Original publish date: September 2, 2013
If you’re looking for something to do this weekend and want to get out of town for the day, I have a suggestion for you. Pack up the spouse, the kids, friend or significant other and head out to Cambridge City, 45 minutes east of Indy, for Canal Days festivities on the Historic National Road. Canal Days is a street festival in an old canal town that features some of the best antiquing and specialty shopping in the state. I’ll even take you on a ghost tour if you wish (there are 2 different tours this Saturday night) where you can visit one of Indiana’s most haunted antique malls, the Vinton House.
Canal Days is always held on the first weekend after Labor Day and I’ve led ghost tours in this community for nearly a decade. Similar to the Irvington ghost walk, Cambridge City tours begin at 6:00 PM for the west side of town and then again at 8:30 for the east side of town. The east side tour concludes near midnight in the abandoned Capitol Hill cemetery. The old cemetery, whose last burial took place in 1931, is the beneficiary of the tour with 100% of the proceeds going to it’s preservation. The one element that the tours have in common, along with the Lincoln Ghost train of course, is the Vinton House.
The Vinton House was the oldest continuously operating Hotel in Indiana until it closed in 1981. During it’s lifetime, aside from being a prominent landmark on the National Road, the hotel saw it’s fair share of famous guests including Henry Clay, Governor Oliver P. Morton and Irvington’s own George Washington Julian. One longtime rumor claims that Abraham Lincoln himself stayed at the Inn while traveling through Indiana in the 1840s campaigning for fellow Whig Party candidates. This legend, although unsubstantiated, is so persistent that one of the guest rooms was actually named “The Lincoln Room” by the hotel’s last owner.
For over a decade the Vinton House, located at 20 West Main Street in Cambridge, has been re-energized as an antique mall. Over those 10 years, the Vinton House has gained a strong reputation for carrying one of the best selections of country antiques and primitives in the Midwest. Add to that mix the town’s other fine established shops and malls like Building 125, the National Road Antique Mall and the Hole-in-the-wall, to name only a few, and you have some of the finest antiquing in the state all within a 2-block stretch known as “Antique Alley”.
The Vinton House was saved from demolition in the 1990s by members of Cambridge City’s historic preservation group (known as Western Wayne Heritage, Inc.) when the group purchased the famous old hotel and began renovations that continue to this day. Built in the 1840s at the intersection of the newly opened Whitewater Canal and the National Road, Aaron Reisor opened the opulent three-story hotel alongside the Canal bank. Although the Canal is long gone, it’s route can be easily traced by looking at the building’s west side.
The Vinton House is named for longtime owner Elbridge Vinton, who ran it from Antebellum times to Teddy Roosevelt’s Progressive Era. After Elbridge’s death in 1908, his daughters ran the hotel until the Great Depression. During that near three-quarter century, the old hotel has seen innumerable comings-and-goings. It seems that many of those old guests, along with Elbridge himself, have never left the building. Contrary to what you may think, the ghosts of the Vinton House are not a modern day phenomenon. The wayward spirits of residents past date back as far as the World War II Era while the building was still an active hotel.
These wayward spirits were first brought to my attention by April Riggle, a dear friend and the previous manager of the antique mall. April, who unexpectedly passed away at age 43 in 2009, was very sensitive to the old inn’s spectral visitors and had many encounters during her many years at the Vinton House. The ghosts would most often manifest by the sounds of furniture scooting across the floor in the second floor “Lincoln Room” directly above the checkout counter. These sounds were heard when April was alone in the locked building after all guests and fellow employees had left for the day.
In time, these scratching and scooting sounds were being picked up on the security cameras within the building. When April, or other witnesses, would ascend the stairs to investigate the strange sounds, they could find nothing there. However, customers in the mall often asked the staff who the people dressed in period clothes were and remark about the strong smell of cigar smoke or alcohol that would accompany these sightings upstairs. Of course, upon closer examination, there was never anyone there to account for them.
This year, after we were kindly asked to resurrect the ghost tours after a 3-year hiatus, I visited the Vinton House to get reacquainted with the old building. Danny and Tammy Hall now manage the mall and, with an assist from daughter Lacy, work tirelessly to keep it’s shelves and cases full of high quality antiques and collectibles. “We get people in here all the time asking us about the ghosts and the tours” says Tammy. “But I’ve been in here at all hours of the night and day and have yet to experience anything.”
Danny, one of the area’s most experienced and seasoned pickers, echoes his wife’s sentiment. “I’ve been working in old buildings, barns and houses since I was a little kid and although I’ve found myself in the pitch dark going nose-to-nose with angry possum’s and raccoon’s, I’ve never seen a ghost.”
The couple walked me around the old building showing me the many improvements that have been made since my last visit. I asked Tammy if she shared the same passion for antiques as her husband does and she quickly answered yes. Danny, who I have personally run into on several occasions over the years at area antique shows lit only by the light of a flashlight before the show actually opens (an old pickers trick), has one of the keenest eyes in the region. “I get my biggest thrill cleaning and presenting the items he brings home to place around the mall” says Tammy. “But I’m ready to go at 2:30 AM if need be.”
Tammy has repainted nearly every square inch of the antique mall. Her attention to detail and sharp decorator’s eye can be witnessed in every room. Western Wayne has established a fine museum on the third floor that tells the story of the town, hotel and canal in meticulous detail. But, unlike many antique malls, the sales floor of the Vinton House “Ain’t No Museum.” Although many of the pieces in the mall are museum quality, the prices are affordable and the selection is widely varied. I have personally watched as a friend bought an old 19th century horse buggy and a casket (it was empty, don’t worry) on a single visit from Danny. A testament to the fact that you never know what you’re going to find there.
Cambridge City ghost tours always start in the cellar of the Vinton House, a long abandoned brick-lined space that was originally at Canal level. Segregated from the upper class guest rooms of the hotel, it’s history involved drinking, gambling and nefarious ventures during it’s century-and-a-half lifetime. The room is off limits to the public (except for ghost tour night) and always kept locked. This day was no exception. We entered the space for a quick survey in preparation for this Saturday night’s tours.
As we walked and talked, I explained what might be expected on tour night and told a couple of the cellar’s ghost stories to the couple (they had never heard them before). As we prepared to exit the cellar, this “Para-normally Challenged” couple stopped and shined a flashlight on a curious formation in the dirt at our feet. “That’s new. That wasn’t here the last time,” Danny said. Tammy agreed as we examined an area on the dirt floor where the sandy soil had been piled up carefully, by purposeful hands, with a central brick acting as a prominent fortress atop the mound complete with a small 8-to-10 inch tree twig flagpole rising from the center hole. The spooky looking little formation was not created by accident. “Leave that there, untouched.” I said, “I think people are gonna want to see that Saturday Night.”
See for yourself this Saturday September 7th (2013). Come spend the day at Cambridge City’s Canal Days celebration and stay for the ghost tours. First tour departs at 6:00 and the last tour at 8:30. It promises to be a ghostly good time.