Saturday, January 27th, 2013
Some people see her looking out a window.
Some women see her shadow in the ladies room.
Sometimes she is sensed near the fireplace in the middle of the dining room.
Some people believe the ghost of Alpha Paynter still roams the building that for years was The Homestead, a restaurant in Jacksonville Beach that specialized in southern cooking.
Even though it is now Taco Lu, a Mexican restaurant that specializes in fresh tacos, Paynter may still inhabit the space.
That delights Orange Park author Jamie Pearce, who writes books about haunted places in the Sunshine State, including the Beaches. While investigating the restaurant for her book, Historic Haunts Florida, she believes she might even have encountered Paynter’s shadow herself. That was when the restaurant was briefly known as the Copper Top, before it became Taco Lu.
Last Saturday, Pearce, her husband, Deric, and friend Jeff Wilson had dinner at Taco Lu, which was so filled with customers by 4:30 p.m. that people had to wait for a table. They learned from waiter Nakivio Poole that Paynter is likely still around.
“One of my delivery guys came in and saw a lady at the bar,” Poole said. “There was no lady at the bar.”
He whipped out his cell phone, and showed the group a photo of the exterior of the building taken during the restaurant’s renovation. In the photo there appears to be a woman looking out a window, but no one was inside.
Paynter’s possible presence doesn’t worry Poole.
“I don’t worry about ghosts,” Poole said.
But based on what customers have told him, “she’s here,” he said. “Go into the ladies rest room for 10 minutes. The lights start flickering.”
The behavior isn’t uncommon for ghosts, according to Pearce.
“That’s pretty cool,” Pearce said. “They kind of hide out sometimes if it’s too loud, or they don’t know what’s going on.”
The story of Paynter is well known at the Beaches, and Pearce recounts it in her book, which is available for purchase at the Beaches Museum & History Park and The BookMark in Atlantic Beach, among other places. According to Pearce, Paynter was the original owner of the pine log building, which she built as her home in 1934. She ran a boarding house there, as well as a home for orphans. It became a home-style southern cooking restaurant in 1947. After Paynter sold the building in 1962 it went through a series of owners.
Since Paynter’s death, she’s been spotted in the building by several witnesses over the years. Some have spotted her at the fireplace, located in the oldest section of the building. Others hear her humming while tending to a fire, instances Pearce notes in her book. Some women have reported seeing her behind them when they look in the mirror in the ladies room.
While washing her hands in the ladies room when it was the Copper Top, Pearce said she saw a shadow, but there was no light to cast it. The shadow moved and eventually faded out.
Pearce said that sensing paranormal activities seems to run in her family. Her mother saw spirits, and so did her grandmother. The writer grew up in St. Petersburg and later moved to St. Augustine, where she led ghost tours. She moved to Orange Park two years ago and, in addition to writing ghost books, also runs a paranormal investigation company and blogs on historic-haunts.net.
Her first ghostly encounter happened when she was 5 years old, one evening after her mother tucked her into bed. She fell asleep, and when she woke up a little while later, an elderly woman was leaning over her, rearranging the covers.
“She kissed me on the forehead, stood up, and disappeared,” Pearce said.
Pearce said she wasn’t frightened, and claims to have had many “post cognitive” experiences since childhood, seeing “things from the past, different events.” Once while visiting Charleston, she “saw” men lying on the ground in an alley, bleeding. Her tour guide, who saw nothing, said during the Civil War about 10 soldiers were involved in a tavern brawl that took place in that very location.
“I saw it like it was literally right there in front of me,” she said.
Pearce, who self-published her first book using her maiden name, Jamie Roush, is planning to publish her second book, Historic Haunts of the South, in the spring.
She hopes to publish Historic Haunts, Southern Inns, by Halloween. That one will feature the Casa Marina Hotel in Jacksonville Beach, also famously haunted. Her paranormal team contacted three spirits there during a recent investigation, she said.
Deric Pearce, who is part of the team, said he was “on the fence” about the hauntings until he met his wife. After accompanying her to haunted places throughout the country, he has become a believer.
“There’s stuff we don’t understand out there,” he said.
Wilson, who is also on the team, went to Williamsburg and Jamestown, Va., and to Gettysburg, Pa., last spring to investigate hauntings with the Pearces. He has no doubts.
“I’ve always believed in ghosts,” he said. “There’s got to be more than what we see, and what we experience.”
Jamie Pearce said Paynter’s ghost doesn’t seem to mind the new interior decorations in Taco Lu. The owners kept the historic ambience and appearance intact, including the distinctive pine log cabin walls. But they added authentic Mexican images and artifacts, including colorful skulls that are everywhere around the rooms.
The skulls celebrate the Day of the Dead, or “Dia de los Muertos,” a popular holiday in Mexico that celebrates the lives of fallen loved ones.
Paynter “seems to be OK with [the changes]. She’s still in the bathroom anyway,” Jamie Pearce said.
“The owners seem to have a strong desire to maintain the place and keep its history alive,” Deric Pearce said. “So I’m sure she’s OK with that, too.”