RABBIT HASH, Ky. – It’s 2 a.m., and Gina Ward is with her daughter smoking meat at their little barbeque shop along the banks of the Ohio River.
It’s their favorite time to cook because there’s not another soul in town.
Or so they think.
“We hear this loud pounding on the side of the store. Bang, bang, bang. So we jump up and run outside, but nobody’s there,” Ward said.
“...That’s just your average day in Rabbit Hash.”
Dating back to 1813, the tiny Boone County community has a rich past of early settlers, pirates, murder and supposed-buried treasure.
And if you ask most people in the town, that history has left behind an “otherworldly presence.”
“The stuff you’ll see will startle you once in a while,” Ward said. “You’ll be walking through town and you’ll get this feeling like you’re being watched or something comes over you where the hair stands up on your arms.”
Little shops of horrors
Almost every store owner in Rabbit Hash claims to have had an experience with the paranormal.
Ward, who owns the Scalded Hog restaurant, says her barbeque tools will often fly off the wall with no explanation. Her daughter swears she’s spotted a “full-figured apparition” walking toward her on multiple occasions.
There’s also the man who likes to sit in the chair.
“There was a gentleman that had passed away a few years ago and he would sit in a chair facing the river,” Ward said. “The other night, there was somebody sitting at the chair that looked just like him. Then he wasn’t there anymore.”
The Old Hashienda, a rustic hotel that shares a wall with the town’s winery, is considered one of the “most haunted” buildings in the community.
Multiple shop owners have claimed to hear voices from inside its empty rooms.
“If you’re in the wine shop, you can hear noises coming from the other side of the wall when nobody’s in that part of the building,” said Bridget Striker, the Boone County Public Library’s local history coordinator. “Dogs tend to scratch and whine at that wall, too. They’re obsessed with it.”
Not everyone in town, however, believes in the supposed spooky sightings.
Mary-Ellen Pesek, a part-time clerk at Rabbit Hash’s famed General Store, blames active imaginations for the ghost stories.
“I can’t say that I’ve experienced anything personally in the 17 years I’ve been here,” Pesek said. “There are a lot of other curious goings-on as you can imagine in a place this old, but I don’t know about the haunted part.”
That didn’t stop the town from bringing in a paranormal team last year. Its goal: to find proof that spirits still linger in one of the region’s oldest communities.
And that’s exactly what they did – well, sort of.
Flashlights, whispers and drums
It was the second night of the paranormal team’s big investigation when it got its first “hit.”
A group of community members and investigators were gathered in the back office of Rabbit Hash’s barn, staring at a flashlight on the desk. The team hoped a spirit would respond to questions by turning the flashlight on – but after 10 minutes, the room was still dark.
“We weren’t getting anything,” said Bobbi Kayser, president of the Rabbit Hash Historical Society Board of Directors. “Then, as someone was asking another question, I heard a distinct harrumph and the flashlight just flew off the table. I’m not talking rolled. It flew.”
Striker was there, too, and said she couldn’t believe her eyes. She claimed it was as if something or someone picked up the flashlight and tossed it across the room.
“I wasn’t touching it. I was just sitting in a chair,” Striker said. “Nobody was near the flashlight or the desk when it flew off...The environment of the barn sort of changed a little bit, too.”
Weeks earlier, it was Striker’s idea to call the Paranormal Investigators of Northern Kentucky, also known as PINK. She was hoping the group could help her find interesting stories for the Boone County Public Library’s annual ghost walk.
But she said she had no idea what she was getting herself into as more strange things started happening.
During an audio test inside the winery, PINK’s founder Mike Palmer said the team picked up the distinct sound of drums.
“There are no drums in the building,” Palmer said. “And nobody was in the building when the drums were recorded.”
Later, the team captured audio from inside a building nicknamed “The Doctor’s Office.” Palmer said it sounded like a man whispering the name “Captain Mill.”
“There weren’t any Capt. Mills that frequented the office,” Palmer said. “But the town historically was a ferry boat stop, so there could have been any number of captains over the years who may have needed to stop at the doctor’s office.”
The most interesting piece of “evidence,” according to Palmer, came from a different part of the barn.
The team uses a modified Xbox Kinect to track motion and heat signatures during investigations. The tool – a common staple among the ghost hunting community -- will trace a stick figure in any video where it identifies body movement, Palmer said.
“One of our investigators was walking through the foyer of the barn and she paused because she thought she heard a noise,” he said. “The video shows a stick figure directly behind her. As she turned to see where the noise came from, the stick figure jumps from the floor to the ceiling.”
To skeptics, this so-called evidence can seem silly – but Kayser isn’t laughing.
She said she’s believed in hauntings for most of her life, and Rabbit Hash’s history makes it the perfect spot for a visit from the unknown.
“A 200-year-old town on the river is just full of stories,” she said. “When you move into a community this old, you have to start suspecting there will be something here you don’t totally understand.”
‘You had stabbings and violence going on’
Described by its residents as “the center of the universe,” Rabbit Hash often seems like a snapshot of the past.
“It has a really unique feel to it, a really unique personality and it gives us a great idea what river town life was like back in the 1800s and early 1900s,” Bridget Striker said.
The town may just be a blip on the map, but it boasts one of the oldest continuously operating general stores in America.
Local farmers constructed the shop in 1830 to serve travelers delivering goods along the Ohio River. It looks almost identical today, despite a fire that destroyed about 30 percent of the store in 2016.
In the early 1800s, the community became a popular stop for ferries moving up from Missouri and Mississippi and down from New York and Pennsylvania.
“This whole area was kind of a crossroads, and it would get a lot of river traffic and a lot of visitors,” Striker said. “Rising Sun was right across the river, so there was a ton of interaction between those two communities.”
Despite its success, Rabbit Hash wasn’t without its dark side.
The small river hamlet was a slave holding community before and during the Civil War – and was the location of some underground railroad activity, according to historians.
There were also pirates.
“When you hear the term pirates you think of the Caribbean, but piracy was actually a thing back in the steam boating days,” Bobbi Kayser said. “So there are a lot of stories about all kinds of misadventure.”
That misadventure involved murder, stolen identities and buried treasure, according to Striker.
She said pirates would sometimes kill young men, dump their bodies, steal their goods and hide the most valuable items along the river before taking on their victim’s identity.
“You had stabbings and violence going on. And I think anywhere you have a lot of intense energy, you have the potential of any sort of paranormal activity,” Striker said. “Plus, they say water tends to hold onto energy. So having Rabbit Hash right on the river makes it a good candidate to be haunted.”
That energy may spook people out, but Kayser said she thinks it’s also what makes Rabbit Hash a pretty special place.
“People come here and it’s like their blood pressure lowers 10 degrees just by walking in the street,” she said. “It’s like there’s a gravitational pull that makes people calm down, get along, sit back, watch the river go by and listen to good music. It’s a very, very friendly place.
"...Even if there are ghosts.”