Central Louisiana brims with history, ghost stories and spirits, especially in the Red River city of Alexandria.
Checking into Hotel Bentley in downtown Alexandria, Louisiana, feels like taking a step back into the past. Built in 1907 by Joseph Bentley, a native of Pennsylvania who became wealthy in the lumber industry in Central Louisiana, legend has it that the only reason he built the hotel is because he was turned down for a room in the former Ice House Hotel. Bentley was particularly impressed by the Capitol Hotel in Little Rock, Arkansas, and asked architect George R. Mann to design his hotel in Alexandria. The Bentley opened to the public on August 10, 1908, and was expanded in 1933.
The Bentley has a long history in the city, including housing Dwight Eisenhower and George S. Patton during World War II, being added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1979 and closing and reopening several times over the years. In 2012, the hotel underwent a multimillion-dollar restoration and today offers 93 rooms, a Grand Ballroom, restaurant and bar. Original architectural details in the lobby feature a cupola, painted ceiling, marble columns, sparkling chandelier and grand staircase. There’s even a small World War II exhibit on the main floor.
Despite the renovations and several changes in ownership, Joseph Bentley is said to have remained at the hotel. He seems to like the fifth floor, but waitstaff in the restaurant have had sightings of him, and the adjacent Mirror Bar has its own spooky feel. When “Ghost Hunters” visited for season 7 of their Syfy show, they heard a lot of strange sounds, singing, footsteps and a thumping noise on command.
Across the street from Hotel Bentley is Finnegan’s Wake Pub, which was featured in the same episode of “Ghost Hunters” and, according to bartender Melissa Scarborough, has two resident ghosts. Sophie and Charlie are the names given to the ghosts by staff, and each has a very different personality. Sophie doesn’t like people in the bar and usually stays in the back storage room, but she’s been known to throw glasses and slam doors. Charlie is more playful and likes to surprise patrons by putting a hand on or breathing down the back of their neck.
Scarborough says she believes the ghosts came with the bar’s furniture, like the old buffet that was once in a brothel. Finnegan’s Wake—named for James Joyce’s book—will have been open 13 years in July and is a favorite local spot for a beer, book (there’s a mini library in back) and, more recently, a glass of whiskey. When she’s not dealing with the ghosts, Scarborough is holding up her title as Louisiana’s first whiskey sommelier. She’s happy to recommend a good scotch, bourbon or whiskey from the bar’s extensive selection.
Another fun spot for a drink is Hokus Pokus Liquor Store, run by the same family since 1940 and recognizable by the ghost on its sign. The staff like to refer to themselves as “spiritual advisors,” and a great time to learn about wine and spirits is during a Friday wine tasting. Each week from 5-7 p.m., the store offers a complimentary tasting at its back bar, which also includes a liquor shelf up for grabs as well. Although the store was originally located on Lee Street, which still features the old neon sign (pictured), customers can now find them on Jackson Street (and also in Lake Charles and Prairieville).
The last Friday of the month is reserved for beer tasting at Hokus Pokus, a testament to the area’s growing craft beer scene. Craft beer and music festival Funktoberfest was held at the beginning of October for the fourth year in a row. More than 100 beers were on tap for tasting, and seven homebrewers also turned out this year. Some of the best beer we tasted was Twenty 8 West‘s Jacks-O-Lantern Ale, which isn’t available in stores yet, and Huckleberry Brewing Co.—founded by an eighth generation Alexandrian—also makes a Swamp Squash Pumpkin Brown Ale that’s perfect for the season. In the homebrewing category, Mark Neely with The Happy Wife Brew Shed makes a delicious Not-So-Plain Vanilla Bean Sweet Port, the winner of this year’s Homebrew Competition. Taste it on tap at Spirits, and Jack’s Drinks on Coliseum Boulevard carries Twenty 8 West. Huckleberry Brewing has a tap room and sells throughout the city and state.
More spirits reside at Kent Plantation House, where October is “Mourning Month.” The house and tour guides are clad in black, with mirrors and photos of the deceased covered out of respect. An authentic Creole plantation house built circa 1796—prior to the Louisiana Purchase—Kent was originally only six rooms. Built by Pierre Baillio II, the house was home to 14 children, 10 of whom survived. Pierre’s son Sosterne died in 1853 of yellow fever, and it’s this child that Kent House is mourning this month.
A death notice is posted on the Artifact Room Door, and wreaths of green and black also adorn the exterior doors of the upstairs gallery. Inside, a mourning set of dishes graces the dining room table, and a guide explains that dark-colored foods would have been served during the mourning period, which would have lasted one year for a child and two years for a spouse.
In the ladies parlor, Sosterne would have laid for 14 hours in a coffin before his burial, with flowers packed around to hide the smell of death. The parlor opens to the girls’ bedroom, where a black wedding dress from 1853 is laid out over the bed. Pierre passed away before one of his daughters’ weddings, so she would have been required to wear a black gown, the guide explains.
Candles would also have been lit throughout the house to mimic the soul’s ascent into heaven. A graveyard quilt in the library depicts the children’s’ births and deaths on coffins in the center, and a book of how to perform medical procedures is a reminder of just how life-threatening times were then. A small cemetery located near the sugar mill is just for show. The family would actually have been buried on higher ground in neighboring Pineville.
Another local attraction showcasing a darker part of history is Forts Randolph and Buhlow State Historic Site. Guide Richard H. Holloway is passionate about these Red River forts’ role in the Civil War and has even reconstructed an interpretive cabin complete with a cozy fire that shows how soldiers would have lived during those times. Upon our arrival, he had coffee brewed with okra seeds for texture and collard greens available for tasting. Outdoors, a golf cart tour revealed hiking trails through the historic site, an elevated boardwalk, a mini garden of clippings of original irises from John James Audubon and what’s known locally as “Crazy Lake (pictured).” Central Louisiana State Hospital in Pineville, which houses patients until the late 1950s, is located just across the lake, hence the local name.
Don’t leave this haunted town without a trip to Atwood’s Bakery, where spooky sweets are cased in glass and chocolate mice seem like a dare. They serve a great breakfast and lunch too, but it’s tempting to just fill up on ghost cookies or pumpkin pancakes. There’s even a Skeleton Selfie Stop in back.
When the “Ghost Hunters” came to Alexandria in 2011, they made history by investigating an entire city, rather than just one haunted location. Their reveal was presented during a Town Hall meeting, proof that residents take their ghosts seriously. No matter what type of spirit you’re looking for, you’ll find them (and much more) in Alexandria, Louisiana.
IF YOU GO
Ninety-three guest rooms and suite accommodations are available starting at $130 per night. The Bentley Room is open for dining Monday through Saturday and for Sunday brunch. The Diamond Grill, also said to be haunted, serves dinner Monday through Saturday.
Spirits of the Harvest – October 27, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. at Forts Randolph & Buhlow
Historic Cemetery Tour – October 27, 3-5 p.m., Historic Rapides Cemetery in Pineville
Dutch Oven Gathering – 4th Saturday of the month (except November), 9 a.m., Forts Randolph & Buhlow
Where to Eat
Mi Tierra Restaurante Mexicano – Experience Alexandria’s diversity of cultures at this authentic and fresh Mexican restaurant. Try the fried avocado tacos.
Atwood’s Bakery – Serving a full breakfast and lunch Tuesday through Saturday.
The Cottage Restaurant – Great lunch spot with salads and sandwiches Monday through Saturday. Also known for their delicious Shrimp Soup and almond tea.
Brunch at The Bentley – Keep an eye out for ghosts during Saturday or Sunday brunch downstairs at The Bentley. The menu includes Grits & Grillades, Seafood Stuffed French Toast and a Crabcake Poach.
Thanks to Alexandria Pineville Convention & Visitors Bureau and Hotel Bentley for hosting us for a Staycation Press Trip in early October 2018. All photos by Deep South Magazine.