Backyard Traveler: History, Hollywood, and Hauntings

 – Known for its film locations, historic Covington belies a spooky spirit world showcased through its ghost tours –

It was an appropriately ominous and stormy night as we headed west along I-20 to the town well-known for its hospitality to film crews from the “Dukes of Hazzard” to  “The Vampire Diaries.” However, being a popular film set location is not the only thing that draws in tourists to Covington, Georgia – it’s also the historical and spooky nature that surrounds the town that has been called the “The Wild West of Georgia” in the 1800s.

Nestled in the heartland, Covington is only an easy 50-minute drive from Lake Oconee, and has many local haunts ­­– both literal and figurative – from The Mystic Grill, a fictional restaurant born out of “The Vampire Diaries” which turned into a real dining establishment in the summer of 2013, to The Covington Ghost Tour, led by local artist and self-proclaimed amateur scientist/historian, Ann Wildmon.

It was this ghost tour that piqued our interest for the upcoming Halloween season, so we booked our tickets using The Covington Ghost Tour’s online platform, www.covingtonghosttours.com. Before heading to meet Ann at her studio, Wild Art, we walked around the charming downtown square which houses a handful of restaurants, gallery shops like The Soap Box, a delectably aromatic soap, lotion and bath bomb shop, and The Alley, the gift shop for all things. Stone hexagons dispersed throughout the sidewalk bear names of celebrities like Burt Reynolds, Tom Wopat and Patrick Swayze, which are reminiscent of Hollywood Stars along the Walk of Fame.

As the golden hour passed, the gloomy storm that had accompanied us to Covington dissipated, and a cotton candy sunset fell over the Newton County Courthouse with its impressive clock tower. We joined Ann at dusk as she prepared to take us on The Covington Ghost Tour she started offering three years ago.

But 2015 wasn’t the beginning of her research into the paranormal; she said her fascination with spirit activity began after her father passed away years before and strange things started happening in their old Myrtle Beach house. “There were two teenage kids wrestling inside – they put a hole in a wall, and they didn’t tell us,” Ann says. “They got a full body apparition.”

Later when the teenagers looked at a family photo album, they saw the man that looked just like the ghost they’d seen earlier. It turned out to be Ann’s uncle, who is strikingly similar to her father both in looks and their love of pranking to teach a lesson. Other visitors have also reported hearing a voice of someone who isn’t there. Ann alluded to the fact that her father’s spirit is most likely keeping watch on their beach house, but those encounters got her thinking about the little town she’d moved to the 1990s, and how much history surrounded Covington, and just how there may be ghosts and spirits around her town.“I was really interested by it, and I started talking to local people, and things started happening around here,” Ann says. She found three professional, paranormal groups in the surrounding areas, and brought them in to local consenting shops to figure out just who was there and when they were from.

Ann says that through her investigations she’s found an interesting trend, “It’s not like in the movies – they’re not scary apparitions – and it’s mainly all women. They’re beautifully-dressed, like performers.”

Throughout the tour, which is approximately two hours long with 29 stops, Ann talks not just of the ghosts, but of the history of Covington dating back to Sherman’s March to the Sea, all the way up to recent films shot at Twelve Oaks Bed and Breakfast. It is the paranormal that really allows her to shine, however. “I’m terribly bashful, but when you get me talking about the ghosts, it’s so exciting,” she says.

Ann definitely let that excitement bubble over to enhance my fear because when we strolled up to the entrance of the cemetery, covered with a deep blanket of darkness, she said in a low and hesitant tone of voice, “This doesn’t feel right.”

I jumped into the light of the lone street lamp while simultaneously grabbing and clutching the arm of a fellow tour goer who was equally as frightened. After we conquered our fear to enter the cemetery, or at least masked it with the tiny beam of light from our flashlights, we tiptoed through the reverent land that has produced dozens of photographs with orbs of light not seen by the naked eye or able to be explained away as lens flares, and at least one full-body intelligent haunt thought to be that of a Union solider. Ann explains after we exit the cemetery that there are two types of ghosts – an intelligent, or interactive haunt, like the one photographed by the cemetery gates, that can act and react on its own accord, and a residual haunt, which is the replaying of a single historical event, much like it is sticking to a script. However, Ann readily admits she doesn’t know it all, “I have as many unanswered questions as I do answers,” Ann says, chuckling. “Things happen and I just can’t explain them.”

Ann and her team of paranormal investigators have uncovered many different intelligent haunts around the Covington Town Square, including in her own store, which used to be a morgue back in the 1880s. She has experienced a few harmless, unexplainable happenings after hours when she’s cleaning up or the next morning as she’s opening her doors. “I came in one morning and the hot and cold taps were both turned on full blast,” Ann says. “I called my landlord because this was a new build-out at the time, and told him about it.” Ann has also reported that at least two different mediums have come into Wild Art, without having been on the tour, and told her about the ghost of a little girl that feels safe “living” in her store.

“I’m a safe place,” Ann says, meaning for people, but I think also for benevolent ghosts. “People can come in here and tell me stuff, and I’m not going to judge them.”

Ann says the mission of her store and the ghost tour is to knit the community together and give them a safe and fun place to congregate. On Saturday nights when the tour happens, she has anywhere from eight to ten people signed up ready to investigate the paranormal, and as many as 50 people taking a painting class in the studio section of her gallery. “I knew the community needed something – a place for families to get together,” Ann says, smiling toward her customers and neighbors.

She has accomplished just that with her Wild Art studio classes and Covington Ghost Tour. Ann also has plans for two more tours: A “Hello Covington” tour which can focus on education or local businesses as a team building outing, and a food tour she hopes to get up and running sometime in the late fall of this year.

With the combined work of Ann and her tours, the Vampire Stalkers tours, and the quaint shops and restaurants, the Covington Town Square has transformed by leaps and bounds from the 14 bar and brothel store fronts in the “Wild West of Georgia,” and is surely worth the drive to visit for a quick day trip or even a weekend getaway.

Written by Danielle Hawkins

Photographed by Jesse Walker

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