The Ghostly Christmas Shoppe

The ghostly Christmas Shoppe. A picture of the exterior of Winterwood in Rio Grande

The Victorians loved a good ghost story—especially at Christmas. The tradition of telling spine-tingling stories of ghouls and specters, while sitting in front of a roaring fire, goes back to ancient times. The Victorians in England made a national pastime of telling ghost stories at Christmas. Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is only one of many, great Victorian tales that were savored beside the yuletide hearth. The Victorians in Cape May probably followed suit with their English brethren and told a few ghost stories at Christmas themselves. Today, some of those same Victorians, now lacking corporeal form, are still lingering around the ethers of America’s oldest seaside resort, and their stories are good enough to tell any time of year!

When considering the topic of a December Cape May ghost story, one place came to mind that evoked the spirit and Spirits of Christmas―Winterwood. Located in Cape May and Rio Grande, Winterwood Gift & Christmas Gallery has everything one needs for holiday decorating. Both stores also have everything one needs for a perfect haunting. Since I have already written about the Winterwood Shoppe in Cape May in my October column, I will devote this column to Winterwood’s original location at 3137 Rt. 9 South in Rio Grande.

Craig with a grave marker

In The Ghosts of Cape May Book 1, I tell the tale of how I first came to know Winterwood Rio Grande’s resident ghost, Hester Hildreth. I was staying in the turret suite of the Inn at 22 Jackson, trying to make heads or “tales” out of the ghost story told about the house for years. When I finally figured out the stories were untrue, made up actually, I conducted a trance channeling to see if I could contact the real ghost of the house, a girl named Anne.

Trance channeling is a medium’s way of meditating and establishing a strong communication with ghosts in a house or Spirits from the Other Side. Sometimes it gets a bum wrap because Mediums of the old days tended to be overly dramatic about trance channeling and became more of a stage act than an actual Spirit communication. When I relax and go into trance I imagine myself in some neutral place. I allow (this is the key word;  I never give up control of what I am doing) the ghosts or Spirits to talk through me. While in this state, I can sense and feel these entities. When the session is over, I usually do not hold on to the information I have channeled. I will remember bits and pieces of what was said, but usually it feels more like waking from a dream than an actual conversation.

During my trance channeling at the Inn at 22 Jackson (now called the Red Cottage and part of the Virginia Hotel group) I was channeling the house ghost, a young girl named Anne. Suddenly a very strong ghost named Hester Hildreth barged in. Hester was not associated with the house at all. She saw me on a psychic level and was drawn into my trance energy. She had been at the house across the street (Poor Richards Inn) which once belonged to her cousin George Hildreth, when my trance channeling must have reached out, as it often does, and pulled her in. A Psychic Medium’s energy to a ghost can be like a flame to a moth. Our energies tend to attract both higher Spirits from the other Side and earthbound ghosts as well.

Hester Hildreth had come to tell me she had left the Winterwood Shoppe in Rio Grande where she was known to haunt since she died in 1949. It seemed she was more of a gadabout, had tired of the “crowded” surroundings of Winterwood and made her way to Cape May. At the time, I thought it strange that a ghost could travel so many miles from one location to another, but I also was beginning to understand that ghosts are transient by nature, and they do in fact move from place to place.

The sign on Winterwood announcing their resident ghost “Hestor” [sic]

Hester was accustomed to having free reign in the Winterwood Shoppe, and she had every right. The house, the oldest part of which dates back to the 1730s, was built by her ancestor David Hildreth, a Revolutionary War patriot, and had been her home since birth. Since 1978, it has been the home to a Christmas Shoppe. Hester and her ghostly friends had to now share their space with lots of Christmas trimmings.

In the trance channeling, Hester had commented that her staircase, an old winding wooden set of stairs behind the great fireplace, was cluttered with junk. I decided to pay a visit to Rio Grande and did find the stairs were now being used as display space, and were no longer in use as an access way to the second floor. Ghosts follow their old routines and paths. Block those paths and you may have a very unhappy ghost!

I set up an appointment to see Winterwood’s current owners, Tom and Cindi Alvarado and discuss the current climate of hauntings at the store. Tom and Cindi were kind enough to take me throughout the house. You can read more about Hester in my book, The Ghosts of Cape May Book 1. For this column I want to focus on two other ghosts of the house, for on that particular visit to Winterwood, it was not Hester that I was sensing, it was the ghosts of a young boy and young girl. They, too, belonged in the home, but were from a different era.

For someone with ADD (attention deficit disorder) like I have, trying to concentrate and focus on something as subtle and elusive as the paranormal is always a challenge. Place me in a busy Christmas store filled to the ceiling with shiny, sparkly, noisy things and my mind becomes toast. This investigation was a real challenge. I have been back many times and I still can’t focus properly in that store! Even so, I tried my best, closing my eyes in each room, going from floor to floor in search of anything paranormal.

It was on the second floor that I first felt two distinct presences. The room was filled with backup stock of Christmas things, especially toys. Boys will be boys and ghosts of boys will act like boys as well. The same goes for ghosts of girls. They will retain a childlike personality, even at the advanced age of their ghostly existence.

I psychically followed the young children around the house. Their energies came and went often losing me in the process. At one point, on the second floor in the office, I felt a wall of cold surround and pass through me. The hair stood up on my neck and arms. It was like being taken by surprise from behind. In fact, that is exactly what happened. The ghosts had descended in and around me so quickly, I had little time to see them coming. I wondered if they could see me. If yes, were they playing with me, or were they trying to communicate and get my attention? Maybe they were simply going about their daily routines without even realizing that I was there. It’s different with every ghost.

Cindi and Craig in the Winterwood attic

The cold feeling had left and I had decided to follow Cindi Alvarado up one more level to the old attic, with its crooked chimney and ancient beams. The air was close and humid, and I could not sense the ghosts of the children at all. Something was there however something just outside the reach of my mind. It was an older energy, possibly from an earlier time in the house. This energy had dimension without personality. There was no interaction with it and my psychic mind. It would not communicate with me on a mind-to-mind level.

Sometimes in the paranormal field, we call this type of energy “residual energy.” This is not a ghostly presence. There is no consciousness, just imagery that a sensitive like myself can experience. A house this old is bound to have residual energies. Living participants from another time unknowingly place these bits of psychic information in the ethers of a building. Strong emotions or a traumatic event can leave this kind of psychic imprint. The energies in the attic at Winterwood were leftover from days long ago, and they were not talking. It was nothing more than a tape loop, repeating a few images of some forgotten event. This “residual haunting” had no value to my investigation, as the images were people moving about without words or thoughts. I continued my quest down the stairs and to other (cooler) parts of the house.

The Joshua Hildreth Homestead, as the building is called in historical records, is one of Cape May’s surviving architectural treasures. The picture below shows the house the way it was around 1900. Today, newer additions have been built and added to the original structure. The two-story section of the house is the oldest, thought to be built in 1722 by David Hildreth or in the 1730s by his son, Joshua Hildreth. This is where I found the biggest psychic charge. From ground floor up to the attic, this part of the house was the most haunted. The problem is all ghosts have personal agendas. Even if a place is very haunted, it does not mean ghosts want to communicate. These ghosts were proving elusive to my psychic charm.

A historic photograph of the house that is now Winterwood in Rio Grande. Photo appears courtesy of The Cape May County Historical and Genealogical Museum

Before I could get a fix on the ghostly children once more, and try to throw out some psychic questioning, they had vanished through the back wall of the house. Getting inside a ghost’s mind is hard enough when they are stationary. Some ghosts simply do not want to talk to the living. Some don’t even know they are dead. They live a dream-scape existence, probably more like a recurring nightmare, and a probing psychic medium is nothing more than a passing interest to their wandering minds. Ghosts, fields of energy with a consciousness, are nothing more than surviving personalities. Free floating souls without bodies. Every ghost is different. Some want to talk, others do not. The two ghostly children had made a break for the backyard, yet somehow I had a feeling it was not to escape me, but instead to draw me outside.

I could pick up a few bits and pieces of information from them as I rejoined them behind the Winterwood buildings. The girl’s name was Sarah. Either she told me this or my mind was able to probe her “mind” and find the information. The boy proved harder to catch and question. Both of them were now moving away from the house, deeper into the backyard and finally into the woods behind the property. They vanished from my psychic radar. Had I discovered ghosts from another property? Had they been visiting Winterwood to play with the toys and then returned home?

Making some more inquiries about the property, I learned of the reason for the ghostly trek and their possible destination. There was an old family cemetery behind Winterwood, dating back to the time of the earliest inhabitants of the home. In that cemetery were several children’s’ graves—could these children be buried there as well? Unfortunately, the graveyard was not accessible in the summer. It was well overgrown in a thicket of weeds, brush, and poison ivy. I am always up to a good paranormal challenge, except when it involves poison ivy. I would let the children go back to their resting ground, undisturbed.

While Hester Hildreth and possibly her sister Lucille (Lou) were always thought to be the headlining ghosts at Winterwood in Rio Grande, I think the two children are really behind much of the paranormal activity. People who work in the store report things flying off the shelves, toys found lined up on the floor, and stuffed animals left strewn around, as if they had been played with during the night. I think it is safe to assume, they had.

On subsequent visits to the Christmas Shoppe, I was always drawn to the old fireplace area in the main section of the home. Ghostly presences linger near the winding stairs and old mantel. Family legend tells that a British soldier who had defected during the Revolutionary War was taken in by the Hildreths and given shelter. In return for the safe haven, he carved the elaborate wooden mantel still standing today. I sometimes sense a male presence in that room, smoking a pipe. Even when I stop by to make a purchase at Winterwood, in that room one never feels alone. Someone or something is always just over your shoulder, just out of sight. Could it be one of the Hildreth men, or is it the British soldier, still hiding out in the house?

All ghosts haunt for some reason. When a house stands this long and has remained in the same family from 1722 to the 1960s, it is usually a given that one will find dead former family members lurking about. On a recent visit to the shoppe, I found myself once again drawn to the backyard. This time, the pull was stronger than before. I could hear children laughing. It was not a sound audible to my ears, it was a psychic message sent directly to my brain. I knew immediately that it was the ghostly children. This time I started to follow them back—deeper into the property. As I moved closer to the edge of the woods, I felt as if time had stopped. It was a similar feeling to what I had experienced at Higbee Beach, when I ventured off into the woods there. Here I was in the middle Rio Grande’s booming shopping district, yet I felt like I had slipped into some isolated netherworld.

I moved past the old white fence and through the opening into the dense brush. I felt as if I were being pulled and could not stop myself from moving. I pondered the possible location of the old graves, which could have right under me, yet there was so much wild brush, I would never know it.  Suddenly, something grabbed my leg! Luckily, it was only a dead vine and not a dead child, but it almost tripped me anyway.

The sudden rush of adrenaline was enough to break my psychic line and make me realize I was heading into rough waters. The terrain was not the only thing that was difficult to navigate. I was being haunted by the two children and they were insisting I follow them—to their graves. Common sense prevailed and I cleared my mind, shut down my psychic senses, and left the woods and the old cemetery. I don’t know what they wanted me to see, but I did not have a feeling it was anything warm and fuzzy. The whole experience made my blood run cold. Some ghosts will get a little too up close and personal, and these two just overstepped their boundaries. Whereas adult ghosts will usually back off if they know they are bothering a living being, spirits of children do not have the same ghostly etiquette. Whatever they were planning, I wasn’t playing along. I made the long trek back to the parking lot and got in my car and bid them farewell—at least for now.

I would like to get back to Winterwood at night and conduct a channeling session. A good old-fashioned séance should bring out the ghosts in full regalia. Maybe I will even be brave enough to battle the poison ivy and get to he old burial ground in back. In the meantime, feel free to do your Christmas shopping at Winterwood. Maybe you will even run into one of the real ghosts of Christmas past!

You can read the entire Winterwood story in my first book, The Ghosts of Cape May. You can order Book 1 or all four of my Ghosts of Cape May books through my website by clicking here. My books also make great holiday gifts, and I would be more than happy to personally inscribe them for your friends and loved ones.

The Winterwood haunting is a great story. The more I think about this haunting, the more I could imagine that if I were a ghostly kid, wandering around the streets of Rio Grande, I would haunt a place like Winterwood. Everyone there is always in a holiday mood, and toys and Christmas decorations abound. It is a place that would make me feel right at home. A place where every day—is Christmas.

Happy holidays to you and your ghosts!