What’s a ghoul to do when Hurricane Irma drops a tree on your graveyard?
Rebuild those gravestones so Jacksonville’s “Old Spanish Trail Haunt,” an outdoor Halloween attraction behind a looming brick building at 13535 W. Beaver St., can scare again.
Co-founder April Milward said she and husband Dave worked with a handful of volunteers for five months setting up multiple scenes over the hot and humid summer. Then Irma struck Sept. 10 and 11, dropping trees and debris on the trail and the building where she and Dave live, while heavy rains flooded it.
“Oh my gosh it was a nightmare. One of our actors said we should just change the theme to an old town leveled by a hurricane. It was that bad,” Milward said. “We had a big tree that came down across two different scenes. … The entire trail was under a foot to 2 feet of water throughout, and just limbs and branches waist-high in most areas. We spent days clearing that out.”
Some say the Westside site was a stagecoach stop in the 1800s. Historians say the current building appears to date to the 1920s and may have housed a bordello in the 1940s and ’50s. It was a grocery from 1960 to 1990, with owners adding an ornate outside staircase and balcony to their upstairs home. The Old Spanish Trail store closed in 2002, staying empty until the Milwards bought the 12,000-square-foot building and the land in 2014.
Their plan was to turn it into an outside haunted trail for Halloween, and it opened that fall with sections like Apocalypse Alley and Voodoo Gardens, carved out of the site just west of Otis Road. The show continued in 2015, then there was a year’s hiatus before the decision to revive it for 2017.
The couple, their son and a handful of volunteers rebuilt the cemetery, haunted parlor, horror circus and other parts. When Irma began heading this way, they prepared as much as they could, Milward said.
“Pretty much everything that we had already decorated, we had to un-decorate just weeks before opening,” she said. “We had to take down a couple of tents and brought in any props laying around.
The siding of the building blew off into the next-door lot, a tree fell onto their back balcony and another smashed a fake tombstone for “Ima Goner.”
“The way the tree broke it, it almost looked like it said Irma,” Milward said. “That’s really creepy.”
The couple lost power for three days, then began rebuilding as they finished training the 70 people who will act as ghouls, zombies and staff at the haunted trail from Friday through the end of October.
A film on the haunted trail project is being done. The Milwards also still want to renovate the building into an event venue with a stage. A paintball field is planned outside along with an “escape room” where customers are “locked in” and have to figure out clues to get out.
“Over the past three years we have worked two and three jobs each to pay for the place, and there are many time we asked, ‘What the hell are we doing?’ ” Milward said. “But we are fighting for the dream.”