Ghost tales: Shadows of San Juan

San Juan Bautista Mission.

Elizabeth Zanetta loves to play with her toys.

She also forgets to put them away sometimes, as children often do – but it’s not like Elizabeth can be put in time-out for being untidy. The 7-year-old has been dead for 139 years.

“When she died in that house, she stayed in that house – and she’s still there,” says self-described “ghost host with the most,” Leah Resendez.

A docent for the Plaza Association at the San Juan Bautista State Historic Park, Resendez regales intimate audiences with local lore during the town’s annual Ghost Walk, which took place Friday and Saturday under a starry October sky.

Holding a candle in one hand and directing attention to the 1868 Plaza Hall – a two-story ornate, Gothic/Victorian home painted peach pink and canary yellow – Resendez explained how Elizabeth’s ghost likes to visit her old nursery.

The daughter of a well-to-do San Juan hotelier/restaurateur named Angelo Zanetta, Elizabeth succumbed to smallpox in 1873 and now rests in the Zanetta family plot inside the San Juan Bautista Cemetery District, which sits on a hill along south Church Street overlooking Highway 156.

At night, however, “she takes her toys and she plays with them just as any child would play with their toys,” explained Resendez. “And when the state park staff gets back in the morning, they have to open all the alarmed and locked gates and go back in and rearrange everything. It’s become a nightly occurrence for them. It’s normal now. It’s a routine.”

“Routine” is an apropos characterization for how some San Juan locals acknowledge the presence of their otherworldly neighbors. When one lives or works in a town that looks like the set of “High Noon,” has been around since the late 1700s and boasts a secret network of musty underground tunnels, some would say that coexisting with specters of yore comes with the territory.

“This town is steeped deep in history and mystery both,” quips Resendez.

A city of many souls

With European settlement dating back to 1797, the rustic San Juan locale is home to the only Spanish Plaza left in California. The mission cemetery is also the final resting place for more than 3,400 Native American converts, European settlers and friars.

“This really was a crossroads of people from all over the world. A lot of souls have come and gone,” notes local antique shop owner Halina Kleinsmith, a former state park docent who once got locked in a costume dressing room on the second floor of the 1856 Plaza Hotel.

“The door isn’t even supposed to lock …there was no key in the door on either side,” Kleinsmith notes. “It’s almost as though I had been locked from the inside.”

Her strange experience is no anomaly.

Ask around town, and it becomes apparent that paranormal lore is as engrained in San Juan’s cultural fabric as the city’s famous flock of feral chickens. For the most part, ghoulish tales emerging from this decidedly one-of-a-kind town with around 1,890 living residents and an unknown number of restless souls toe the line near benign and playful.

“I don’t see it as scary,” notes ghost walk founder Lisa Estabrooks. “I see it as interesting. Fascinating.”

Mother/daughter business partners Debbie Hill, 51 and Ashlee Hill, 25 grow instantly wide-eyed and chatty when asked if they’ve experienced anything out of the ordinary at their charming antique store, Vintage Corner on Third and Polk streets (formerly the old San Juan Grammar School built in 1868).

In one instance, a “sketchy” and suspicious-acting woman was perusing the merchandise. Minutes later, an item came “flying” off the wall toward her.

“The lady looked at us and goes, ‘Well, I guess I’m not wanted here!’ and walked out,” said Ashlee. “That’s happened about three times to three different people.”

On another occasion, an antique vendor brought in a child’s piano that began playing itself in the middle of the day. Surprised and amused, Ashlee yelled to her mom to come check it out. Upon pulling the piano away from the wall, however, the two realized it had no electrical cords or battery-operated workings.

Debbie says she’s caught site of an elderly gentleman dressed in 1930s attire out of the corner of her eye. Ashlee has overheard the click of heels upstairs, which is sealed off to the public with a velvet rope.

“I walked up there and said, ‘hello?’” she recalled with a nervous grin. “I was freaking out.”

A couple blocks west of Vintage Corner, occasional visits from the ghost of a Native American woman named Rachel don’t fluster 68-year-old Julaine Bootten, who runs a home décor and antique store called Aggie’s Porch in the front half of a charming, turn-of-the-century blue cottage on Mariposa and Fourth streets.

As speculation goes, Rachel was a housekeeper whose baby died for unknown reasons. The broken-hearted mother eventually “self destructed” by starving to death or perhaps died of tuberculosis.

The Boottens have grown accustomed in the last year to unexplained “thunks” upstairs, the back door unlocking itself, tools getting moved or an occasional tap or gentle touch. Perfectly working radios keep breaking for unexplained reasons, too – “almost as if Rachel does not like that brand of music,” chuckles Julaine, sitting on a stool behind a rabbit hutch-turned-desk.

“Who knows … I don’t pooh-pooh it, but there are oddities,” she said. “There’s definitely a spirit in the house.”

Oddities aside, Julaine isn’t fazed “in the least” by this playful poltergeist, or “spirit,” as she prefers to say. The Bootten’s children and grandchildren decline to sleep upstairs when they visit, however.

“When we first moved in, everybody said, ‘oohhhh, be careful…. watch out,’” Julaine smiled. “But I made a point of just talking to her.”

Simple acknowledgment is what many of the reported apparitions seem to be seeking.

The lovely ghosts of working girls from La Casa Rosa on Third Street often awaken Charlie Shockey (the restaurant owner who lives in the upstairs apartment) in the middle of night until he gets out of bed and walks straight through the apparitions, causing them to disappear.

“They kinda just wanna wake you up and let you know that they’re here, and then they whisk away,” said Shockey, still in his kitchen apron as he made a brief and unexpected appearance during Friday’s ghost tour.

Lit up from the inside and glowing cotton-candy pink in the night, the 1858 former home, “house of ill-repute” and now eclectic eatery specializing in casseroles and soufflés gets unearthly visitors that enter through the fireplace, as if it were a door from another world. Ghost heads reportedly pop out of a rose-colored, 1900s Victrola (a specific type of phonograph) sitting in the corner of the pink parlor dining room.

“It’s kind of spooky and crazy to talk like this,” said Shockey, an elderly gregarious character who is slightly reserved when it comes to ghost talk. “It’s unusual for myself to even project right now any of these feelings or thoughts or happenings. But it’s fact.”

The stories go on, and on, and on.

The infamous “Lady in White” – a powerful Madame who was engaged to a prominent French gentleman but died after tripping down a steep stairway on her wedding day – is a familiar and widely witnessed haunt of the grandiose downtown building that was most recently the Cutting Horse Restaurant (also located on the site where an infamous hangman tree once stood back in the 19th century). Christine Dreifus, who previously co-owned the restaurant, told the Dispatch in 2008 that female customers often felt Deanna’s presence in the women’s restroom.

“They’ll see a shadow in the mirror,” she said. “And sometimes they try to get out of the restroom and they have a hard time pushing open the door as if there’s a resistance – as if someone’s trying to hold the door shut.”

Brand-new tenants occupying the pastoral, white picket-fenced Crane House on Polk and Second streets have already reported the ethereal, swooshing sounds of a woman’s petticoat whisking by.

“Even the dog looked up and noticed it,” said real estate broker Pat Riley, who relayed the story.

The friendly spirit of an 8-year-old girl named “Joanna” has resided with the family of Nicole Franco for four years and counting; sometimes setting off toys inside their neighborhood home and communicating with Franco’s young daughter, who is 3.

“I told her that as long as she takes care of my kids, she can stay with us and be a part of our family,” said Franco.

Franco, who at one point became visibly emotional and teary-eyed while sharing her story, said later that she could sense Joanna was frightened – perhaps by the ghost walk visitors.

“I felt like she nudged me,” said Franco. “It felt like her feelings were coming out through me.”

More stories from the Spanish Plaza

As for the wonderfully preserved historic Spanish Plaza situated on a portion of the original El Camino Real Route and overlooking the lush San Juan Valley, little Elizabeth isn’t the only phantasm that has made herself known to park rangers and visitors before “fizzling” away before their eyes.

Children’s faces have appeared in the windows of the 1840 Castro-Breen Adobe house, the red-tiled building facing east on the Plaza. Neighbors who live near the Plaza are puzzled by the recurring sounds of a ringing bell, even though the original bell that’s hung at the Plaza Hotel since 1856 is completely rusted in place.

Numerous locals have reported wisps of smoke curling out of the long-defunct chimney late at night in the month of October. The bizarre part is that “there has not been anything burned in those fireplaces for about 100 years,” says retired state park peace officer Sheryl Neufeld, 47, who offers an additional cache of strange accounts.

One night, when Neufeld was working late, she watched the doorknob to her office begin to turn slowly. Everyone else had gone home.

“That’s when it seemed really creepy there,” she laughed. “I just got out of there.”

Neufeld also spoke of “constant cold spots” in certain areas of the old buildings where “you could tell that the temperature dramatically dropped.” On one particularly “burning hot” day,” something went through my body from my front to the back” as Neufeld was closing up one of the buildings.

“It was just the creepiest feeling,” said Neufeld, even though she believed the act was a friendly gesture from “whatever it was” in an attempt to cool her down.

“I was like, OK, thank you, I guess?” she laughed.

She describes another bizarre tale of her old superintendent, a true “skeptic” if there ever was one, who was watching a historic film alongside his assistant in the upstairs of the Plaza Hotel. When the two got up to leave, they turned and realized that a large table and the rest of the chairs in the room had been pulled up alongside them, as if an audience of ghostly companions decided to get comfortable and watch the video as well.

“Boy, was he white in the face,” said Neufeld. “He didn’t think it was funny at all … I’ve never seen him so pale after that.”

Looking back, Neufeld’s overarching impression of the spectral beings wafting about the town echoes the sentiments of ghost walk founder Lisa Estabrooks.

“I felt like I always had company with me there, but it was always good,” she noted. “I was being watched, and I knew that. And I’ve never felt creepy about it … except when the doorknob started to turn at 11 p.m. at night. Then it’s like, OK. You’re testing me now.”

Click here to read a past Dispatch story about the haunted tales at the old Cutting Horse Restaurant in San Juan Bautista. 

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