Ghosts of Saline County
October 22-28, 2018
By Cody Berry
With all the legends, tall tales, and ghost stories found in Arkansas, it might as well be called the Supernatural State. There are plenty of books out there that talk about Dr. Baker and the Crescent Hotel in Eureka Springs, Mount Holly Cemetery in Little Rock, and the famous Gurdon Light, but there isn’t much about Saline County. From China Grove’s glowing headstones to the halls of the State Hospital in Haskell, there are actually a lot of stories floating around.
According to one legend, a young girl was thrown into Lorance Creek during the winter of 1863. She was buried in a white dress on Christmas Eve, her grave marked by a simple wooden cross. In 1920, a group of men looking for oil reported hearing a girl screaming after drilling their first hole. Workers reported seeing a young girl in white there on Halloween. She looked right at them and asked “Why?” Did they dig into her grave? Who was she? Nobody knows.
In 1990, Lorance Creek became a protected area managed by the Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission. The area is a beautiful swamp-like park complete with boardwalk, interpretive panels, parking, and plenty of wildlife. Sightings of the girl in white have been few and far between in recent years but go there on Halloween and you just might have a visitor.
Any fan of the movie “Sling Blade” will recognize the old Benton Services Center, now part of the Arkansas Health Center on Highway 67 in Haskell. The movie opens and ends with “Karl” staring out its windows. The facility started its life as an extension of the Arkansas State Hospital, with the first patient admitted in June of 1936. Now, given that the hospital housed people with “nervous diseases” and the fact that patients were buried there (some in a mass grave), it makes sense that there are some creepy stories surrounding the place.
One source said she witnessed call lights going off after a patient died. In Building 70 (the old morgue) she witnessed a juke box randomly turning on, disembodied footsteps, a feeling of dread on the second floor, and a tall shadowy figure walking into a locked room. Employees have heard voices near the old kitchen, even when there was no one else around. Building 70 is now closed and is maintained by a nearby prison.
In Benton, there are quite a few historic buildings with some creepy tales to tell. In the 1920s, there was a “hot” rivalry between Charles Womack, his Palace Theater and the IMP, now the Royal, owned at first by Alice Wooten, but for most of its life by the Kaufman Family. Just a few months after the two opened, the Royal was set ablaze. Womack was supposedly behind the fire, but he skipped town before facing the consequences.
Members of the Young Players and some adults have reported seeing the ghost of a man at the Royal Theater. The children named him “Charlie.” Womack’s Palace Theater had quite the life after it stopped showing movies. It was a recreation center called the Play Palace from 1944 to 1953 and from 1967 to 2002, it housed the Saline County Library.
The library burned in January 1988 which forced it to close until that April. According to a former librarian, everything in the library was damaged by the fire except for a portrait of two women in rocking chairs and the area immediately around it. Staff members say the old branch was “filled with demons,” and that they often heard a man talking, keys jangling, and disembodied foot steps there. Charlie, is that you?
Mrs. Noles, a former teacher of mine, said that she heard disembodied footsteps while walking the halls of Ringgold Elementary in Benton. She said it sounded like a “woman in heels,” but no one was there. Another day, a secretary at the school reported a room number light going off in the office even though that room isn’t there because most of the original structure no longer exists. Mrs. Noles said the staff believe the ghost is the spirit of the school’s namesake, Mrs. Ursaline Ringgold, who passed away in 1982.
Ghost stories cannot be proven by historians, but they are still fun to share particularly this time of year. I hope you have enjoyed reading at least a small piece of Saline County’s colorful folklore. Next month there will be more history, but for now I want to wish you a very Happy Halloween.