There once was an old house on the hill…

By , on October 29, 2015
Shown is the legendary haunted house on Mohler Church Road at the foot of the Ephrata mountain, in all its glory before a new season of scares in 1976

Jaycees had ‘em screamin’ long before the big haunted attractions began

Before there was Jason’s Woods, Field of Screams and dozens of other Halloween attractions which now thrive in the Lancaster County region each fall, there was the Ephrata Jaycees’ Haunted House.

The Jaycees put in countless hours making this a spectacular Halloween attraction that was way ahead of its time. The Ephrata Jaycees’ Haunted House was in existence for only five years (1974-78), but it had a lasting community impact, as many former members still remember it as an annual Ephrata mainstay event.

“Members were assigned different rooms and tasks within the house,” recalled Dave Dierwechter, Jaycees member and retired Ephrata Area School District teacher. “There were people stationed at check points to ensure everyone’s safety and to keep people moving along in the right direction.” Dierwechter remembered fearing rain the most, as many parked in the yard around the building.

“I remember pushing cars out of the mud,” said Dierwechter.

peek at the new phantom who emerged from the basement in October of 1976, after a reported 50 years in hiding

Then Jaycees president Gary Stafford (left) and Mike Fletcher get a
peek at the new phantom who emerged from the basement in October of 1976, after a reported 50 years in hiding

The vacant house, located on Mohler Church Road, just past the Ephrata Rec Center archery building on North Maple Street, was owned by Ephrata Borough and slated for demolition at some point in time. But when approached by the Jaycees to convert the property into a “haunted house,” the borough gave its consent.

“We had a snack bar. We handled traffic control and parking. We had live actors and did all the work ourselves,” said Ephrata’s Brian Hoffman, who chaired the event in 1975, when it was bringing in bigger crowds than they ever expected in just its second year. But even with the quick popularity, the hard-working Jaycees were able to keep everything under control. “To my knowledge, not one incident of injury or fighting ever occurred. We made a lot of money, which was put back into the community,” said Hoffman.

Indeed…half of the proceeds from the thousands that went through went to the Rec Center, which was about to embark on its huge move from the small Cloister Avenue location, to its current site on South Academy Drive.

The Jaycees had quite the reputation in those days for taking on huge endeavors. Among many others, they were responsible for the popular soap box derbies in downtown for years, the Ephrata Area directory, and of course, one of the most memorable, the haunted house.

Gary Stafford, who was president of the group in 1975 when he was just 31, very fondly recalls those days spent on the base of the Ephrata mountain fixing up a little fun for the people of Ephrata.

“Well, first we painted the whole building using big sprayers,” Stafford, a 1963 graduate of EHS recalled, laughing. “I think we did the whole (exterior) in like four minutes.”

Stafford said the building had running water but no heat.

“Sometimes it would get a little cold,” he said.

“We spent a lot (of money) that first year,” Stafford said, saying that they were then able to leave their work and materials in there year-round since it wasn’t used for any other purposes.

As Dierwechter indicated, each of the Jaycees was assigned a room but Stafford said the first thing they had to do was start knocking out walls inside. He then was asked about the layout, and you could sense him visualizing the whole thing as he counted room-by-room on the various floors.

“You entered through the old basement…that was a dirt floor,” Stafford recalled. “Then there were two rooms (on the next floor) with the maze to walk through and then you took steps upstairs where there were three more rooms.

The checkerboard man debuted in the checkerboard room, in 1976.  Can you see him?

The checkerboard man debuted in the checkerboard room, in 1976. Can you see him?

One of the most popular features of the house was the Checkerboard Room, which debuted in 1976. The floor, ceiling and walls of the room were painted in a black and white checkerboard pattern. There was an actor in a checkerboard costume with strobe lights making it difficult to see the actor as he jumped out at people entering the room. Again, ahead of its time. Over the years they had rooms in the theme of the Spider’s Web, Wolfman’s Lab, Dracula’s Cold Hearted Cemetery, Pirate’s Cove, the famous maze, Ancient Mummy’s Tomb, Upside Down Room, the Fly Man’s room and more.

Another very popular and memorable addition came in 1976 when a 40-foot sliding board was added to the end of the attraction, quickly taking the patrons from the second floor back down to safety.

They had many “handy” individuals among their group, possibly none more so than well-known, and long-time Ephrata Middle School industrial arts teacher Bob Eisemann.

“Bob would get things done,” Stafford said.

Stafford said the work would usually begin about a month or so before it opened each year with everyone pitching in — wives included. So what about all their young ones??

“The kids came along!” Stafford remembered.

“Everyone was handy (in the group),” he said. So what was his specialty?

“Going and getting something for someone,” Stafford, who is retired from Acme Markets, said with a hearty laugh.

Dennis Weist (left) puts the finishing touches on “Dracula” Bill Sheaf - fer as Gary Stafford, a.k.a. “The Pharaoh,” keeps a close eye on the  cameraman

Dennis Weist (left) puts the finishing touches on “Dracula” Bill Sheaffer as Gary Stafford, a.k.a. “The Pharaoh,” keeps a close eye on the cameraman

He said they generally did their own masks but recalls local postman Bill Sheaffer and his make-up becoming a near-perfect Dracula. Stafford also said Dennis Weist and his wife were in the design business.

After its debut in 1974, things really picked up the next year when after the first two weeks in October (they were opened Thursdays through Sundays, 7-11 p.m.), they had eclipsed the total from the entire previous year with more than 2,500 having braved the house already in ‘75.

It was a lot of work for their relatively small group of volunteers. Back then they would come home from a full day of working their regular job and for about a month, devote nearly all their free time to this. They also had to run a snack bar, sell t-shirts, control parking and crowds and more.

Changing the rooms yearly created a monumental task for the volunteers.

“Its success was its failure,” said Dierwechter. “We felt we had to outdo ourselves every year and it was just getting to be too big of an undertaking,” he said.

“We just ran out of people,” Stafford recalled, as more and more of them reached the maximum Jaycee age of 35. At the end of their season in 1978, the old house’s fun times had come to an end. A quick check of Review records did not indicate in what year the house was eventually torn down.

At the site today, just to the left of a brick building along Mohler Church Road, is a large open grassy lot which held the house, its spacious parking lot and snack bar and provided hours of entertainment for young and old in the ‘70s. The only indication of its spooky past is in a slightly different level of grass pointed out by Stafford (see accompanying photo), where he believes the outdoor basement entrance to the house was located.

The Jaycees were a non-profit organization whose mission was to enrich the Ephrata community. Their membership was comprised of males up to the age of 35 and its office was located on Main Street in Ephrata.

“The Jaycees did many outstanding things in the 1960’s and 1970’s. The Haunted House was yet another example of the cooperation between the Jaycees and borough officials, again making Ephrata a community ahead of its time,” commented Dan Garrett, former Jaycees President.

ER2015128_HauntedHouseBonesThe Haunted House immediately followed another huge Jaycees endeavor, the Miss Lancaster County scholarship pageant, a preliminary event to the Miss Pennsylvania and Miss America pageants. Held in September, on the Saturday night of farm show/fair week at Ephrata High School, Jaycees members had to raise money for the pageant winner’s scholarship. Dierwechter remembers going into Sam & Sue’s Restaurant, at the current location of the Phoenix Noodle House, during breakfast and getting donations from community leaders like Leon Weit, owner of H.F. Weit and Son, and John Sprecher, owner of Sprecher’s Hardware.

“I walked out of there with almost all the money I needed. The Ephrata community always supported the Jaycees,” he said.

Garrett recalled the Jaycees Christmas program with each member taking a child in need to Sprecher’s where they could shop upstairs for a toy. Garrett had a child who told him, “I have everything I need for Christmas. I’d like to get something for the rest of my family.”

The Jaycees also for a period of time sponsored a free movie at the Main Theater on Christmas morning and gave oranges to everyone who attended.

“And then we had to clean up. I remember vacuuming the theater before going home for Christmas with my family,” Dierwechter said.

The Ephrata Jaycees in fact organized a long list of events for the betterment of the community. They planted trees along Main Street and also ran a downtown flag program during the Bicentennial in 1976. The Jaycees were comprised of various “movers and shakers,” many of whom are community leaders today.

But of all the things they did, possibly nothing was more ahead of its time and a sign of things to come for many Halloweens in the future, than what they did with a single house on the Ephrata Mountain for five years in the ‘70s.

 

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