By Donna Chasen
Sweet Briar College sits in the gently rolling foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains just south of the small town of Amherst in the Virginia county of the same name. The campus setting is serenely beautiful, with 3,250 rolling acres of meadows and small hills. The academic village sits in the center of this pastoral landscape.
Sweet Briar was founded as a girls' school and remains so today. Every fall, young students enter its gates to enjoy the exquisitely unique collegiate experience that Sweet Briar has to offer. Some bring their horses with them, to be housed in an elegant stable complex. Sweet Briar is home not only to its student body, but also to many staff members and approximately half of its faculty. The campus is crisscrossed with walking, hiking and riding trails.
As the grounds were once the setting of an extensive working plantation in the 18th and 19th centuries, history and archaeology students enjoy a rich cornucopia of opportunities for a hands-on study experience.
The majority of Sweet Briar's buildings were designed in the early 20th century--predominately by Ralph Adams Cram, whose work is also present at the University of Richmond, MIT, West Point, Princeton and many other notable colleges and universities. Over two-thirds of Sweet Briar's buildings have been designated the Sweet Briar College National Historic District and were listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1995.
This icon of higher education was founded in 1901 as a condition of the legacy of Indiana Fletcher Williams. Williams wished that her plantation and her entire estate become an institute of higher learning for female students in honor and memory of her only child, her daughter Daisy, who died of antitrypsin deficiency, an inherited enzymatic disorder that is easily treatable today. Daisy passed away in New York at the age of 16 in 1884. She was returned to her beloved Sweet Briar to be buried in the family graveyard on Monument Hill in January of 1884.
Williams' bequest was formidable, as her estate consisted of over $1 million and over 8,000 acres of land, including the Sweet Briar Plantation. Sweet Briar College was established per the wishes of its benefactor to maintain the highest standards of education to--in the words of its founder--prepare young women "to be useful members of society."
It is in this peaceful, serene setting that the legends of the Ghosts of Sweet Briar originated. The most visual evidence is the "screaming statue"--a sculpture standing high over the family cemetery on Monument Hill (there is also a recently discovered slave cemetery on the grounds, as well). The statue's hand is carved in such a way that, when the wind passes through it, it emits a high-pitched whistle some describe as a "scream."
This statue is the most obvious symbol of Daisy Williams, Sweet Briar's most famous ghost and the center of most of the legends and "sightings" that surround the college. It replaced another funerary monument that was erected at the actual time of Daisy's burial in the family cemetery on Monument Hill. Legend is that a relative, angry that Williams' vast fortune was going to be used for the education of young women rather than disbursed among family members, charged the statue and destroyed all but a portion of the base. He theoretically "wrenched" a wrought-iron post from the cemetery's fence and broke apart the marble monument.
The new statue was erected in the original's place. Its setting is high atop a hill and the formation of a circular "passageway" in the statue's hand create a high-pitched "whistling" or "screaming" sound when the wind blows through it--hence, the screaming statue legacy.
Other incidents involving the impish spirit of Daisy, who passed away far too young, have occurred throughout the years. The college's Web site dedicates several pages to these "meetings with Daisy" and, up until very recently, offered an opportunity for more recent "sightings" to be entered, as well.
Tales told include a music box that does not work, but on occasion plays anyway; the mysterious appearance of a medallion with Daisy's image; and strange laughter and noises throughout the buildings of Sweet Briar. Rather than hide away these legends, Sweet Briar offers them up as a sort of "Southern Gothic" element to the overall Sweet Briar experience. There is a sense of pride in how the founding family of the college still "watches over" their school to this day.
One early legend about Daisy came from an older resident of Sweet Briar who played with the actual Daisy as a child--years before the plantation became a college. The two young girls would dance in front of the large mirrors in Sweet Briar House, twirling and spinning away the hours. Years later, a cloud appeared in these same mirrors, twirling in a similar manner as the two young girls had done many years before.
When former President Barbara Hill first moved into the President's House, her young daughter found a new "friend" within its walls. The President's House is the former home of Daisy and her parents, and Daisy's bedroom still boasts the original furniture from when she lived there. The "invisible playmate's" name was--surprise!--Daisy!
An alumna of Sweet Briar has chosen the investigation of the paranormal as her life's work. As a freshman, she lived on the fourth floor of Meta Glass dormitory. Above her was the attic. It was an honor violation to go up to the attic and it was actually locked at all times, but the elevator had a habit of going up to this attic, where it would stop and open for no apparent reason. Daisy perhaps was mesmerized by the mechanism of these machines, as other elevators on the campus act strangely, as well. Noises were a common occurrence, with the police often arriving at the dorm due to the strange sounds echoing from this "unoccupied" space. This alumna personally witnessed these noises and she, along with her friends and roommates, were quite frightened by the experiences.
Story continues: fredericksburg.com.
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