Biltmore Forest’s Downton Abbey spirits add a chapter
by Rob Neufeld
“Ruth, I want to go back home,” 93-year-old Bessie Reeves told her great-niece, Ruth Bailey, when Ruth visited her at the Deerfield Retirement Community in 1970. Bessie yearned for her former life on White Oak Road in Biltmore Forest.
White Oak Road had been the first street on which home owners had built homes after Edith Vanderbilt had sold nearly 1,500 acres of the Biltmore Estate to a development company in 1920.
The builders, D. Hiden Ramsey wrote in a 1925 booklet, “wished to create and abide in a community where persons of moderate means could build homes that would embody on a smaller scale the same ideals which actuated Mr. Vanderbilt in the creation of the Biltmore Estate.”
Bessie and her maiden sister, Ethel, lived at 11 White Oak, and, through the Depression, hosted neighborhood women in cards-and-cocktails, aided by their servants.
Rita Rees, an unmarried member of the tannery-owning Hans Rees family came; as did Alice Connally Cheesborough, whose husband, Dr. Thomas Cheesborough had died in 1937.
As a young woman, Bessie had accompanied wealthy women to England, and came back with a British accent. You can imagine her saying to Ruth, in the voice of Lady Violet, the Dowager Countess in “Downton Abbey,” “Oh, Ruthie, I wish you could have as much fun as I had as a bride in Asheville, but you never will.”
The Reeves family was related to the Rutledges of Charleston, extending a lifestyle line from England to antebellum Charleston, Flat Rock, Victorian era Montford, and Biltmore Forest.
Bessie died at the age of 101. A subsequent owner of her home, not given to belief in the occult, attested to her lingering presence.
“One night,” he said, “one of us had placed a candle down on the grouting” of a tile countertop he and his wife had had installed. “The next morning, I walked in the kitchen, saw the candle, and walked over to the sink. Something told me to turn around; and I did, just in time to see the candle go up in an arc and down to the floor.”
Ethel, who had preceded Bessie in death, has been heard wandering around at night looking for the door from her bedroom to the bathroom. A renovation had walled off Ethel’s entrance.
As Mr. Carson, the butler at Downton Abbey, has noted, servants sometimes end up being more attached to their mansions than their owners, and are likely to haunt the places after they’ve passed away.
At 17 White Oak, a genial, old he-ghost has been seen frequenting what had been the home of Sarah Fotterill Potter Coxe, the fifth member of Bessie Reeves’ card-playing group.
Bailey recalled, in a 2000 interview, sleeping in the front bedroom of that house as a five-year-old and seeing a man “climb through a window with a cot under his arm,” and set up to sleep there. She asked the man to leave, and he did.
A later resident seemed to have an encounter with the same spirit. “I came into one of the front bedrooms,” the new owner said, “and sensed …an older gentleman, 5’2”, white hair, mostly bald, about 105 pounds, with pleasant features” communicating with him.
"This is going to be where your girls are going to live,” the spirit said, acknowledging that his presence would “not be pleasant for them. I’ll leave.”
Sallie Middleton, the late artist and niece of architect, Douglas Ellington, saw a less pleasant ghost when she had gone to buy 16 White Oak, the former residence of Alice Cheesborough. Her description of a woman with graying red hair, a slight build, and nervous habits matched Mrs. Cheesborough’s live-in housekeeper, Alma, whom Mrs. Cheesborough had called “the old spook” for her disapproving glances.
Alma had been proud of her status as keeper of decorum in the Cheesborough household, and was aggrieved when Middleton’s entrance displaced her from the largest bedroom into the smallest.
One day, Alma’s ghost departed—at the same time that the butler had made his final exit from the house across the street. Some say that the two servants discovered they could commiserate; and the association developed into a post-corporeal romance.
Wedding party for Jessie Merrick and Alfred S. Barnard, c. 1900, photo taken at Lindsey’s Art Parlor.
Top row (l to r): Unidentified man; Vance Brown; Detta Merrick. Middle row: Philip Cocke; perhaps a Miss West; Julia Atkinson; Elmer E. or William R. Heston. Bottom row: Bonnie Reeves; Erwin Sluder; Bessie Reeves; unidentified man; Haywood Parker; and perhaps Nina Johnson.
Photo courtesy N.C. Collection, Pack Memorial Library.