Legends abound about the brick building on a stretch of West Beaver Street en route to Baldwin, its facade accented with arched doorways and flanked by antique lamp posts.
Some claim the building was an 1800s stagecoach stop. Others say The Old Spanish Trail — the name emblazoned on it — is haunted.
Now a group of locals want to push those old tales to the forefront and convert the 12,000-square-foot piece of Old Florida at 13525 W. Beaver St. into a permanent haunted house.
Set to be “The Haunted Trails” as of Sept. 19, its first phase through Halloween will be a scary outdoor walk through its woods and outbuildings. A chainsaw massacre in a barn is being done, as is an apocalypse alley with an “end-of-the-world” theme, a carnival of the dead under a tent, Otis’ Garage and a mystical Caribbean-themed attraction.
That means cleaning up the overgrown woods and the main building’s intriguingly cluttered interior, led by Haunted Trails co-founder April Smith, 39, a makeup artist and stylist at Dejavu Salon in Mandarin.
She joined fiance David Milward to buy the building for $260,000 with backing from family.
Milward and his father, Mike, have cut through woods behind the building to lay out the haunted trail with family help. After Halloween, they will set up a Christmas nightmare-themed haunted trail to run from Thanksgiving through New Years. Two more haunted outdoor events will be added as the site is developed.
Smith said she would love to do special makeup effects full time, but family ties kept her in Northeast Florida.
“So I said, ‘Hey, why don’t I open my own place and live my dream job,’” the Middleburg resident said. “I love doing it and I have done haunted houses at my home for years. ... We had always been fascinated by old buildings and the potential that they have. We were just passing by one day and were in awe of it. We fell in love with it and made it happen.”
Friend Kristin Roper, a stage and film makeup artist, helped in the cleanup and tracked down some fun stuff inside. She joined up because she has a “passion” for projects like this.
“I’ve been diving in the garbage and finding tons of treasure,” Roper said. “I’m finding old Victorian chandeliers; I found some old Royal Dalton China and old chafing dishes that can be used for so much more. We have old cameras we will use as props.”
The building sits on U.S. 90, built in 1923 between Duval and Columbia counties, part of the Old Spanish Trail system that ran through Tallahassee to Pensacola.
Jacksonville historic planner Joel McEachin said this building was probably built the same time as U.S. 90.
"You go down Beaver Street and you will pick up what you call this roadside architecture like gas stations and motor courts and hotels like that, and I think this was that same vintage," McEachin said. "It was a major road."
Some say a bordello operated in the building in the 1940s and 1950s. It was a grocery store between 1960 and 1990, with owners adding a grand outside staircase and ornate balcony to their home upstairs. It was The Old Spanish Trail, an antiques and folk art store until 2002. A haunted house was opened that fall, then it closed until Smith and supporters bought it in mid-July.
The old store is now filled with church pews for the new haunted house, joined by fake skeletons, hand-made skulls, corpses, severed plastic limbs, fake pig carcasses and a furry spider.
Nearby shelves hold curios found in the building, like a mannequin arm and whiskey bottles.
"It is stunning, and it is spooky and it is rumored to be haunted already," Smith said of the building. "It is just the perfect prop already set here."
The site is open noon to 5 p.m. Sundays for tours. Anyone who wants to help set up this fall's Haunted Trails is also welcome, Smith said.
They will convert the 12,000-square-foot building into a haunted house itself next year.
"It will tell its own story," Smith said. "We will let the ghosts speak for themselves."
Smith admitted that renovating the home will cost thousands of dollars and is asking for donations toward that end. She said she can't wait for their "dream business" to come true to give people a scary staycation option.
The Old Spanish Trail's jumbled past may be key to its future. The Thomas Jefferson Civic Club in Whitehouse has requested it be considered for historic designation. McEachin said that shouldn't cause Smith and The Haunted Trails any problem.
Dan Scanlan: (904) 359-4549
For more information on The Haunted Trails, go tofacebook.com/pages/The-Haunted-Trails/300416543464889.