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Spook Hill Monument: An Uphill (Or Is It Downhill?) Battle

Lake Wales, Florida, is the site of Spook Hill, among the most famous “gravity hills” in the world. You park your car at the bottom — the town has painted a helpful line on the street at the starting point — put it in neutral, then sit in amazement as you roll uphill.

But if you ask “Why?” then you have a problem.

Spook Hill Monument concept.Enter James Hahn. He’s an artist/gallery owner who grew up in Florida and loves oddball roadside attractions (He painted the murals at the original Babyland General Hospital).

Hahn told us that an organization named Leadership Lake Wales approached him to come up with a way to call attention to Spook Hill. So in 2011 he created a design for a 12-foot-tall monument that would stand near the Spook Hill starting line. It shows an alligator and a mysterious-looking Indian, who’s grasping a giant hourglass with sand tilted at strange angles. The design, Hahn told us, hearkens to a local legend of a gator-wresting Seminole chief whose spirit created the forces at Spook Hill (The hourglass is Hahn’s own artistic/branding contribution).

Hahn took the idea and the illustration to the Lake Wales City Commission, which gave him the go-ahead to build the monument.

Not so fast, said David Smith, president of the Lake Wales branch of the NAACP and a life-long Lake Wales resident. Smith told the Commission (and later repeated it to us) that the story that he had always heard was that a black man named Buster Coon had parked his car at the bottom of Spook Hill to go fishing. One day he left the car in neutral, it began rolling uphill, Coon fainted, and when he finally got home he told everyone that “spooks” had moved his car. That’s the origin of Spook Hill, said Smith. Why doesn’t the town put up a monument to that? Why is the City Commission allowing a non-local artist to immortalize a legend rather than bona-fide Lake Wales history?

James Hahn has said he is sticking with his design (he already has the t-shirts for sale). His position is that the Indian/alligator legend is as monument-worthy as the Buster Coon origin story, and that, anyway, both tales will be available through a hi-tech Spook Hill Monument app triggered by the smartphone or tablet cams of visitors. The app, according to Hahn, would also feature “a 3D version of the Native American Chief, who would point toward where you park your car to start the ‘uphill and backward’ roll the Hill is known for.”

David Smith of the NAACP is not impressed. He told us that he and his constituents intend to fight the Spook Hill Monument as it’s currently conceived, but it’s unclear what can be done since the Lake Wales City Commission has already given Hahn the go-ahead for the project. Hahn, for his part, says that no piece of public art ever pleases everyone (We could cite one or two choice examples). “If you are so upset by my design,” he asked rhetorically, “then … why have you not taken up a crusade of your own to maintain and commemorate the Hill?”

Sections: Attraction News 4 Comments » Team Field Report

Spook Hill

N. Wales Drive, Lake Wales, FL
The sign marking the start point of Spook Hill is on the east side of N. Wales Drive/5th St. about a quarter-mile south of Hwy 17/Burns Ave.
Public road. Hazard flashers recommended. Use at your own risk. Local health policies may affect hours and access.
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4 Responses to “Spook Hill Monument: An Uphill (Or Is It Downhill?) Battle”

  1. bub Says:
    February 11th, 2013 at 12:26 am

    I was always told the version of the black guy. The indian version is just stupid.

  2. James R. Hahn / Artist Says:
    February 23rd, 2013 at 11:08 am

    Thanks, Roadside America, for a fair assessment of the project in general. The post before mine by “bub” shows the usual insensitivity that as an artist, I am trying to avoid when featuring Spook Hill. Both stories have been prevalent through the years (from Historical Society records), with the Native American legend being obviously the chronologically first to occur. The “naming” of the Hill has been attributed to an exclamation made by the local black businessman/fisherman mentioned, which happened well after the Chieftain legend (his truck rolled uphill-necessitating automobiles to have been invented). Our efforts have been simply to bring an interactive, eye-catching monument to a well-known roadside America phenomenon. We have always mentioned the fisherman story in our Web presentations, and plan on it being highlighted in our apps. For anyone commenting that they are not familiar with the Chieftain story, then they have not even visited Spook Hill in many many years. Signs for decades have recounted the Native American legend (the one standing now has had it for at least 7 years that we’re aware of). The signs also have included the fisherman’s story, but in “less than flattering” language to the well-known black businessman referred to. We also made ourselves available to discuss the project, and hear concerns from Mr. Smith, through the Economic Development office in Lake Wales, to no avail. We received no calls or requests to meet to get input from Mr. Smith’s organization while the monument was in design, or the approval stages. I believe asking us to “replace” a Native American origin story, with an African American story which is reported to have happened much later in time, to be a conflict of interest for the NAACP. This is not about promoting or not promoting a specific race for me as an artist – it was simply to create an unusual artwork that can give tourists something interesting to see while at Spook Hill, learn about our area, and know more about ALL the aspects of its history, including the black fisherman’s contribution to its naming. It is known primarily as a quirky uphill rolling attraction. As the artist, I can tell you I have no other agenda than providing a sculptural monument that can highlight the Hill, bring extra merchandising opportunities to help the local economy like many parks & attractions do, and help guide tourists who come there expecting more than an empty road with a line painted on it. Thank you – JRH – Artist for the Spook Hill Monument

  3. Common sense is not so common Says:
    March 15th, 2013 at 10:01 pm

    Please people. When will the NAACP stop interfering in things not involving the “advancement of colored people”. The story of Mr. Coone is a great story and should be told, but come on guys clearly the Indian story is the legend regarding the “ORIGIN” of the phenomenon, Mr. Coons story does not account for the “ORIGIN of the Phenomenon at all. It is merely a story of one man’s experience at the site. It’s bad enough people fight about ideological issues, please quit creating non-issues to fight over.

  4. Isaac Newton Says:
    March 24th, 2013 at 12:00 pm

    At several hilly locations around the U.S., known as “gravity hills,” objects such as cars left on neutral supposedly roll uphill, driven by unknown forces and against the force of gravity. Physicists say — and GPS measurements confirm — that the effects are illusions caused by the landscape. The position of trees and slopes of nearby scenery, or a curvy horizon line, can blend to trick the eye so that what looks uphill is actually downhill.

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