Austin Pizza Garden manager Brian Ahart on the stairway where ghostly apparitions have been seen.
by Bobbie Jean Sawyer
While haunted houses, graveyards and Austin’s famed Driskill Hotel may be haunted hot spots this Halloween, a familiar sight in Oak Hill holds a wild west history and ghostly love story to captivate even the most experienced ghost hunter.
In the 15 years she’s worked at the Austin Pizza Garden, housed in the historic rock building at 6626 West Highway 290, weekend manager Jayme Garza has had so many unexplained encounters she’s lost track.
Years ago, when she was washing dishes, Garza looked up the stairs and caught a glimpse of a figure dressed in all white staring back down at her.
Garza said she’s long been plagued by the eerie suspicion that someone is pacing behind her in the second floor meeting room.
“When I do paperwork, even if everyone else is downstairs, it feels like somebody is walking by the doors,” Garza said. “I just turn around and there’s nobody there.”
Garza’s not alone. Countless staff members have reported strange happenings over the years, even without knowing the building’s haunted history.
Lights turn on and doors open on their own. Employees have returned to empty rooms to find radios and tubs full of silverware have been thrown on the ground. Phantom footsteps are now so common the staff barely gives them a second thought.
Austin Pizza Garden employee Josh Serrano said while he’s not easily spooked, being alone in the restaurant sets him on edge.
“I only get this weird creeped out feeling here,” Serrano said. “I’ll hear stuff at other people’s houses or even at my house but I don’t get creeped out even if it is kind of questionable. It’s only here where I get this nervous, sixth sense kind of feeling.”
Garza said while the Pizza Garden’s otherworld residents tend to save their antics for employees working after hours, even certain customers have noticed an odd presence in the restaurant.
“We’ve had so-called mediums who have come to eat here and they’re like, ‘There’s somebody here,’” Garza said.
Garza’s brother Frank has worked at Austin Pizza Garden for two years and spent much of his childhood there. While Garza is well-versed in the restaurant’s creep-factor, one particular occasion in which he re-entered the building after closing, still gives him a chill.
“All of a sudden I just hear these boots walking down the hallway, so I ran and locked the door, which was probably a bad thing to do. I heard the boots walking and then I heard them walk back again. Then it was like a parade of people were running back and forth,” Frank Garza said. “I was freaking out.”
History Not Hysteria
Given the Austin Pizza Garden building’s long history, it’s no surprise it’s steeped in Texas legend. Over the years the building has served as a post office, masonic lodge and art gallery. But it was first home to a general store built in 1879 and owned and operated by Texas Ranger James Andrew Patton.
Having spent his early years behind a rifle, the lawman finally opted for a quiet community life in Oak Hill, then called Oatmanville, raising his two children, Andrew Lewis Patton and Rosa Selma Patton, and his nieces Beulah, Lillian, Zelda and Cora White, with his wife Virginia Catherine Bishop.
Rosa Patton, who later inherited her father’s shop, married John Dudley White, a Texas Ranger killed in the line of duty in Broadus, Texas in 1918. After spending much of her life tending her father’s store, Rosa left the business to her daughter Margaret. Margaret White Grunewald later turned the building over to her nephew James White, best known as the co-owner of the legendary Southwest Austin honkytonk, the Broken Spoke.
The Pizza Garden’s historical ties make it the perfect case for Jeanine Plumer, author of “Haunted Austin” and founder of Austin Ghost Tours, which specializes in leading guests on historically-accurate tours of allegedly haunted areas around the city.
Plumer said knowing the history of a building and its past residents is essential in investigating the paranormal. “It’s not as significant that it’s just a ghost. Why is it a ghost? What’s the deal? You have to do research to find that out,” Plumer
Plumer said before forming Austin Ghost Tours, she wasn’t a believer. In fact, she rarely gave the idea of spirits and the afterlife much of a thought.
“I just retold stories. I didn’t think about it. When I did think about it, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Because all of a sudden you’re accepting that there is an energy, there’s something that influences our environment that we can’t see,” Plumer said. “I started reading everything I could possibly read about everything—every single religion and what they believe. It opened up a world. What is this that’s happening? What did the Babylonians say this was? What did the Romans say? These experiences have been around as long as there’s been humanity. It changes the way you think.”
Plumer said she feels a sense of wonderment and curiosity—never fear—on her expeditions.
“You’re almost—in a weird way—in death as you are in life,” Plumer said. “How many truly evil people have you ever met? There are really bad, bad people in the world but there’s mostly good people, mostly regular people who have compassion and care. It’s the same thing with spirits.”
Monica Ballard, an Austin Ghost Tours tour guide, led her third investigation of the Austin Pizza Garden Saturday night.
Ballard said her t-shirt which reads “Austin Ghost Tours: History not
Hysteria” represents her views on interacting with the dead. Ballard opened the investigation by reading the history of the Pattons as a sign of knowledge and respect for the deceased.
“You can’t just walk in some place and ask ‘Who’s there?’ and ‘Give us your name’ and then double back and find out what the deal is,” said Ballard, describing the “cocktail party effect” her investigations have on ghosts. “They make themselves more obvious when you’re already acting familiar towards them.”
Both Ballard and Plumer believe the entity residing in Austin Pizza Garden is the ghost of Rosa Patton White’s husband, John Dudley White. They came to the determination through using a Shack Hack during their first investigation. The Shack Hack, a tool used by many in the paranormal investigation field, is a now-defunct Radio Shack radio with a disabled ‘scan and seek’ button. Ballard explained that by disabling the button, the radio rolls through the frequencies allowing spirits to utilize the white noise between frequencies to collect energy and respond directly to questions, creating a sort-of technological séance.
Ballard said when the investigative team asked the spirit why it remained in the building it responded “Rosa,” leading them to believe John Dudley White had returned to be with his wife after his untimely death.
Frank Garza said, in past investigations, the name Patton and the words “ranger” and “Comanche” were mentioned. The crew, using a digital thermometer, also noticed ten degree drops in temperature in the middle of summer when the air conditioner and all electrical items were off.
Plumer said spirits remaining because of unfinished business on earth is one of the most common forms of haunting.
“You didn’t say ‘I’m free. I’m finished. I forgive everyone. I am at peace.’ You die and you have inner turmoil,” Plumer said.
Jennesa McBride attended the investigation on Saturday night and said while she didn’t experience definitive contact with the non-living, she had an unmistakable feeling that there was an unseen presence.
“When we first got here I had some tingling, sort of a buzz of energy,” McBride said. “I believe that there is something here but you have to be open to it. I’m sure spirits are like people, they don’t want to go up to just anybody.”
For anyone hoping to experience their own ghostly encounter this Halloween, Plumer has one piece of advice. “You have to be present, which you think is a basic thing, but it’s very hard for people to turn off their minds and just pay attention,” Plumer said. “If it wants you to know it’s there, it will speak to you in a way that you will understand.”
For more information on Austin Ghost Tours, visit AustinGhostTours.com.