When it comes to the paranormal, Louis Van Dyke is agnostic.
Sure, he’s had encounters with stuff he can’t explain at his business, The Blue Willow Inn in Social Circle. Workers there have, too, over the years:
- Chandeliers spinning wildly for no reason, or large wood shutters opening and closing on their own accord.
- A ghostly hand planted firmly on the back of a cook working alone in the kitchen.
- A disembodied child’s voice calling for his mom from the porch.
- Apparitions of a woman in pink in the Blue Room upstairs, and a 19th century gentleman at the podium in the foyer.
- A commercial-sized pot of green beans seemingly jumping from a table and landing upright on the floor, then sliding along on its own accord.
Inexplicable? Yes. But otherworldly? Well, maybe."I do not believe in ghosts. Never have," he said. "However, something’s going on from time to time, but I don’t want to admit it’s a ghost.
"But there is something going on."
That’s hard to believe in the sunshine on a recent warm autumn morning while sitting on the veranda of the elegant 107-year-old mansion-turned restaurant. Van Dyke and his wife, Billie, bought the property in 1991 and converted it into an upscale buffet serving down-home Southern favorites that has earned accolades from aficionados of fried chicken and other country delicacies. The late columnist Lewis Grizzard was a fan, and the Blue Willow has earned multiple awards from Southern Living magazine.
Go in from the wide rocking chair porch into the restaurant and you’re greeted by a flesh-and-blood hostess at the podium beneath a lighted but still chandelier. Shutters are closed and stay that way, allowing the thin light of autumn to filter in on diners.
At night, though, things happen.
Sipping iced tea under the umbrella shading a table on the veranda, Van Dyke and a longtime worker, Beckie Hilsman, recount story after story of the inexplicable.
The Van Dykes and renovation crews experienced nothing unusual in the long months of rehabbing the structure before the Blue Willow opened for business, but soon after, the games began.
One night Van Dyke had followed his routine in closing down and had turned off most of the lights as usual. As he was driving out, though, he noticed the lights were on upstairs. He returned, flipped the switch to off and left a second time. He looked around and the lights were on again.
That happened several times.
Van Dyke was nonplussed.
"It didn’t scare me, it didn’t frighten me."
A year or two later, things began to move.
That’s when a 40-gallon pot of beans decided to "jump" from a work table onto the floor and slide across the kitchen. Nothing spilled and it stayed upright.
Other things have seemingly moved on their own, too.
A baker who was getting a tryout at the Blue Willow once watched as two commercial roasting pans slid from atop the convection oven onto the floor. No big deal, but then the pans slid across the floor and onto a shelf.
"We never heard from her again and we knew there was no need to call her," Van Dyke said.
There is no malevolence in the odd happenings, according to Van Dyke and Hilsman, just a sense of playfulness.
For instance one night at closing, one couple lingered over their meal. They left in a rush, though, after the shutters opened and closed loudly by themselves.
"They decided they really didn’t want to stay for dessert," Van Dyke said.
Another time, the chandelier began swinging so wildly on a calm day that the bolts came out and there was nothing holding it in the ceiling except the electric cord.
Several crews of paranormal researchers have checked out the action at the Blue Willow.
In one investigation a proper gentleman in 19th century attire was reported at the podium.
Last fall, two children encountered the pink lady upstairs. The brother and sister went to the Blue Room, which was decorated for Christmas and found the "lady in the pink dress" hovering over them, Hilsman said.
She has accompanied the paranormal investigators on their excursions though the Blue Willow and heard the voice of the child calling for its mama, at 2:30 a.m.
She’s been there since 2001. Her first experience with oddness at the Blue Willow was when she was cleaning on the porch and watched as, one by one, each of the rockers there began to move back and forth.
The home dates from about 1903 and was home to John and Bertha Upshaw.
Some say that it’s her presence that makes itself known through the ghostly going-ons.
Staff members talk to her, telling her how much they enjoy her home. It’s all just part of the job for Hilsman and the staff at the Blue Willow.
"I always tell her good night and thank her," Hilsman said. "She’s part of us. She gives the place so much character."