Random Florida Fact: Spook Hill defies gravity
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LAKE WALES, Fla. – There are plenty of spooky attractions in the Sunshine State, from cemeteries where the devil steals beers, a cursed stretch of Interstate 4, and even the country’s most haunted restaurant.

But at “Spook Hill,” you can test the legends out for yourself.

This hill can be found along 5th Street in Lake Wales, not far from an elementary school by the same name.

Spook Hill Elementary School in Lake Wales (Allison Talcott)

According to city officials, Spook Hill is a type of “gravity hill,” which is a place where gravity appears to work in reverse. If you park your car along the road and place it into neutral, it will seemingly roll uphill instead of downhill.

The street has been a tourist site for decades, with state records about the site dating all the way back to the 1950s.

Photograph of Spook Hill (ca. 1900) (State Library and Archives of Florida, Department of Commerce collection)

Nowadays, a sign posted nearby tells the legend of Spook Hill, explaining that ages ago, a Native American tribe near Lake Wailes once suffered from attacks by a giant alligator.

“The town’s great warrior chief and the gator were killed in a final battle that created the huge swampy depression nearby,” the sign reads.

Sign posted by Spook Hill (Allison Talcott)

Later on, pioneers traveling along the nearby Army trail found their horses struggling to walk through the foot of a ridge, despite it appearing to go downhill. And so they dubbed the area Spook Hill.

“Is it the gator seeking revenge, or the chief protecting his land?” the sign asks.

Another legend about the hill stems from a now-defunct restaurant in Lake Wales called Barney’s Tavern.

Postcard picturing Barney’s Tavern in Lake Wales (Public Domain, PDM 1.0)

The restaurant provided pamphlets in 1956 that discussed the story of “Captain Gimme Sarsaparilla,” a pirate who reportedly decided to retire in Lake Wales back in 1511 to pursue a life of whale fishing. Sarsaparilla was joined by his trusted friend, Teniente Vanilla.

According to the pamphlet, Vanilla was buried at the foot of Spook Hill after his death, and Sarsparilla was said to “repose in Davy Jones’ locker at the bottom of North Lake Wailes.”

Pamphlet by Barney’s Tavern (1956) (State Library of Florida, Florida Ephemera Collection)

Much later on, a man parked his car along Spook Hill directly above Vanilla’s chest, and Sarsaparilla’s spirit “arose from the depths of the lake” to push the car back up the hill and off of his dead friend’s resting place, the legend states.

Visitors are urged to try the experience out for themselves. To do so, they can stop their car on the white line, place it in neutral and let it roll backward.

News 6 visited Spook Hill in October to put those legends to the test.

From the inside of the vehicle, it appeared as though the car was indeed rolling uphill. However, a camera placed along the side of the road was able to catch the optical illusion at work.

In a 1991 article by the magazine Skeptical Inquirer, computer scientist Guss Wilder explained that the illusion only works if you’re driving at the hill head-on.

“When viewed from any angle other than from the designated approach road, the alleged ‘low point’ is obviously higher than the road behind it,” Wilder wrote. “A substantial portion of the visitors never get out of their cars to size up the situation properly and drive away with bewildered looks on their faces.”

Whether the street is haunted by the ghosts of pirates and gators, or whether it’s simply a trick of the eye, there’s no doubt it’s a location with plenty of history.

Check out the Florida Foodie podcast. You can find every episode in the media player below:

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