INDEPENDENCE -- Who's afraid of ghosts?
Not Victoria Cedillo and Emily Farley. Best friends and neighbors, they often get together to watch spine-tingling television.
Once, when Victoria's softball team was at Speakeasy, the infamous mannequins there were "watching."
"Really, it's true," confirmed Victoria as she waited in the crisp, crowded darkness Sept. 27 to begin her Ghost Walk experience.
"We could feel someone watching us, and then there the mannequins were."
The Central High School freshmen fit right in with their fellow ghost walkers, a spirited mix of all ages gathered in front of Monmouth Hardware in anticipation of some spooky fun.
Who's afraid of ghosts? Not these folks.
"I always wanted something like this in Independence," said Farley as she sized up the tour guides floating through the crowd in antique garb.
As the clock struck 8 and the crowd swelled to about 300 it became clear this town has been holding a secret -- its love of the macabre.
"We were expecting 25 to 50 people," said Marilyn Morton, one of the organizers of the first-time event. "This is a huge surprise."
To make the tour more manageable, the crowd was divided into groups who would visit the haunts at spaced intervals.
First up was the Masonic Lodge, which dates its existence to the turn of the century. With its brick, wood and shadows, it's easy to see why ghosts are so comfortable there.
Climbing up a creaking staircase, the walkers stopped at the entrance to a second-floor room. Entering, they were met by darkness, save a lit altar in the center.
With her face lit up like a storyteller around a midnight campfire, Morton launched into the lodge's tale of many people hearing countless footsteps, from beyond and above the room.
Suddenly, there was a sound. Was it? Yes, it was footsteps!
Then she told of a pair of glowing eyes that have been seen on the stairway.
One young lady who was initiated into Job's Daughters in that room has her own tale to tell around the camp fire. Morton said the girl's initiation was attended by a spirit at her side and one who kept watch by the entrance.
"This has never been about something bad here," Morton added.
"These citings have always brought a sense of comfort, joy and protection."
Her words were echoed by Scott Freeman, who took the group over in another room of the building, a cozy yet spacious area with an authentic player piano and other era pieces.
"We've met many of the past residents of this building," Freeman said. "There's a lot of warmth here...people leave an imprint and that's what is here."
Somehow, when descending the staircase to head over to the hardware store, one gets the feeling that there's something more than one-dimensional faces looking back from a row of portraits at the landing...
That feeling doesn't go away when descending the 12 steps into the basement at the hardware store. As owner Dave Upton will tell you, it's not your imagination. He's got a ghost story of his own to tell.
"This isn't second-hand, this is my story," Upton tells his group of listeners. First, there's the matter of the aisles. For the 11 years that Upton has walked those aisles, he's got 11 years of items falling off the shelf as he walks by, falling and moving a considerable distance from the shelf.
"They don't end up in a spot where they could logically end up just by falling," he declared.
Then he revealed his trump of terror. Seems one day he was in the basement, cutting pipe.
"Like this," he said, demonstrating the tools and technique he used. Ever so carefully, ever so slowly and deftly, the heavy iron pipe floated through the air and tapped Upton on the back. Then, as he turned, Upton watched as the pipe was gently placed back on the floor.
"No one likes to cut pipe here," Upton said, delivering a wry smile to his slightly nervous listeners. "No one died here...so maybe it's an old customer who thought it would be fun to tease these guys."
As the group digests the stories they head as one to the next stop, hosted by veterinarians Bob and Laura Archer. The Archers own what used to be the Oddfellows Hall, which they have turned into a charming testament to a bygone era, complete with chandeliered ballroom.
When the Archers first bought the building they were half-expecting to get a skeleton in the bargain -- the bones of former grand Oddfellow Max Smith, dressed to the nines in his tuxedo. That was the rumor, anyway: that the old odd fellow Smith had dictated in his final wishes that his bones be kept in the hall.
Max Smith they did not find, but the skeleton of a small human female they did find, in a mahogany coffin.
"It was the day after Thanksgiving, very dreary," Laura Archer remembered. "It was 8,000 square feet of stuff upstairs, full of furniture, the windows blocked, very poor light." Then there was the coffin -- sans tuxedo.
There has been much speculation about the origins of the remains, with the most popular being that they are those of a young Native American girl, perhaps donated to a school for educational purposes. That would explain the red and green paint on the fingers.
All said, an irreverent statement on the way things used to be. As a memorial to the young girl, the Archer's have respectfully named the ballroom "Maxine's" and they often feel they are honoring her when the ballroom is used. Perhaps the girl's spirit is resting a bit easier.
Next was the Heritage Museum, which gave walkers a ticket to walk back in time -- but no ghosts were spotted. After the museum the group stopped for a tour of Speakeasy and those frisky mannequins. Meeting them up close wasn't possible as they are stored in the second floor. But a few of them, both well-dressed and ghoulishly attired, were on hand to greet visitors. The restaurant was dripping with the spirit of the evening, offering menu enticements like an optional glass of blood with dinner and an ambience of screams and spooky music.
But the ghostly heritage is no gimmick at Speakeasy. "I hear walking upstairs, sometimes a sound like a basketball bouncing," said co-owner Shelly Loynes. "My husband has seen white lights floating, but I haven't and I don't want to." Loynes has a few theories about her invisible tenants. Upstairs used to be a surgeon's office and a dental office. People died there. It was also known at one point for illegal gambling and was a very rough spot. In another era, elderly people lived (and died) in the building.
Then there's those mannequins, the ones Victoria Cedillo claims were watching her softball team. Three days after the Loynes moved in, one of the glass-eyed antique women was pushed out of the upstairs window -- with no one around. "Did the mannequin end up outside on the sidewalk?" asked one of the ghost walkers.
"Its head did," replied Loynes to a round of silent shivers.
Hmmm. It's no wonder folks flocked over to Taylor's after the tour for some cookies and cheery talk under a warm and welcoming glow.
That said, it's worth noting that the "ghosts of Independence" are building their growing reputations on a spirit of goodwill. Like most ghosts, they're also stubborn about sticking close to what they once called home.
Maybe not so surprising, after all. Perhaps it was said best by one woman in the crowd comforting a girl who was worried about being separated from her mother: "You won't get lost; it's a small town."