“Ghost tours can be rich and insightful, but they can be absolutely hokey,” explained Clark, whose mix of academic specificity, down-to-earth look and flair for weaving authoritative, captivating yarns, is anything but hokey. “We want everyone to know that this is not silly. These are so real, and the stories are grisly. Some of them are horrific and horrifying, but they’re real, and they represent chapters in the life of this town. They’re rich; they’re gritty; they’re real.”
The real-life history of Macon County, said Clark, is a sometimes ghastly, always intriguing tapestry of narratives that doesn’t need embellishing as much as it needs uncovering. So while Clark and his wife, Pauletta, may be the ones unearthing the past, they’re really just helping the past speak for itself.
For the Clarks, both teachers, what they do now is just an extension of a long-held love of history and a desire to fill a niche they’ve long lamented was empty.
Clark is a Macon County native who yearned for local history that he wasn’t getting in school.
“I grew up with a passion for myths, legends, ghost stories, mysteries, anything like that, soaked in anything I could.”
And after an encounter with a local storytelling event on a family vacation, Pauletta Clark floated the suggestion of bringing some of that local history to life for others.
“She said, ‘You should do something like this. There’s history there. We don’t know exactly what’s there, but there’s history,’” said Clark. “I didn’t know how daunting the history would be, if there would be a little or there would be a lot.”
On his return, he dove in headlong, starting at the Macon County Historical Museum, which is also now the starting point for his tours. Inside what used to be a mercantile is a trove of the county’s past, and behind the original, glass-fronted cabinets that used to house buttons and penny candy and the homesteader’s every necessity are now hundreds of books and binders, squirreling away tidbits of local lore and history.
When he started, Clark knew that Franklin was a hotspot of historic activity locally – the final surrender of the Civil War, the continent’s oldest earthen mound – and these stories were pretty well traveled, but research has brought to light new story after new story – the burial of a North Carolina governor, links to Carl Sandberg and President Grover Cleveland – that aren’t so well known, even to long-time locals.
After days and weeks and months of digging, and some help from the museum’s curator, Robert Shook, veritable waterfalls of history came tumbling down. From there, Clark branched out, reaching out to the county’s older residents in hopes of adding to the story stockpile.
“I started sitting with the men and women in their 90s and talking to them, picking their brains. And every day, I’d come home to my wife more excited, ‘Oh my gosh, let me tell you what we found today,’” said Clark.
Much of what they learned was, of course, chilling, and the ghost stories were foundational to local lore. A haunted tour seemed like the next natural step, and they were unsure at the outset about just what kind of reception they’d get, especially in the South, where the supernatural can sometimes be met with skepticism or disdain.
“I was fully prepared to do two or three tours and say, ‘Well, you know, we tried,’ and go on and do whatever,” said Clark. But a year later, their tours are still booming, and they’re adding new offerings all the time.
Earlier this year, they did four storytelling events in the historical museum devoted solely to the tale of Francis Bullock, a beloved young local whose brutal 1963 murder remains unsolved. The evenings were a full-on immersion in the Franklin of the mid-60s, complete with period soundtrack and hors d’ouevres that might’ve stepped straight out of “Mad Men.” They packed the house.
Their model has found its niche, catering to tourists looking for something to do in a mostly nightlife-free locale and residents looking to broaden their own knowledge of the place they call home, and that kind of mix only adds to the richness of the tour, say the Clarks.
“Last night I had far more locals than tourists,” says Gregg Clark. “Almost every tour, someone says something that I didn’t know.”
Sometimes those little historic morsels lead to a whole new line of research, perhaps even a new story. At the very least, they’re a sign to Clark that he’s doing something right, bringing history to the forefront of people’s minds.
And in a way, that’s the goal. When the topic rolls around to accuracy and verification, the Clarks are quick to say that they only present as fact what is actually fact.
“Any storyteller has to take what facts they can get their hands on, synthesize everything together, and then present it in a way that you are not saying this is 100 percent fact. You have to present it as this is what we believe. We think it happened this way; maybe it did,” said Clark, but hopefully, that question will spark in their guests some historical research of their own. “I give them what I find, and I tell them, ‘Look it up. Go find it.’ If they’ll delve deep enough, they’re going to find everything that I found, and they’re going to be able to make their own educated decision on it.”
That approach is clearly an appealing one — people keep showing up — but their next step now is learning how to deal with their success.
On their website now are five offerings, a mix of tours and events, and they’ll be adding a Ghosts of Christmas Past tour in time for the holidays. Next year they’re hoping to add a haunted mine tour. The couple is also working on two books, one a non-fiction compendium of regional lore, something of a companion to the tour often requested by guests, while the other is a novel that weaves those stories together through a more creative, fictional lens. But that’s a lot for just two people who also have full-time jobs, too much, really.
“We do want to hire some folks next year to do the walking tours,” said Pauletta Clark, after which her husband chimes in, right on cue, “Do you hear my voice?” his booming baritone indeed somewhat gravelly from constant touring.
“We are really hoping to meet some people with a flair for storytelling and history that would be interested in being a tour guide,” he said.
“I cannot be at all these places. Mines, homes, walking tours, ghosts and graveyards, I’ll die,” he said, laughing, “I’ll add to the tour. You can still see his lantern, walking up the road …”
Eventually, they can see themselves setting up shop in other locations such as Jackson and Haywood counties, where such opportunities are thin at this time. It takes a lot of research, but with a little help, a future that includes more than Franklin may not be just a pipe dream.
Originally, the Clarks were just trying to supplement their teachers’ pay by doing something they wished they’d found elsewhere. Now it’s blossomed into a full-blown enterprise that they feel is as much about community service as it is about hauntings.
“We’re doing preservation through presentation,” said Gregg Clark, and they want everyone to be a part of that.
He teaches eighth grade at Macon Middle School, and used the tour as a field trip for the kids this semester. His own passion was sparked by his high school teacher Bill Crawford, who remains what Clark calls a “warrior for the past,” and they hope they’re instilling in their own kids the same kind of pride that made them start this business in the first place.
“I want them to be proud,” summarized Pauletta Clark. “Everyone should be proud of where they come from.”
So should you be short of scary stories, head over to Franklin, where the truth is sometimes scarier than fiction.
For more information on the Macon County haunted history tours, visit www.whereshadowswalk.com or call 828.399.0209.