If looking for thrills, chills, adventure, and haunts, you may not need to travel much further than your own backyard.
If exploring downtown Mount Dora, the Donnelly House is hard to miss, and believe us when we say, you won’t want to.
The beautiful yellow and white Queen Anne Steamboat Gothic Victorian-style house built in 1893 and still complete with original floors, walls, and furnishings, was listed on the National Registry of Historic Places in 1975. Its unique architecture and the embellishments that adorn it, both inside and out, are truly reminiscent of decades gone by.
Like any old house, it’s creaky and requires constant maintenance, but the history that lives in every nook and cranny makes the Donnelly House extra special.
Passersby have said the house gives off a somewhat creepy vibe, but people familiar with it know better and say otherwise . . . it’s haunted.
“Everything is recorded in this house,” says Doc, owner of Mount Dora Ghost Tours, which includes the Donnelly House as part of ghostly experiences it offers guests. “Part of our job is to review all of the camera footage from every second and we’ve seen a lot of things, some easily explainable and some not.”
“We’ve had orbs following guests around, chandeliers swaying, furniture moving, and bangs captured while guests are doing ghost hunts. We’ve seen apparitions, specters, or people just standing there, literally a head and body where no one’s at, captured on thermal cameras before everyone’s detectors start going off.”
Since 1939, the house has been owned by the Freemasons, the oldest fraternal brotherhood and secret society in the world. Its second floor houses the Mount Dora Masonic Lodge No. 238’s sacred lodge and temple.
Because of that, the house has been more or less closed to the public, that is, until a few years ago when Mount Dora Ghost Tours hit the scene. In November 2021, the business received permission to conduct paranormal investigations and baseline readings inside the Donnelly House. In June 2022, it obtained the green light to offer paranormal themed tours for visitors year-round.
The tours, Doc says, also highlight the house’s history and stories surrounding John Philip “J.P.” Donnelly and his wife Annie, both of whom lived and died in the house, and whose spirits may still reside there.
An old black-and-white enlarged photograph of the house that can be seen immediately upon entering offers proof of the theory. Doc says the picture, in the home since 1909-‘10, was taken about two years after Annie’s death.
“The shadow of a woman that can be seen standing in one of the windows is the first thing the Masons pointed out to us about the picture,” Doc says, explaining how Annie died of influenza on April 6, 1908, while upstairs in the master chamber (her bedroom). “JP died in 1930 of a brain aneurysm while lying on the sofa in the downstairs parlor.”
The Donnelly backstory is that Annie Stone McDonald, her first husband William Stone, and their 9-year-old daughter Nellie, came to Mount Dora from Pittsburgh in 1875. They built and ran the McDonald Boarding House before William disappeared mysteriously, never to be heard from again, leaving Annie and Nellie to fend for themselves.
Annie continued to run the boarding house and one of her boarders was JP Donnelly, a wealthy landowner and businessman she married in 1881. In 1884, JP and other investors got into the citrus industry, and together opened the Alexander House, a hotel that 140 years later is still operating as the Lakeside Inn. Doc says it is the oldest continuously run hotel in the entire state, is another of the Mount Dora Ghost Tours’ stops, and also haunted.
“Famous people like Calvin Coolidge and his wife, and Thomas Edison have stayed at the Lakeside Inn,” Doc says. “We’ve uncovered 22 deaths over the course of the 140 years it’s been open, and those are just the ones documented.”
Today, Mount Dora Ghost Tours offers tours of the home, a walking ghost tour through town, a haunted pub crawl, October’s ‘Nightmare on Donnelly Street, a Haunted House Experience,’ and the Donnelly Paranormal Experience, a nighttime event where guests become investigators.
Mount Dora Ghost Tours provides all the equipment to detect motion, electro magnetic anomalies and more. Videos of what people have seen are posted on the company’s Facebook page.
“All guests have to do is bring themselves and their investigative brains and see where it goes. We try to give people a good time, but we also try to educate people on what an authentic paranormal experience and an authentic haunted house should feel like,” says Doc.
The Donnelly House is one of a handful of places in Lake and Sumter Counties notorious for ghostly encounters.
In the next few pages, we’ll highlight places you may want to visit or read up on just in time for Halloween, a time when people are more open to the possibility of ‘out of this world’ encounters.
And if that’s not your thing, then maybe a spooky adventure will do the trick. Cue David Bulit,
a former Florida resident, now living in Montgomery, Alabama.
David, a photographer, author, and historian, over the course of 15 years, has traveled the country compiling information about 1,000+ abandoned places and buildings he’s heard of, researched, visited, and written about on a website dedicated to his hobby. He made many stops in cities throughout Florida and we’re sharing some of his hair-raising Lake County finds.
“When I was 21, I watched “Into the Darkness,” a documentary that involved urban explorers in Florida and New York/New Jersey,” David says. “They visited a couple of places in Florida I didn’t know existed. And where some people might say, ‘Oh, that’s cool,’ or ‘That’s crazy.’ I thought, ‘I want to see those places for myself.’”
If feeling adventurous, you may also choose to visit the abandoned buildings still standing for yourself. They may seem eerie, but their histories are what David enjoys most and what he’d like people to uncover.
“There are these beautiful historic buildings that are abandoned, and nobody knows the story behind them because they really don’t pay any attention to them. Once you learn more, you really can’t keep your eyes off of them and can’t help but talk to others about them. Some of the backstories, what led to them being abandoned and the tragedies that led to their restoration are oftentimes fascinating.”
Unlike Doc, David says he doesn’t believe in the paranormal or haunted anything.
“I don’t believe in haunted houses or ghosts, and the reason is because I’ve been to all these places and never experienced anything like that,” David explains.
Doc says he gets it, because he too, was once a huge skeptic — until his now 4-year-old son Max opened his mind.
“I took a real interest in the paranormal and in the afterlife a few years ago after the death of a child of mine and an experience with his twin brother. That’s when I dove headfirst into it,” Doc says, telling how he and his wife, who’d suffered a virus and developed preeclampsia, endured the loss of Max’s brother Rhett just three months into the pregnancy.
At 27 weeks, mom, facing kidney failure and high blood pressure that put her in danger of cardiac arrest, had an emergency C-section to deliver both babies. Max, at 2 lbs., 2 oz., fought hard for his life.
Long story short, Max recovered with flying colors, and after learning how to walk and just starting to speak actual words, began gravitating towards a China cabinet in their home.
“He (Max) would stare up at this hutch that we kind of stored stuff in, and up near the top shelf, was a little urn with the ashes of his twin brother in it,” Doc says. “He couldn’t even see those things, but he’d be saying, “ghost, ghost,” although at first, we didn’t understand what exactly he was saying. We weren’t ghost people, we never talked about ghosts, he didn’t watch ghost shows, and it wasn’t a vocabulary word we were even teaching him.”
Max continued doing the same thing for weeks, and the one day, mom says, “You know what? He’s saying ‘ghost.’
“After figuring it out, she said, ‘Wow, that’s weird,’ but me, because I’m skeptical and so thought driven, I couldn’t make zero sense of it. If he would’ve picked up the word ‘ghost’ from somewhere, ok, I could understand it. But saying ‘ghost,’ a word he picked up from who knows where, and repeating it while looking up in the cabinet where his little brother was, made me keep asking ‘why?’”
“I spent months trying to figure out the logical explanation, the practical reason why all of that happened, and there wasn’t one. And that kind of shifted my thought process,” Doc concludes.
Today, Doc says whenever he encounters spirit activity, he still tries to rule out reasons other than ‘ghost.’ Once he accepts that it is one, the excitement of trying to communicate begins.
“You might come in and hear ‘Hey,’ but there’s really more to the message, though at the moment, it’s all the spirit can muster. Plus, they have to feel comfortable because really, they’re just people like you and me,” Doc says. “It takes us sometimes years to really open up and let others see us for who we really are.”
Doc contemplates further.
“Think about it. It takes a lot for us to show our face at places, to show up to the family reunion, to have the energy to attend that afternoon business function, because it’s not our vibe. We already know that the people we’ll be spending the afternoon with may not be who we’d normally choose to do that with, so what do we do as living beings? We avoid, we try to navigate, so I imagine it’s the same for spirits, too. They are just dead people,” he says. “You have to remember that those instincts, those intuitions, they remain.”
There are many historic buildings and places in Lake and Sumter counties that are thought to be haunted. Read on, but not before you grab your blankie.
Lake County’s historic courthouse, Tavares
The historic Lake County Courthouse, located on Main Street in downtown Tavares, was built in 1924 as a replacement for the original wooden structure that burned down.
Over the years, people visiting or working there have reported hearing things like footsteps, whispers, voices, slamming and banging sounds, running water, and flushing toilets. People have also seen shadows, elevator doors opening and closing, random lights coming on, and more.
Just ask Tavares City Councilman and local author Bob Grenier, who worked in the building for 20 years as curator of the Lake County Historical Museum before retiring.
He says the historical courthouse is by far, one of Central Florida’s most haunted buildings. He tells how a spirit he dubbed “Sally,” is one of a woman said to have jumped to her death from a 5th story window after visiting her fiancé in the jail downstairs and finding out he’d been condemned to death.
Bob says other ghosts mainly roam throughout the second and third floors, and in the basement where the jail and gallows were located.
“I used to work late because that’s when I could really work on exhibits and get my displays done, and that’s when the ghosts were most active,” Bob says, explaining that upon returning to his post after checking on noises, would often notice things like tools he’d been using were moved or missing, and pictures he’d hung on the wall were taken down.
Bob says after an evening gala at the museum, a picture taken of the courthouse from the top of the parking garage across the street, captured many mysterious figures. One was the unmistakable image of the woman dressed in 1930s-‘40s clothing in a 5th floor window.
“On the 3rd floor, you see all these ghosts, like they’re dancing and doing all this stuff. You can clearly see faces, arms, hats . . . it’s one of the most incredible pictures I’ve ever seen,” says Bob.
The photo, taken in 2017, quickly spread and caught the attention of paranormal investigators, local/national news and television crews, and curious locals. During a taping for a show about ghosts and that photo, Bob says Sally made it known her actual name is Mary Ellen.
“I wasn’t afraid of the ghosts on the second, third, and fourth floors, the galleries, or even our “Sally” on the fifth floor, only the ones in the basement, so I’d keep those doors locked,” Bob says. “It boggles the mind, but I got to the point I just expected them. I knew they were there, and I knew I was going to have to deal with them. I love the ghosts.”
Rolling Acres Road, Lady Lake
As legend has it, there was a woman named Julia who long ago was murdered by a jealous lover near Rolling Acres Road, where it dead ends in Lady Lake going south away from The Villages.
To this day, people claim that Julia’s spirit roams those woods at night and sometimes she can be heard screaming.
A big white house with a wraparound porch in downtown Clermont on the corner of Osceola and Fifth Streets, is believed by many to be haunted. It was even featured on episode 7 of Unsolved Mysteries’ 4th season. (The full episode that includes the Harden House account can be watched at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pOiPJnLbpmU)
The story is that resident John Harden, 32, with his wife and daughter inside the home, was shot to death in his driveway. To this day, the incident remains Clermont’s only unsolved murder.
The buzz around town is that people who’ve lived in or visited the house, have heard footsteps and other strange noises inside leading them to believe a spirit may live there, too.
The abandoned Lake County landmarks David highlights on his website and in books he’s written include the following. For complete reports he’s compiled, visit www.abandonedfl.com.
Lee School, built in 1915 near downtown Leesburg, was abandoned in 2008. It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1995, and to this day remains standing, though in disrepair.
In his writings, David says Lee School was known as Leesburg High School, and later as the Lee Adult Education Center for those looking to obtain a high school diploma. At one time, it also served as a grammar school, community center, and hurricane shelter. During World War II, it served as a daycare center for children of mothers working in the war effort.
Built in 1961, and abandoned in the 1970s, the catacombs—intended as a bomb shelter in the case of a nuclear war as described in a 1959 book by Pat Frank titled, “Alas, Babylon,”—are located on a residential property in Mount Dora.
“Taking a cue from “Alas, Babylon,” some of the wealthiest residents of Mount Dora got together to construct the largest privately-owned bomb shelter in the nation; one that could accommodate 25 families for at least six months. It was dubbed the “Mount Dora Catacombs,” David writes, adding that Dr. James Basil Hall, the Lake County health director at the time, was the mastermind behind the underground refuge.
Rather than calling it a fallout shelter or a bomb shelter, Dr. Hall preferred to call it a “group survival shelter,” which in the case of the catacombs, included the city’s mayor, county superintendent of schools, a local bank president, two doctors, two nurses, a dentist, a pharmacist, two former teachers, and one minister. At the cost of $60,000—each family paid about $2,000—the 5,000 square-foot shelter included power, water, living areas, a radioactive fallout decontamination area, a kitchen, bathrooms, showers, food, supplies, an arsenal of weapons and much more. Constructed in secret, it took a crew of 15 workers using heavy equipment six months to complete the project.
By the mid-1970s, many of the participating families had either died or moved away, leaving the shelter to fall into ruin. The dehumidifiers have since been shut off, allowing mold and mildew to grow. Since then, only a few individuals have been in it, let alone know of its whereabouts.
David says he’s never personally visited the catacombs, but explains that in 2006, writer Bill Siervert and photographer Richard Stayton, David’s friend (now deceased), received permission from the owners at the time to tour the underground complex. The visit resulted in an article for Pulse Magazine titled “Gimme Shelter,” which documents their experience exploring it and its history.
“I did not personally go into the catacombs, but I’ve done all the research,” David says. “The catacombs are still there, but the only way to access them is through someone’s garage. The people who live there don’t go down there because they’re afraid of it, and I’ve heard it’s kind of scary, and full of water, black mold, and cockroaches.”
FYI: A number of videos supposedly contain footage from inside the catacombs.
The Howey Mansion, Howey-in-the-Hills
Built in 1927 by Katherine Budd, an architect from New York, the 20-room, 8,800-square-foot Howey Mansion in Howey-in-the-Hills was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1983 and abandoned in 2008.
The mansion was commissioned in 1925 by Howey-in-the-Hills founder William J. Howey, who purchased 60,000 acres in Lake County in 1916. Howey is known for introducing citrus to the area and for bringing many investors to Florida.
Howey died in 1938, but his wife Katherine lived in the home until her death in 1981. It was purchased by Marvel Zona in 1984, but after she encountered financial struggles, the home was foreclosed on in 2008. Its contents were sold off, leaving the house empty and dark, surrounded by overgrown landscaping, broken into and vandalized.
In 2017, it was sold to Orlando-based brothers Brad and Clay Cowherd, and in 2018, it was beautifully restored. Today it is open for tours and used as a wedding and event venue.
David says before that sale/restoration, he and his friends visited, explored, and took pictures of the mansion. It was during a thunderstorm that knocked the power out, including that of the Howey Mansion’s alarm system.
“It was perfect timing. We were there for about an hour-and-a-half just taking pictures, and marveling at all its beautiful features even then,” David says.
The Howey Mansion before restoration
The Howey Mansion after restoration
The Mount Zion Primitive Baptist Church, Mount Dora
Built in 1926, the Mount Zion Primitive Baptist Church, an African American heritage site, was abandoned in 2015.
On his website, David writes that the church was first founded in the late 1800s by pioneer African American families from northern Florida and Georgia. The original church was built in 1896 along with a cemetery on a hilltop of orange trees across US 441 by pioneers Julia and Richard Woodbury and Julia’s brother Archie.
When the original church burned down, the current building was constructed in 1926 by the congregation. In 1953, the church was dragged 400 feet to the north along what was then Wood Road. Due to it being located in the path of the construction of US 441, it was moved to its current location on Old Hwy. 441.
At its peak, membership consisted of 23 families, but as years went by, members either died, moved away, or lost interest. By 2015, only four members remained, one being Beaulah Babbs, owner of the church that has now been abandoned for over 10 years.
The tower was wrapped in sheets of corrugated metal in an attempt to protect it from the elements. Inside, birds made nests inside the hymnal racks, and vandals stole things, notably a kerosene lamp which had been part of the church for over 80 years.
An effort to preserve the church, with the help of community members, garnered $7,200 for securing the building from further vandalism, and on Dec. 17, 2016, a service was held at the church. Continued updates on the Primitive Baptist Church’s preservation and restoration were posted on their Facebook page, Friends of Mount Zion. Their last update was in September 2017 following Hurricane Irma. The page was no longer accessible.
The church has since been boarded up and remains vacant.