When Beth Almond Ford walks across the back porch and unlocks the door to the Reynolds Homestead, the first thing she does is call out to the ether.
“Hey, guys, it’s Beth!”
Ford is the historical services assistant at the Virginia Tech outreach center in Critz, Virginia, about 70 miles south of Blacksburg. She’s been giving tours at the 1843 brick home for the past 18 years. She’s careful not to call it haunted, but she’s certainly felt the past come alive — and she isn’t alone.
Many chilling stories swirl around the 19th-century homestead where tobacco magnate R.J. Reynolds was born. Guests and staff have reported restless spirits that sound like giggling children, an apparition of an elderly man, and the vision of a young girl with her nightgown ablaze.
Ford first became aware of the homestead’s spirits years ago while giving the house tour to a loner just passing through on a Sunday afternoon. “She said it was her first time in Southwest Virginia and asked me, ‘Who were these Reynolds folks anyway?’” Ford recalled.
“We headed into the parlor, and as we walked through the door and toward the center of the room, the woman suddenly stopped and looked stricken. ‘Oh, I’m so sorry about the child who died in the fire!’ She held up her arms and showed me the hair sticking straight up.”
The thing was, Ford had never heard about any child who’d died in a fire.
“The woman apologized and stated she was ‘sensitive’ and had seen a vision of a young girl with her clothing on fire,” Ford said. “I just tsk-tsked about the sadness of it and continued the tour. It wasn’t mentioned again.”
As soon as the guest left, Ford called John N. Reynolds, a family member who worked at the homestead and had trained her on the history of the home.
“John, tell me quick! Was there a little girl who died in a fire here in the house?” Ford asked. “In his calming way, he said, ‘Well, it was the next generation — Harbour and Annie’s little girl.’”
In 1912, R.J. Reynolds’ 7-year-old niece, Nancy Ruth Reynolds, was badly burned while reaching for the fireplace mantel on Christmas morning. Family lore says this happened in that very parlor of the family home, although a newspaper story reported that she was visiting a Danville orphanage when the accident happened. But both accounts agree that her nightgown caught fire and the little girl ran screaming from the room with her clothing burning. She died a few days later and is buried just outside the homestead in the family cemetery.
As Ford locked the house that day, she called out to the spirits in the house for the first time.
“I have respect for those spirits who some see, feel, smell, and hear, and now I always acknowledge them when entering the house,” she said.
Little Nancy Ruth isn’t the only child who’s died in the home. Three Reynolds children died after receiving smallpox vaccinations in 1860. Do they now play for eternity in the hallways?
One afternoon, administrative assistant Terri Leviner interrupted playtime when she entered the home, which is celebrating 50 years as part of Virginia Tech.
“As I reached the top of the stairs, I heard the laughter of small children and footsteps in the foyer below me,” she said. She called out, “Hello,” thinking a visiting student had snuck in behind her. “No one answered, and I realized I was alone.”
Leviner proceeded up the steps and again heard giggling. “I turned around and said, ‘OK, kids, you go ahead and play. I’m just going to be up here conducting my inventory. I will be done shortly.’ I heard one last giggle, and then total silence surrounded me.”
Before the house was converted to museum archive and exhibit space, visiting artists and speakers were allowed to stay in its second-floor apartment. Some of those guests said they felt a benevolent presence in the house.
A writer-in-residence stayed in an upstairs room for a few weeks. On her very first night, she said she was grabbed on the arm by an elderly man who looked like former Lt. Gov. J. Sargeant “Sarge” Reynolds, who died in 1971 and is buried in the family cemetery. The next day, she walked around the house and the cemetery, telling whoever was listening about herself. The spirits never bothered her again.
Ford has even spent several nights on the couch at the homestead to help calm the spirits for overnight guests.
The Latin Ballet of Virginia stayed for a week to give twice-daily performances for local schoolchildren. By the second night, the troupe leader was looking exceptionally tired.
Ford asked if the young dancers were staying up late and keeping her awake. “Oh, no, Beth,” the woman replied. “It’s not my ballet students — it’s the spirits in the house. They’re so loud!”
Ford offered to come and sleep in the house that evening.
“I raced home to feed my dog and got back to the Reynolds Homestead about 9 p.m.” Ford said.
The troupe leader told her, “They must like you!” because all went quiet as soon as Ford came inside and called out, “Hey, guys, it’s Beth!”
Written by Diane Deffenbaugh