By SUSAN JENNINGS
For the Daily Record/Sunday News
Growing up, Ann Small Niess didn’t talk much about the ghosts that lived in her family’s house in Spring Garden Township.
“I never told anybody outside the family about it as a kid,” she said. “I was an only child and I wanted to make friends.”
And anyway, the apparitions that loitered in what was then called Elmwood House were more annoying than anything else, she said. When Niess got married in 1947, she moved to New York and promptly forgot about them.
Those voices from beyond the grave didn’t stay silent forever, though.
Decades later, the 89-year-old, who now lives in Naples, Fla., remembered her family’s encounters.
Using a journal her mother had kept about the ghosts and tapping into her own memories, Niess recently completed an historical novel in which she imagines the back stories for each of Elmwood’s spirits.
But for Niess, “Hidden Secrets of Jacob’s House” is much more than a ghost story.
“I would like to present the history of that particular spot,” she said. “That was more of a motivation than anything. The ghosts are more window dressing.”
Niess has always been passionate about history — she’s served as a docent at the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library and Museum in Staunton, Va., and the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., and helped found the Watermen’s Museum in Yorktown, Va. — and she’s always been fascinated by York’s rich history, especially as it relates to Elmwood and the plantation that once resided there.
“It bothered me that it was untold,” she said. “The history of that wonderful farm and the people who lived there was lost.”
It is believed that the antebellum mansion was part of the Underground Railroad and it also served as camp for Confederate soldiers in 1863 — both stories that figure into the plot of “Hidden Secrets.”
The book isn’t the first time Niess has written about her childhood home, or the ghosts for that matter.
In the self-published “Elmwood House, If it Could Speak, What Stories Would it Tell,” she traced back the history of the house, built in 1835, and shared her memories of the apparitions her family witnessed while living there.
After finishing that book in 2007, she couldn’t stop thinking about the ghosts and she decided that maybe they needed a chance explain what happened to them and why they hung around.
In “Hidden Secrets,” Niess tells the story of Jacob Dellinger, the farmer who built Elmwood House for his Southern bride, and who finds himself fighting against slavery during the Civil War, endangering the lives of all those close to him.
While Dellinger is based on the real-life farmer named Jacob Brillinger who built Elmwood before her family purchased it in the late 1800s, Niess said the character of Jacob is completely her invention.
“There’s no person in [the novel] that is a living soul,” she said. “All of them were figments of my imagination.”
She used a short biography of Brillinger provided by Memorial Hospital — which now uses the re-named Elmwood Mansion as a conference center — as the basis for her character, and found inspiration for other characters by flipping through the pages of her mother’s collection of Godey’s Lady’s Books and Graham’s magazines from the 1850s and finding pictures of what she thought they might look like.
True to her love of history, throughout the narrative Niess sews in glimpses of what day-to-day life might have been like on Elmwood plantation during the mid 1800s. She referenced several books on local history, including “History of York County Pennsylvania” by George Prowell and “East of Gettysburg: A Gray Shadow Crosses York County, Pa.” by York Daily Record/Sunday News editor James McClure to make the story more realistic.
The self-described Grandma Moses didn’t begin writing until she was in her 80s. It took her five years to finish “Hidden Secrets,” which she said she must have re-written 10 different times.
Why stick with it?
“I don’t know,” she said. “I’m a determined sort of character.”
Name: Ann Small Niess
Lives in: Naples, Fla.
Family: Husband, Richard; sons Richard and Robert; daughter Linda; four grandchildren and four great-grandchildren
Hobbies: Avid reader, especially historical novels
Books: “Hidden Secrets of Jacob’s House” by Ann Small Niess is available for purchase on annsmallniess.com for $12.95 plus $3.95 for shipping and handling. Click on the “Contact us” link to order.
Creepy cover story?
When she first received copies of “Hidden Secrets of Jacob’s House” from the printer, author Ann Small Niess noticed mysterious watermarks on the book’s cover. The images — which Niess said look like lace from an old dress — appear on a photo of one of the staircases at Elmwood Mansion where she experienced several ghostly encounters. The watermarks are not on the original photo of the staircase sent to the printer, and the printer said he hadn’t altered the photo, either.
“Weird,” Niess said.
“What do you think happened?” I asked her.
“I’ll let you worry about that yourself,” was her reply.
– Read more about the Elmwood Mansion on yorktownsquare.com.