Using the supernatural to sell Howard County

Tourism: Historic Savage Mill hopes ghost walks will have a high-spirited effect on business.

October 04, 2004|By Sandy Alexander | Sandy Alexander,SUN STAFF

For years, merchants and staff at Savage Mill have believed the place is haunted. Now Howard County Tourism Inc. is turning that into an asset for the 19th-century mill turned boutique shopping center.

On Friday and Saturday nights through next month, the new Ghost Walks in Historic Savage Mill combines local history with tales of ghostly apparitions, unseen tricksters and unexplained occurrences. They also encourage visitors to shop and dine at the mill.

It is a combination that has worked well in Ellicott City, where the tourism group's ghost tours have drawn approximately 4,000 people in the past year and where merchants saw ticket holders come in to redeem the discounts on the back of the passes.

"We are looking to do that same formula again at Savage," said Howard County Tourism's Executive Director Rachelina Bonacci.

The Savage Mill Tour takes visitors through several buildings, outside to the Bollman truss railroad bridge - the last of its type in the world - and up the tower where Rebecca King, the mill's best-known ghost, fell to her death while carrying a bundle of cloth down the steep wooden stairs.

Along the way the guides - and sometimes merchants - share stories of hearing mysterious laughter and running footsteps, smelling burning candles, finding objects that have been moved and sensing unseen visitors.

Ghostly children, including one who died sliding down a banister, are said to frolic in the buildings and play tricks on visitors.

Some people say they have spotted ghosts peeking through windows or lurking in stores.

The tour ends at Rams Head Tavern, where participants are invited to try Becky's Brew, in honor of the resident spirit.

They also can ask the manager about his encounters with Rebecca King.

In addition to being entertaining, the tour's stories are intended to highlight real people and events surrounding the mill.

"Ghost tours ... are a way of making learning fun," Bonacci said. "It's history with a paranormal twist."

Savage Mill was built in the 1820s, when four brothers borrowed $20,000 from their friend John Savage to start a weaving business on the banks of the Little Patuxent River.

The mill produced textiles until 1948, when the new owner made it into a Christmas display village featuring live reindeer, a circus and Santa Claus. After that venture went bankrupt, the Winer family bought the complex and, starting in 1985, renovated it into a specialty marketplace that draws about 1 million visitors each year.

General partner Jay Winer encouraged the tourism group to start a tour at the mill.

"We're really excited about it," Winer said. "The history is interesting. There are few places like it left."

Plus, accounts of paranormal encounters add a nice shiver to the tour.

"From the day I got here I'd always heard stories," Winer said. He had an assistant quit after she said ghosts bothered her on her first day, he said.

Mark Croatti, an adjunct political science professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, started collecting the stories for a tour in July, talking to merchants, historians and other researchers.

He said he was surprised by the number of first-hand accounts that he collected.

"There are 50 stories on the tour," Croatti said. "You definitely ... get a sense of the mill's history."

Croatti was a ghost tour guide in Ellicott City three years ago and became interested in researching history and paranormal activity in the area. He wrote the latest version of the Ellicott City tour and the script for Savage Mill.

"I always tell my students to get involved in the community," he said. "This is my way of doing that."

Other tour guides also are getting wrapped up in the tales.

Vikki Smith, 16, of Severna Park has been a fan of ghost tours since she was 5 years old and likes to try to track down otherworldly entities, particularly by finding spots of light in photographs she had taken.

When she passed the audition process and was hired as one of six new tour guides, she went to the mill to familiarize herself with the layout. An encounter she said she had there with Rebecca King is now part of the tour script.

"I believe there are things that can't be explained," Smith said. But, she said, she knows she will have skeptics on her tours and will have to let visitors decide for themselves.

Tom Allers of Hanover took the Savage Mill tour on its first night Friday. He said the Ellicott City tour was scarier but that the Savage Mill tour "has a lot more history. ... It was very informative."

Angel Allers said her husband has lived 15 minutes from the mill nearly all his life but had never been there. Now, Tom Allers said, "We're definitely coming back."

Ghost Walks in Historic Savage Mill are offered Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. The cost is $8, and $6 for children and seniors. Reservations are recommended. Information: 800-288-8747 or www. visithowardcounty.com.

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