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April 29, 2014 / JustinKays Porter

Tourism at Home

I have a confession to make: I grew up less than one mile from the Winchester Mystery House and I never made the trek over there for there to see it in person. I guess that’s not entirely true; I saw the house from the street every time I drove to the movies or the mall or to the freeway. But I had never really seen the house, or the grounds, or even the free museum until very recently (this last part is the strangest to me, because I love museums and I love free things…). Sometimes it takes visitors from far away places (like Kankakee, Illinois) to inspire you to be a tourist in your hometown. And when Grandma Webster came all the way out to visit us, the time finally seemed right!

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I love visitors. Grandma Webster, come back anytime 🙂

Now a little background on both Grandma Webster’s visit and the Winchester Mystery House. Grandma Webster came out to visit the California family to check in on kids, grandkids, and great grandkids, see all the progress we’ve made on our recent projects, and enjoy a little relaxing family time in the warm California sun. Little did she know, she picked one of the very few weekends that Campbell summers get above 90 degrees. Oh, and did I mention we don’t have air conditioning? I think we were all melting!

Now for the Winchester Mystery House. You can read the extensive history about it here: http://www.winchestermysteryhouse.com/learn.cfm. But allow me to briefly summarize the particular kind of crazy that was Sarah Winchester and her home: Sarah married William Winchester, of the infamous Winchester rifle, and amassed a huge fortune. After the deaths of her daughter and husband, Sarah became incredibly depressed and sought out spiritual help. A medium explained that the Winchester family and fortune were haunted by every soul killed by a Winchester rifle, and that the only way to appease the spirits was to build them a massive house. As long as construction on the house continued, the spirits would leave Sarah and her money alone. I think the medium had ties to a developer in the west and got some cut of all this money! Not the point… Sarah took the medium’s advice to heart: she started building and never stopped.

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We took the tours of the house and saw doors open onto solid walls, second story doors open into thin air, staircases that disappear into the ceiling, hidden passages, windows through interior rooms, and all sorts of other things designed to confuse the haunting spirits (Sorry for the lack of personal photos in this post. Our tour guide informed us that some Hollywood bigwig is currently shooting a film here and all interior photography is banned until the film wraps. Sounds fishy to me, but what do I know?).

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The tour also took us around the grounds (where photos were permitted and encouraged). When Sarah lived in the house, it was surrounded by orchards and farmland as far as the eye could see. Now, there is a movie theatre complex on one side, a shopping mall on another, and a major freeway just a stone’s throw to the south. Although the Winchester name is mostly associated with rifles (and there is a whole museum dedicated to the different types of rifles), Sarah Winchester made quite a bit of money and a great local name for herself with her orchards.

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See the door? That opens into thin air? I don't make this stuff up…

See the door? That opens into thin air? I don’t make this stuff up…

My favorite part of the tour were the stories about the 1906 earthquake. There was considerable damage to the house, but nothing that couldn’t be rebuilt. And Sarah did love to build! Sarah was in her spirit room during the earthquake, and the house “adjusted” so much during the quake that she was unable to open any of the doors or windows in that room when the shaking stopped (and there were lots of doors and windows!). It took her staff upwards of 12 hours to find where she was in the house (that’s the problem with secret passages, trap doors, and trick staircases) and free her from the room. She wouldn’t let them break any of the windows or doors, for fear of what the spirits would do to her for ruining their home.

So the real question: after all my years of living in San Jose, was it worth the trip? Absolutely! I found the tour fascinating, and the interior of the home is furnished with all period pieces. It’s like stepping back in time and seeing it through Sarah’s eyes. And although it’s not air conditioned, it was significantly cooler than our house and a nice break from the heat. The best part of the tour? The hard hats!

Everyone looks good in a hard hat

Everyone looks good in a hard hat

4 Comments

Leave a Comment
  1. Betsy Webster / Apr 30 2014 7:50 pm

    I enjoyed hearing about the tour. You did a great job reviewing it. I, also, was fascinated with it. Love, Grandma Webster

    • JustinKays Porter / May 5 2014 5:59 pm

      The next time you come visit we’ll have to find something else just as interesting for you 🙂

  2. michaelstpaulporter / Apr 30 2014 8:35 am

    Love the story! and hope to see the Winchester House someday too 🙂 We’ve seen it featured several times in our programs on cable. Nice hearing from one who has seen it first hand, that it is as intriguing as we imagined!

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