What orphanage was built where the Opera House now stands? This question seems to haunt those who investigate paranormal activity in the structure; however, the historical record offers no substantiation of the phantom orphans’ asylum.

Yet the Opera House remains a draw for ghost-hunters. One such group (see sidebar) visits Arcadia on April 20.

The property was originally owned John Jay Philbrick and his wife Mary A. Philbrick, Peter A. Williams and his wife Malvina Williams, Raymon Alvarez and his wife Florence Alvarez—all citizens of Key West. In 1888, the Philbricks, Williamses, plus George D. Warren and his wife Susan M. Warren, had donated block 29 for a new courthouse after voters had picked Arcadia as the new government seat of DeSoto County formed in 1887.

On June 22, 1891, J. W. Whidden—“attorney in fact” for the Philbrick, Williams, and Alvarez families—sold the property for $50 to his nephew Andrew Green (1854-1925). In the 1910 U.S. Census, Green was 55 years and worked as Arcadia’s postmaster. He lived on Brevard Avenue with his wife, Martha E. Green (1859-1945), and nine of their 13 children: Herbert, age 31, a post office clerk; James, age 22, a surveyor; Imogene, age 18; Ursula, age 16; Ida, age 13; Rollo, age 11; Susie, age 9; Andrew, age 7; married daughter Maude Lane, age 29, a post office clerk; and her children Nellie Mae, age 6, and Kirby L., age 3.

On July 10, 1894, the Greens sold the property for $1,000 to Samuel Joseph Simmons (1854-1942), and the sizable purchase price implies a structure. In the 1900 U.S. Census, Simmons worked as a merchant and lived with his sister and her family in Arcadia. In 1901, he married Julia Humphries Simmons (1870-1956). In the 1910 census, he worked as a real estate agent, and they had three children: Samuel J., Jr., age 8; John H., age 6; Paul, age 4 (later, James P. was born). Samuel served two terms on the Arcadia City Council.

On Oct. 12, 1905, the Simmons’ sold the property to John J. Heard for a $2,000 promissory note. On Nov. 30, a Thanksgiving Day fire destroyed the property. In the Dec. 1 issue of the DeSoto County News, Heard is listed as losing his “dwelling house,” as well as suffering damage to his citrus packing house—located where the Plaza Hotel was later built. In the 1900 U.S. Census, Heard was listed as a “fruit dealer,” married five years to his wife Lowe, with children William A., age 3, and James N., age 4 months. (His daughters Julia and Marguerite were born about 1904 and 1911, respectively).

Interestingly, the Dec. 1 issue also published a legal notice for the Florida Baptist Children’s Home—known locally as the orphanage—advertising staggered terms for its Board of Directors. It had been founded in Arcadia in 1903 on land at the northwest corner of W. Gibson Street and N. Arcadia Avenue, about one-half mile north of the Opera House.

After the fire, Heard built the Opera House in 1906 and opened the South Florida Loan and Trust Co. In the 1910 census, he was listed as president of a “state bank.” According to Howard Melton in his book “Footprints and Landmarks: Arcadia and DeSoto County, Florida,” Heard also founded the Arcadia Electric Light, Ice, and Telephone Co.; and owned (with David Scott) the Carlton Block; the Central Hotel; the Arcadian Mercantile Co.; and was president of the State Bank of Kissimmee.

Heard left Arcadia in 1911 and moved to Jacksonville where he founded the Heard National Bank. When it went bankrupt in June 1918, he and four other prominent businessmen were arrested. However, by September 1920 every depositor was paid in full, and all cases against the bank were dismissed.

Florida ghost-bustersA Vero Beach paranormal group, Indian River Hauntings LLC, will visit Arcadia on April 20. Its members and guests plan a special dinner at Mary Margaret’s Tea & Biscuit and then to the downtown Opera House for an investigation. Indian River Hauntings owner Larry Lawson shared some insight into his unusual business. www.paranormalfbi.com

Question: Backstory of Indian River Hauntings?

Lawson: “Indian River Hauntings is the ‘outreach’ arm of the Florida Bureau of Paranormal Investigation that began early in 2011. The FBPI was the result of a combination of things that include my interest in the field and the fact that I am law enforcement officer and specifically spent much of that time as a detective. The investigation into one of mankind’s oldest mysteries is what I consider an extension of my profession. Indian River Hauntings was born out of the increasing requests I was receiving to learn more about the field of paranormal research and investigation. It is our desire to not only teach people the history of the locations (historical research is a VITAL part of what we do) but also inform people what this field is and is not. We want our guests to understand the right and wrong way to do things.”

Question: Is there something in your life from childhood?

Lawson: “No. My first experience with the paranormal came at the beginning of my law enforcement career when I saw a full body apparition while working in the Dade County jail in Miami.”

Question: Why Arcadia?

Lawson: “Well the reputation of the old Opera House speaks for itself. I became interested in bringing our event and what we do to Arcadia while doing some research of the British flight students of the 5th British Flying Training School that was established with the help of John Riddle early in World War II. I was doing this research at the request of a colleague in England named Christopher Huff who studies and investigates haunted airfields in England from WWII. While doing this work, I fell in love with Arcadia and the rest of the county and just wanted to learn more about. I believe that Arcadia is one of the true unknown gems of Florida.”

Question: Any good stories?

Lawson: “So many of them. Perhaps one of the best is a guest at our ‘Dinner and a Ghost Hunt’ we do in Fellsmere, Florida, captured a full body apparition in the Marsh Landing restaurant there. We call her the ‘The Lady in Purple.’”

Question: What about doubters?

Lawson: “Well, the first thing I would say is there are to many well documented paranormal events throughout history to say that there is nothing to it. So the question is what is it we are experiencing? There is the mystery we seek to answer. The truth is NO ONE knows what this is and there are many theories to what the paranormal really is. Our goal is to find those answers and to share them. Is it residual energy form those who have passed on? Is it parallel dimensions crossing over? Is it our minds that are creating these events? We don’t know. I can say the evidence shows something is going on, let’s take a serious look to see what the answer is.

“We are VERY excited about being in Arcadia. Not only is it antique capital of the state but I also feel it is one of the most historical and paranormally active spots in Florida. The folks here are wonderful and friendly. I can’t wait to be there and share what we do with everyone. It’s going to be a great night!”

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