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Old Firehouse

Barbara Farrell jokes about having the biggest garage in Sanford, that’s because she lives in the city’s old Firehouse on Palmetto Avenue. Barbara, a realtor and artist originally from Coconut Grove, Florida, visited Sanford in 1992 following Hurricane Andrew and immediately felt a strange connection with the town. When she found out that the city’s old Fire Station was for sale she was interested in looking it over. The station had not been used since it was closed 1974 and needed considerable restoration if it was going to be transformed into a residence.

It would indeed be an expensive and extensive project, but this didn’t matter to Barbara, because as she told me, “It just felt right.” So she bought the old station and began renovating it but was careful to preserve the historical quality of the 19th century building while incorporating her own ideas to make the place livable. When the job was finished, Barbara had turned the second floor into a beautiful light and airy residence that has won several awards for restoration and has been featured in numerous publications. The upstairs was where the firemen on duty slept. The two brass poles that the firemen once slid down to the engines are gone although you can still see where they were. Barbara, whose art works have been collected by the Lowe Art Museum, Belgium’s Ghent Museum, Citibank, and the Trump organization, has decorated the original brick walls of the old Fire Station with several pieces of her work. The flooring is original and so are the stairs going to the second floor with each step worn in the center as a testimony to a century of footsteps.

Barbara had hardly settled into her new residence when she discovered that she had a house guest, maybe even two house guests…or should that be house ghosts? While relaxing with a book in her big, brass bed one night she noticed that little pebbles were dropping from overhead. It was not from the ceiling and there seemed to be no source or cause for these small rocks. They would simply drop out of thin air making a pinging sound when hitting the brass bedstead. It was as if some one was playing a prank. Then there were the creaking sounds of footsteps, not on the stairs, but overhead. It was like someone was walking overhead, but how could that be, after all this is a two story building. Well, not quite, as Barbara found out through research, her firehouse had three stories until 1928 when the city remodeled the structure and removed the third story.

Although she has never seen an apparition in the old Firehouse, other than things that can be dismissed as reflections, she does sense that she is living with a presence from the past and thinks it could be a fireman. She is not alone in her feelings; several former firemen have recalled a few uncanny experiences in the old station. Two former firemen recounted how chairs placed in front of the fireplace at night would later be moved around. One fireman recalled hearing the rattling sound of a chain, “Like a dog running with a chain.” One night while the crew was out on a call, another fireman who had remained behind in the station remembers how the doors started opening and closing on their own. Not knowing what caused it, he went out front and sat in a chair by the street to wait for the crew to return.

The Firehouse, a stucco and brick structure was built in 1887 after a great fire had destroyed the entire east side of Sanford. For many years it served a combination of functions as an armory, city hall, firehouse, jail, and the top floor, that is the third floor that was removed, served as a courtroom. Perhaps those squeaky footsteps that Barbara heard were coming from the past when court was held on the third floor.

The first prospect for a ghost may be a man who was hanged behind the Firehouse when it was a part of the city jail. The man was Percy Bayless, a twenty-four year old black man accused of gunning down a twenty-two year old deputy sheriff named Cleveland Jacobs. The hanging took place at ten minutes after ten o’clock on the morning of March 30, 1923. The newspaper reported that, “All adjoining fences and roof tops had their quota of people anxious to witness the hanging.” It was the first and only legal hanging in the county. In June of that year, the state abolished hanging and switched to electrocution as the preferred form of execution. Does the ghost of Percy Bayless still roam the old building? Barbara thinks that could be a possibility. The jail yard where Bayless was hanged was later made part of the fire station when the garage area was enlarged to accommodate additional and longer fire trucks.

There are a number of firemen deaths connected to the history of the Firehouse. The first was on August 16, 1888, when a young fireman named Harry Ashton fell through an elevator shaft while fighting a downtown fire. In 1957 a rookie fireman was accidentally killed when he was backed over by a fire truck while hooking a hose to a hydrant. In 1979 a fireman lost his life while fighting a major blaze when a wall fell on him. In 1968, a fire department lieutenant was killed in a head-on car wreck and in 1969, the body of a fireman who had been mysteriously missing for seven months was found stuffed in the closet of his house. His wife was convicted and served time for his murder. There certainly are plenty of candidates for a haunting.

There’s another strange event that seems connected to this old Firehouse. While in a deep state of meditation Barbara experienced a vision, not necessarily a dream but more like a inward visualization that she was a 14-year old boy back in the late 1880s on a dirt street where a firehouse was being built. She could see horses on the street and the boy appeared to be taking water to the workers from a fountain located in the middle of an intersection. At some point she could see the boy fatally kicked by a horse. It might have been brushed-off as a good daydream if not for what happened next.

Some time after this, she was at a flea market in another part of the state rummaging through a stack of antique post cards when one card immediately grabbed her attention. It was an old 19th century photograph of a round fountain in the middle of an intersection. Around the fountain were a half-dozen boys leaning against the rail, and there in the center was a boy like the one she had seen during that strange meditation. Then she made a spine-shivering discovery, the photo was of Sanford’s Palmetto Avenue and Second Street, a mere half block from the Firehouse! It should be noted that prior to Barbara’s vision of a fountain at this particular location, it was believed that the only fountain was at First Street and Palmetto. It was only later that historians were able to document that the fountain had been relocated to Second and Palmetto. Coincidence, or a case of reincarnation, or is it something else? Whatever it was, she bought the postcard. As for the entity in her Firehouse, Barbara says, “I just told him look, I’m living here now, and you’re welcome to stay but we’re going to get along.” As for firemen, each year Barbara hosts a get-together for Sanford’s retired firefighters and perhaps a few unseen ones too.

Weird Florida

 

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