This October Check Out One of Florida's Creepiest Historic Places: Spook Hill in Lake Wales
In each issue of the Florida Preservationist, the Florida Trust for Historic Preservation spotlights a preservation story, sometimes highlighting unique Florida architecture, other times a forgotten piece of Florida history or the dedicated efforts of an individual or group of individuals to preserve Florida’s heritage. In the Spring 2019 issue that focus was a unique and quirky historic site added to the National Register of Historic Places that year. The listing certainly contributed to the diversity of the register’s listings. Ladies and gentlemen, we present ... Spook Hill.
Spook Hill is a local attraction in Lake Wales, Florida, so named for the spooky phenomenon thrill seekers experience when they stop their cars on the hill. A white line marks the spot where motorists are meant to pause and put their vehicles in neutral, at which point it will appear as if they are being pulled up the hill even as they perceivably roll down it.
For realists, it’s simply an optical illusion. If you want a slightly more exciting but still somewhat practical explanation, there is a theory that underfoot is a lode (that’s an underground deposit of metalliferous ore, for those non-science folk) that essentially acts like a magnet pulling vehicles up the hill.
More thrilling yet is the third option. According to local lore, when an evil alligator began to terrorize a Seminole tribe living near the lake, their courageous chief Cufcowellax set out to defeat the beast, ultimately emerging triumphant.
Years later the land became sacred when the chief’s people buried him at the site of his victory. Eventually, however, they were driven away and their settlement replaced by one group after another, each finding that their respective modes of transportation struggled on the hill. Why? Perhaps it is the spirit of the chief still defending his people or the menacing alligator still hungering for humans. Maybe it is a third, divine spirit, endeavoring simply to protect the hallowed ground. Who knows!?
For those wanting a more spooky story to lend credit to the hill’s name, look no further than the legend of pirate pals Captain Gimme Sarsparilla and Teniente Vincento Alfredo Nieto Isidoro Lima Llano Alvarez (called Teniente V.A.N.I.L.L.A. for short, sparing those of us less skilled in articulation) - buccaneer buds in life only to be separated in death, one buried under the hill and the other in the lake beyond.
When centuries later automobile owners deemed the bottom of the hill a desirable place to stop,
Vanilla found the weight of the vehicles — each being equal to that of approximately 16 men — sitting on his chest less than desirable. After all, you know what they say about a bunch of men on a dead man’s chest. So, Vanilla called out to his friend Sarsparilla (one imagines with a cry of yo ho ho and a request for a particular beverage). The good captain then rose from his resting place to assist a friend in need and moved the car. Anachronistic? Maybe. More fun to tell than “It’s just your eyes playing tricks”? Definitely.
Whatever the explanation for the spooky effect, on April 5, 2019, Spook Hill officially joined the over 1.4 million individual resources that make up the National Register of Historic Places. Listed under Criterion A at the local level for Entertainment/Recreation, the site’s period of significance is 1950-1969, aligning with the post-WWII auto industry boom. It gained popularity as a tourist attraction for the increasingly mobile vacationers to Central Florida and a marketing tool for local businesses seeking to attract and, no doubt, retain traveling customers.
Over time, Spook Hill has become as much a part of the area’s history as major events and notable figures. In a letter to the Division of Historical Resources endorsing the site’s nomination, Polk County Commissioner George Lindsey, III, expressed, “A visit to Central Florida can almost be considered incomplete if it doesn't include a visit to this mind-boggling tourist attraction.”
The site holds a special place in the hearts of Lake Wales locals as well. Cassie Pavy, a resident of the town, commented that it is a must-see for her and her three children, who often beg to be driven up the hill and love hearing and retelling its story (maybe sometimes with slight variations).
The modest Lake Wales attraction serves as a delightful reminder that the National Register is not just for buildings or monuments but can include more “unconventional” sites as well. Whether for the experience it provides or the legends it has inspired, Spook Hill is certainly deserving of its place among the nation’s esteemed historical resources.
What are some popular spots around your community? If you find yourself with some extra time and/or curiosity, perhaps consider checking them out and discovering more of their history. You could learn something new! And if ever you’re in or near Lake Wales, be on the lookout for a vicious alligator or say hi to Captain Gimme and Señor Vincento Alfredo Nieto … Señor Vanilla ...