Art Andrews, a member of the Heritage Commission, awaits the next tour group. Andrews and other commission members briefed attendees on the history of Smithfield before the beginning of the Ghost Walk.
In the dark of night on Thursday, visitors to Smithfield’s Riverside Cemetery got acquainted with some of Johnston County’s colorful characters, including a Confederate soldier, a small-town doctor and a turn-of-the-century aviator. These long-gone Johnston residents did not rise from their graves, but actors spoke for them during the Heritage Center’s eighth annual Ghost Walk.
The event is a torch-lit tour of the historic cemetery, where volunteers recruited by the Heritage Center portray notable Johnston County residents. In its eight years of existence, the Ghost Walk has grown in popularity to an annual attraction that draws hundreds of people, said Wingate Lassiter, the Heritage Center’s director. The small admission fee for adults goes to Heritage Center programming.
“We raise a little money from it, but it’s not a major fundraiser,” Lassiter said. “It’s strictly educational.”
The tour usually takes place close to Oct. 31, but Lassiter said it’s not a Halloween event designed to scare people. In the past, he said, some people have expressed concern that the event was disrespectful of the dead, but the tour’s tone isn’t festive, and Lassiter said guides make sure to direct people around the cemetery’s many graves.
“Certainly we have a lot of respect for the graveyard and the people buried there,” he said.
The mood of last week’s Ghost Walk was somber, as attendees listened to the stories of real-life Johnston County residents, including a few who suffered untimely deaths. This year’s tour included the story of an unnamed Confederate soldier, played by Brandon Scott, who died from wounds he suffered in the Battle of Bentonville in southeastern Johnston County. Kiefer Morris played a young Army lieutenant, Eric Ellington of Clayton, who died in an early military test flight in 1913. Troy Lester portrayed Billy Rand, a UNC-Chapel Hill student who suffered the first known hazing-related death in 1912.
But not every story was tragic. Heather Ford played longtime community activist Edna Crump, while Pearl Blackmon portrayed Bertha Rowe, leader of the first all-black Girl Scout troop in Smithfield. Stacy Duncan, Benson’s town doctor for many years, was brought to life by Kenneth Killebrew, the man who now lives in his house.
But the tragic stories made the greatest impression on the attendees. Many of them cited Rand, the UNC student, and the unnamed Confederate soldier as the most memorable parts of the tour.
“Fraternities really haven’t changed over the years,” said Charles Edwards of Smithfield. Edwards and his wife, Dianne, transplants from Zebulon, used the tour to learn more about the county they moved to three years ago.
“It’s especially good for newcomers, so you can get the historical (feel) of Smithfield,” Edwards said.
Mike Hugo, a Smithfield resident, is also a transplant, having moved to Johnston County from Raleigh about a year ago. Hugo said the Ghost Walk gave him a little more insight into his new home.
“I learned a lot about the heritage of the county,” he said. “It was well worth it.”