued to guard it from his cupola long after the group of boys found bigger thrills than stealing peaches…thrills such as the girls at the town dances, for example. Even when it became well-known among the town’s younger children that his orchard was off-limits, he climbed the stairs up to his cupola each night. Try to steal a peach and wind up shot; everyone knew to stay away from Old Man Pritchard’s peaches! For years after the last peach was stolen under the cover of night, he still continued his watch.

He continued it right up until the day he died.

Following his death, relatives sold the house, razed the orchard and parceled off the land. The old house was turned into a resort, and new homes were built on the area where his cherished ‘Red Haven’ trees once grew. It wasn’t long after, that resort guests began to complain of loud noises waking them from their sleep. Heavy footsteps echoed in the stairwell, and sounds continued throughout the night as if someone was wearily passing back and forth across the floor of the cupola. An occasional “crack!” pierced the night, as if a gun had been fired somewhere high inside the house. Those brave enough to leave their rooms to investigate, reported seeing nothing to account for these strange occurrences except a path worn smooth in the cupola’s wooden floor from the continued pacing.

Some say the spirit of Frank Pritchard was so distraught his peach trees were destroyed, that he could not find rest in the afterlife.  Others speculate his nightly ritual of guarding the orchard became so engrained in his life that he could not give it up, even in death. Whichever may be the case, a single shot rings out in the dark, warning those who pass by to stay away from the peaches that are no longer there….just as the man who guarded them for so long, no longer stands watch in his cupola. Or does he?

Way up top the house on the corner, a shadowy figure can often be seen pacing back and forth in the cupola on moonlit nights.

The house is no longer a resort, and has changed hands many times over the years. In a recent conversation with its current owner, I mentioned the story of the haunted cupola, and asked if I could take some pictures of it. She agreed, and added the house has never given her anything but a feeling of warmth, and denied hearing pacing or gunshots from the cupola.

I’d be pretty danged surprised if she did. I made up the entire story.

It just kind of popped out of my mouth for the first time years ago when a visiting friend and I walked around the neighborhood. I began telling her some of the stories I knew about the old houses we passed, and of the town’s history. Each time I’ve retold the story since, it gets a bit more embellished.

There is a lot of truth in there, though. South Haven was a booming port in the 1800s, put on the map by the lumber, fruit, and tourism industries. White pine was considered “Green Gold,” and peaches were called “Michigan’s Gold.” A print of a hand-drawn map I saw shows our house and just a handful of others in the neighborhood, surrounded by orchards. Whether they were peach, or apple orchards, I don’t know.

It is fact, though, that ‘Red Haven’ peaches are the most popular variety in the world, and that they were developed right here in town by Stanley Johnston. The house’s current owner and I laughed over one slight flaw in my tall tale (only one?): Stanley Johnston developed ‘Red Haven’ peaches in the year 1940….long after my fictional Frank Pritchard supposedly grew them, and probably even after the house became a resort. It was in my conversation with her, that I first heard of the house’s history as a resort. The footsteps and shots heard by guests is my story’s most recent addition. It adds a nice touch, don’t you think?

That’s what so fascinating to me about stories like this one, “The Melon Heads” and “The Feral Pigs of Fennville” from last year’s Creepy Local Legends, and all the other stories like them – they all contain bits of truth. The fun part is trying to decipher what is fiction and what is fact.

So next time you’re out walking on a chilly October evening past an old house or a rickety barn that’s long since seen better days, stop and take a good look at those darkened windows and heavy doors. Your imagination just might start to run wild, and you’ll begin to wonder what stories are lurking within, waiting to be unleashed.