By Fred Woods
Spring Villa is a 30-acre spring-fed lake, now dry, that once produced more than a million gallons a day, more than enough water to supply the needs of the city of Opelika. The spring was the largest in east central Alabama and also served as the source of Little Uchee Creek.
Spring Villa is also an antebellum mansion/plantation house built in 1850 by the distinguished bridge builder, Horace King, who was accomplished in almost any form of construction. King, who had been granted his freedom through a special act of the Alabama legislature in 1846, built the house for owner Penn Yonge and his wife, Mary Ann Godwin Yonge. Mrs. Yonge was the daughter of John Godwin, King’s former master and good friend for their lifetimes.
The Spring Villa estate was known as the most beautiful in the area because of its location near the Spring Villa lake, its beautiful flowers and its splendid orchards. Spring Villa lake was a clear spring-fed 30-acre lake with extremely cold water. Yonge had a glass-bottomed boat he used to take his guests out onto the lake and to a small island near its center.
Listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1978, Spring Villa is a historic Gothic plantation house, one of about 20 remaining residential examples of Gothic Revival architecture in Alabama. The 1 1/2-story wood frame building has a front elevation with three bays. The ridge line of the roof is parallel to the front facade with each side of the main structure gabled and flanked by stuccoed chimneys.
The upper one-half story makes extensive use of steeply pitched cross-gables. Each window on the upper floor is fronted by an individual sawn-work balcony and each gable is trimmed with bargeboards and is crowned with a diamond-shaped pinnacle.
A semi-detached, centrally placed, rear 1 1/2 story ell has a four-bay facade on each long side and replicates features seen on the main facade. This ell is not a part of the original structure but was added to the main building in 1934 by the federal Civil Works Administration during conversion of the house into a clubhouse for the city of Opelika.
Spring Villa is also a 350-acre City of Opelika park and outdoor recreational facility, the crown jewel of the system. In addition to the plantation house and dry lake/springs there is a now-dry swimming pool that once had the coldest water old-time Opelikans ever swam in, in their youth. Over the years the Opelika Parks and Recreation Board has added a picnic shelter, outdoor volleyball court, horseshoe pit, day camp ground and a very popular RV campground with hook-ups for 30 spaces.
William Penn Chandler Yonge found out about the pure limestone in the vicinity of Spring Villa, acquired the property and began quarrying operations in mid-1850 or 1851. Ironically, Yonge’s 1850 quarry was in the same place (or very near) as the contemporary quarry which ceased operations one year ago. Remains of some of the original structures can still be seen beside the east side of the roadway on Lee Road 166 about a half mile from its intersection with Ala. Highway 169.
Yonge became interested, investigated and ultimately organized the Chewacla Lime Works with himself in charge of the operation as superintendent. The company was chartered under Alabama law with a capital stock of $1,000 and operated successfully until 1872 or 1873.
During the Civil War the quarry provided a large amount of lime that was used in fortifications for the Confederacy. Yonge was reportedly a man of excellent financial ability and keen business acumen as could be seen in his capable management of the lime works, but he spent lavishly on entertainment at his Spring Villa estate and died in 1879 in what were reported as limited financial circumstances.
In appearance, Penn Yonge was said to be small in stature, weighing about 125 pounds. He was born in Georgia and his father died when he was 12 years of age. He received no inheritance and had to make his own way in the world. He spent some time in California around 1849 and may have profited from the discovery of gold. He was largely self-taught, but gave people the impression that he was a well-educated man. He was said to be of an impulsive nature, generous in the use of his money, entertained his friends well and gave freely to every enterprise that promised to benefit the community at large. There is no evidence, other than a made-up, admittedly false, story that Yonge was a cruel slaveowner and taskmaster.
Opelika bought the lake and springs at Spring Villa in 1926 for use as a city water supply and acquired the house and 325 acres of land a year later. The springs flowed at the rate of one million gallons a day and Spring Villa supplied all of the water needs of Opelika from 1927 until 1946 when Saugahatchee Lake came on line, The Spring Villa water was so clean, according to present-day Opelika water board officials, that chlorination was the only water treatment needed. The water was piped from the spring and distributed to Opelika consumers through 12-inch cast iron pipes, some of which are still in use within the city of Opelika today. The spring was last used as a public water supply in the summer of 1988.
Today the lake, the springs and the swimming pool are dry, the water in its aquifer pumped out, shamefully but legally under Alabama law. Numerous sink holes have opened up over the past several decades in roads and the yards of residences in the area. The quarry owners were found legally liable for damages to roads and certain residences that were parties to the several lawsuits that were filed.
Will the lake ever refill, the springs ever flow again? The only certainty is that no one knows for sure. Quarrying operations ceased in the early fall of 2014. Many geologists and hydrologists have offered their opinions. Some think the aquifer will recharge fairly quickly, others more slowly. Obviously a lot depends on the amount of rainfall received. Most, however, seem to doubt if the spring ever produces in the range of its former volume, the million gallons per day rate of the 1920s.
What about the ghosts? The most popular ghost story has Penn Yonge, reputed to be a cruel slaveowner, being stabbed to death by a provoked slave on the 13th step of a spiral staircase leading to the second floor of the house. Yonge’s spirit, according to the story, remains on the stairs.
Faith Serafin, founder and director of the Alabama Paranormal Research Team, says not to worry. The tale, she says, was made up to tell around campfires when Boy Scouts camped out at the park regularly in the 1940s. Incidentally, the part about Yonge being a cruel slaveowner was part of the made-up story as nothing else has been found to support this charge.
Actually, if one stops to think, the story logically falls apart as Yonge died in 1879, more than a decade after slavery in the United States was abolished.
But Spring Villa has other ghosts. One story deals with a camping trip cut short by a power outage. The campers, who were going to sleep in the house, were being bussed back into Opelika when a counsellor went back inside to make sure nothing or no one had been left behind. After he had been gone a long time, the person in charge went to look for him and found him sitting on the floor, white as a (ghost?), crying and obviously scared almost to death. Later he said he had seen and heard a man playing a piano in the house. There was no piano in the house. Nor was there supposed to be anyone in the house. Since then others have reported hearing piano playing in the building.
Many years ago three small girls reportedly drowned in the lake. People have reported hearing voices of young girls for a number of years.There have also been numerous reported sightings of a 5-8 year-old blond-haired boy on the property.
What do you think? Believe in ghosts or not. After all, you don’t have to believe in ghosts to enjoy a good ghost story.
What about the house? Wooden structures like the Spring Villa mansion require regular maintenance if they are to survive. This will occur only if the people of Opelika are constantly vigilant and vocal and convey their concerns to the Parks and Recreation Board and to their elected officials.