Spring Villa History
Known History of the Penn Yonge House
Submitted by the Southern Paranormal Researchers
The home was originally used by Penn and Mary Yonge. It was built by Horace King, a freed part African/part Catawba Indian slave who once belonged to John Godwin, Mary Godwin Yonge’s father. Mr. King was one of the most famous bridge builders in the South. King’s fame led him to being contracted to build several famous buildings in Alabama, including the Bryce Insane Asylum in Tuscaloosa in 1860 as well as the current Alabama State Capital building in 1850. When Mr. Godwin died in 1859, Mr. King was given his freedom by the Godwin children, but he continued to look after them as his own children, thus his reason for building the house for Penn and Mary.
As for Penn Yonge, his father, Arthur, came over from Great Britain (possibly Ireland) around 1812. He moved first to the West Indies, then to Florida, and finally to Georgia where Penn was born. Penn’s father died when he was 12. He received no inheritance, so had to make his own way in the world from that moment on. He wedded Miss Mary Anne Godwin, of Girard, Alabama, the wedding being celebrated about 1846. Mr. Yonge was living at Girard at that time, being engaged in merchandising there. In 1849 he went to California, spending eighteen months in that state, during which time he traveled extensively over the gold fields and was reasonably successful in his search for the precious metal. In 1851 he returned to Alabama with the intention of going again to California but while in Columbus, Georgia, he was shown a piece of raw limestone. His attention was thus called to the fact that there was valuable limestone in Russell County in eastern Alabama from which good lime was being made on a small scale. He became interested in the matter and after investigation organized what was known as the Chewacla Lime Works. Mr. Yonge was actively in charge of the enterprise as superintendent. The company was chartered under the laws of Alabama with a capital stock of one thousand dollars and he successfully conducted the business until 1872 or 1873. During the Civil War he manufactured the large amount of lime that was used in fortifications for the Confederacy.
Death of William Penn Chandler Yonge
He also owned what was known as Spring Villa in Lee County near the Chewalca Lime Works, where he maintained his home. This was known as the finest country home in that part of the south because of its proximity to the lakes, its beautiful flowers and splendid orchards. William Penn Chandler Yonge was a man of excellent financial ability and keen business insight as was manifest in his capable control of the lime works, but he spent much of his money in lavish entertainment at his country home and died in 1879 in limited financial circumstances. The date of his death is not in question, though the method is. SPR was not able to confirm through any official records the manner of Yonge’s death, but legend says that a servant hid in a cubby hole which is located on the stairway of Spring Villa. Mr. Yonge was supposedly stabbed to death on the 13th step of his home then beheaded. Various reports say that Mr. Yonge was a rather cruel, hard boss and thus the reason for the murder. Some legends say that it was a slave which killed Mr. Yonge for various reasons, including the slave’s family being sold, but obviously this is a mythical portion of the legend as slavery ended with the Civil War some 14 years before Yonge’s death.
He was small of stature, weighing perhaps one hundred and twenty to one hundred and twenty-five pounds and his educational privileges were extremely limited, for owing to his father’s death he has to rely upon his own resources from an early age. He did not have the opportunity for an education that other members of the family enjoyed, yet he gave people the impression of being a well educated man, possessing a Chesterfield manner. His knowledge had been acquired through reading, observation and experience and was largely supplemented by a natural adaptability. He was of an impulsive nature, generous in the use of his money, and entertained his friends and gave freely to every enterprise that promised to be of benefit to the community at large.
Mr. Yonge’s grave is on the side of a hill about ½ a mile from the house. SPR was quite curious as to the location of the burial, but The Columbus (Georgia) Enquirer said, “All that remains of John Godwin are the shade trees around the place where his beautiful home was long since been burned and the lonely graves on the little hill top to half a mile distant that mark the spot where he and the greater number of the members of the family lie buried. On a tombstone are engraved these words, ‘John Godwin, born October 17, 1798, died February 26, 1859. This stone was placed here by Horace King in lasting remembrance of the love and gratitude he felt for his lost friend and former master.’” This Masonic tombstone (King was also a Mason) was in Girard, Alabama, one mile west of Columbus, Georgia.
National Historic Register
As for the Spring Villa house itself, this former Southern plantation listed on the National Historic Register dates back to 1850 and was built on land featuring a clear 30-acre spring-fed lake. Mr. Yonge had a glass-bottom boat he used to take his guests out onto the lake and to a private island in the middle of the lake. In the 1930s a new building was built next to Spring Villa using the same architectural design. The downstairs was a kitchen area while the upstairs was for guests. The upstairs was only accessible by a breezeway that went from the second floor of Spring Villa over to the new building. The breezeway has been torn down due to rotting, so the upstairs of the new building is now only accessible via a ladder. Another house for caretakers of the land also used to sit in front of Spring Villa but has now been torn down.
The original The original Spring Villa plantation, consisting of 455acres, was a show place during Mr. Yonge’s lifetime - are sort for family and friends and the scene of elaborate social gatherings and sporting events.
A Centennial Celebration was staged at Spring Villaduring the week of July 4, 1876 with several thousand attending. It was appropriate that on July 3, 1976 several hundred Opelika and Lee County citizens of all ages enjoyed an Old-Fashioned Day at Spring Villa as part of Opelika’S Bicentennial Celebration
Penn Yonge planned lavishly for his guests with beautiful landscaping, tropical flowers, imported trees, horse racing and a crystal clear, 30-acre lake fed from the “spring.” Guests toured the lake filled with tropical fish and surrounded by weeping willow trees - in glass bottom boats to a beautiful island for walks and picnics.Some original willow trees and portions of the lake bed and dam are still visible.
After 1888 the property had several owners with the City of Opelika purchasing the area in 1927 for a water supply. Later it was deeded to the State for a State Park but deeded back to the City in 1939.
The original home burned in the late 1920’s but was rebuilt in 1934 by the Old CWA at which time the rear annex was added in exact style. During this period (the late 1930’s), a Boy Scout Committee, led by Dr. Oscar Tatum, developed Spring Villa as a Boy Scout camp and made several improvements including the no longer existing spring-fed swimming pool.
The Park Board began operating Spring Villa in 1946 with the Water Works Board assuming ownership in 1948. The spring is still an emergency water supply for Opelika. The recreational acreage was leased from the Water Board in 1971
Legend of Spring Villa
Stand quietly and listen! Is that the sound of footsteps at the bottom of the stairs? Legend says that the house is haunted, that a murder was committed at Spring Villa. But as most tales that pass from one generation to another, it is hard to tell truth from fiction.
Several legends surround the 13th step of staircase, all of which have to do with a man being murdered on that spot. Of the many accounts in our files one seems to be more logical even though none are supported by fact.
Penn Yonge had many slaves and worked them very hard. Although he was a gracious host he was a demanding task master. The story says that Penn Yonge was killed by one of his slaves. Supposedly the slave, seeking revenge for harsh punishment, hid one night in the niche half way up the spiral staircase and waited. When Yonge started up the stairs the angry slave sprang from his hiding place and stabbed his master to death.
The legend says he died on the 13th step. It is a fact this step rotted away and until the stairway was repaired (about 1957) a dark red stain was said to be this man’s blood. Even today, visitors are told to carefully avoid stepping on this haunted spot.
It is a further fact that William Penn Yonge died in 1878. His grave, along with his son, Joseph’s, is located on a hillside some 100 yards from the current Lodge. Beautifully marked with a marble headstone, the wording is simple: “Yonge-W Penn C. - 1823 to 1878. Joseph - 1860 to1880.”
Go see for yourself!