Built in 1827, the Gaines Ridge Dinner Club was originally called the Hearn Place. Its first owner, Ebenezer Hearn, was a soldier in the War of 1812 and a Methodist circuit rider. Betty Kennedy, the owner of the Gaines Ridge Dinner Club, says that Hearn is known today as “the Father of Methodism” in Alabama because he founded more Methodist churches than any other person there.
Ms. Kennedy’s great-grandfather purchased the house in 1898, and it has been in her family ever since. “My great-grandfather’s last name was Fail. When we opened for business in 1985, nobody thought we’d stay open for more than six months, so we really couldn’t call it the Fail Place with everyone thinking it was going to! He never really owned it though; my mother did. He put a lot of work into it.”
Some ghost experts might speculate that the spirits inside the old house were awakened when her father began remodeling. “The house has changed in appearance from when we first moved out here. My father was an engineer, and he changed the front totally. Originally, there was a little stoop of a porch in the front. It was just an old farmhouse with a one-story porch. Somebody gave him some columns, so he felt he had to put the columns up.
If anything was left over from a work site, he brought it out here and added it to the house. The kitchen that we use is the original kitchen. At one time, it was detached from the house. My father jacked it up and put logs under it and rolled it over and joined it to the house. A lot of old houses were like that. They had a breeze-way connecting the kitchen because of fire and heat.”
The ghostly activity at the Gaines Ridge Dinner Club started up after the restaurant had been open for three or four years. “I was still working for the government and lived in Oak Hill and didn’t have my little house out here. I had come down to get ready for a party the next day. One of my cooks lived just up the road. She worked for me for about fifteen years. She was helping me that night.
I don’t know exactly what we were doing. The two of us were in the kitchen working, and I needed a cook pot from upstairs. So I went up to get it. It’s a good ways from the kitchen. And while I was up there, she screamed and said, “Miss Betty! Miss Betty! Come quick! Oh, Lord Jesus!” It just scared me to death. I thought she had cut herself or there was a fire. She screamed so loud that I dropped the pot and went flying down the stairs. I opened the door and just burst into the kitchen.
I said, ‘Maggie Belle! What in the world is the matter?’ She looked up at me. She was just calmly chopping onions. She said, ‘Miss Betty, I didn’t call you.’ I didn’t see anything.
It (the voice) wasn’t way off. It was as if she were just at the foot of the stairs. My great-grandmother’s name was Betty, so I don’t know if whoever was calling was calling her or calling me because she did live here briefly.”
A different ghostly sound was heard by Ms. Kennedy’s daughter one evening when the restaurant was almost filled to capacity. “One time, I was in the kitchen. (My daughter) came in the kitchen and said, ‘You’ve got to come out here. Somebody’s fallen in the ladies’ restroom, and we can’t get the door open!’
I went over there, and they were all standing around the door. They said, ‘We heard her fall, and her head hit the door, so we thought she was jammed up against the door.’ I finally just shoved it open, and there was nobody there, and nothing had fallen.”
Ms. Kennedy says that the ghost occasionally reveals itself through a different sense, “My sister and I have smelled pipe smoke up in the front room, even though no one was smoking a pipe at the time. I haven’t smelled the pipe smoke in a long, long time. When we first opened, we could smell it. And sometimes when we would go up there, it would be very strong.”
A family tragedy dating back to the nineteenth century is probably responsible the most frequent manifestation in the Gaines Ridge Dinner Club. “One of my great aunts weighed 350 pounds, and she had thirteen children. Back then, particularly in the wintertime, babies slept with their parents for several months to keep them warm. One night, she accidentally smothered one of her babies. I think she rolled on the baby or placed her arm on him. My great-grandfather was instrumental in her not being tried for murder.
I guess if I had thirteen children, I might feel like smothering one of them too. My mother told me this story when we were fixing up the house. She never told me when I lived here because she didn’t want me to be afraid to stay here by myself, and she never told my other two sisters either.” Sometimes, late in the evening, waitresses and kitchen help have heard the incessant crying of a baby coming from one of the upstairs room. The source of the cries has never been found.
Other reports of ghostly activity in the Gaines Ridge Dinner Club have come to Betty Kennedy’s attention over the years. Her son told her that he saw a white shape pass through the windows in a second floor room and come down the stairs.
Like many restaurants, the Gaines Ridge Dinner Club has tried to capitalize on its haunted reputation. From Betty Kennedy’s point of view, the ghosts are almost as big an attraction as the food. “When they read the ghost story on the back of the menu, people are always really interested in it. I call it my ghost truth because it is what really happened to me. We serve a lot of groups here, and they all want to hear about the ghost. I do embellish the stories a bit when I tell them to children, though.”