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Double dose of spooky at Sweet Briar's ghost stories

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Posted: Wednesday, October 30, 2013 10:40 am | Updated: 11:30 am, Thu Oct 30, 2014.

The metal gate slides open with a screech.

On a hilltop overlooking the campus, a sentinel stands watch over Sweet Briar College. Known as the screaming statue, it broods over students and staff members alike as they make their yearly trek up Monument Hill to place flowers on the graves of the college’s benefactors: Indiana and Daisy Williams.

The two women, who some say never have left the campus, will be the focus of Ghost Stories of Sweet Briar this week.

The free evenings of stories and poems Wednesday and Friday feature the college’s resident spirits and a self-guided tour of the college’s museum, showing Sweet Briar’s fascination with the supernatural began soon after its tragic origins.

The story of Sweet Briar College began more than a century ago with the birth of Daisy to Indiana Fletcher Williams, a woman of considerable wealth and the owner of Sweet Briar Plantation in 1867.

The young girl lived an aristocratic lifestyle, and the college continues to house the antique furniture, household objects made of precious metals and English harp that appear frequently in a few of the ghost stories.

But in 1884, Daisy’s pampered life failed to shield her from the inherited disease that would claim her life. Indiana’s husband died a few years later.

Sweet Briar College would be born from that sad tale. In tribute to her late daughter, Indiana bequeathed her home, lands and estate to the founding of a school for young women upon her own death in 1900.

According to Karol Lawson, visiting assistant professor and director of the Sweet Briar Museum, listeners of Ghost Stories of Sweet Briar have no need to be frightened.

“They’re really very sweet stories; they’re not gruesome,” Lawson said.

Among the stories visitors will encounter are some that were written by the little ghost herself.

In the college’s possession is a fragile booklet, written and illustrated by the 9-year-old Daisy in 1876. The book contains “stories” one sentence in length with Daisy as a character in one of the stories. In that tale, she and a companion encounter a ghost during a riding trip.

“In the Light of the Embers,” was written by a member of the college’s first graduating class. According to that story, mysterious happenings on campus long have been established.

Meanwhile, a college newspaper article from 1928 made the astonishing claim a “flame” about the height of a man’s head was seen near one of the college’s lakes.

“I think they’re imaginative stories. I don’t think they were factual accounts,” Lawson said.

Skepticism aside, Sweet Briar does make for an ideal setting for ghost stories, she said.

At the time of the college’s founding, there were only four buildings on campus, with fewer than 50 students between them. Back then, Indiana’s death would have been a relatively recent event. With no modern forms of communication such as telephones or radio and only the sound of a passing train whistle filling the night air, it would have been a spooky place, Lawson said.

“You’re kind of out in the woods with a small group of people,” she said. “I can imagine there was a lot of opportunity for your imagination to run wild.”

After the story readings, visitors may take self-guided tours of the museum and view a few artifacts mentioned in the stories.

One of those artifacts is a curled lock of Daisy’s hair. Such personal mementos were commonplace in the Victorian Age, Lawson said.

Meanwhile, a charred children’s book that belonged to Daisy still smells of smoke after it was rescued from a fire at the Sweet Briar House, more than 80 years ago.

Inside a glass encasement, Daisy’s diary is turned to May 5, 1880, a day in which the girl wrote about the first roses coming out. Near the diary is a horse blanket belonging to Daisy’s pony. When Daisy died, Indiana had the animal saddled up every day and walked to the girl’s gravesite, Lawson said.

“What we’re trying to do is show people some of the things that show up in the ghost stories,” Lawson said.

Ghosts of Sweet Briar will be hosted by two rival college clubs. On Wednesday, ghost stories will be read by the Chung Mungs and on Friday, the Tau Phis.

On a terrace outside the museum, students will hold lanterns beside a sculpted chunk of rock. The marker is Daisy’s first gravestone, moved to its current location after it was vandalized in the 1970s. A door is etched into the face of the gravestone, perhaps to evoke contemplation of the next world.

Surrounded by so many personal objects of the Williams family, Lawson said she’s had no otherworldly experiences during her time at Sweet Briar.

“But I like to think that Daisy is watching us, looking after us,” she said.

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