Editor’s note: This is the second part in a series of stories based on the history of haunted locations in Coffee and Dale County.
If one is in search of a historic site to visit or a ghost story to investigate, the old Rawls Hotel in Enterprise can provide both in spades.
In 1896 Virginia native Japeth Rawls and his nephew J.P. Rawls leased thousands of aces of timber in southeast Alabama to serve their lucrative turpentine business. Because of how much they liked the area, the entire Rawls family moved to Enterprise – which was only first incorporated in 1896 – and after successful ventures in the area that included the turpentine business, a saw mill, a cotton gin and the Rawls Bonded Warehouse, the Rawls family built the Hotel Rawls in 1903.
When the town was first incorporated in 1896 there were just 250 residents but the town ballooned to more than 600 in 1900 and by 1906 had a population of nearly 4,000, which can be attributed to the expansion of the railroad through Enterprise.
Japeth Rawls erected the Enterprise Hotel – originally a two story brick building – just behind the train depot with another entrance on South Carmichael Street, which is now known as Main Street.
The Enterprise Hotel quickly became known as the McGee Hotel – named after its first manager James Henry McGee – and the popular restaurant inside the hotel made it quickly become a hub of Enterprise.
Japeth Rawls died in 1925 and left the building to JP Rawls’ wife, Margaret Rawls, and in the late 1920s the hotel – now known as the Hotel Rawls – began to really prosper as JP Rawls enlarged it to three stories and boasted a beautiful interior personally overseen by JP Rawls.
A gala ball was held on Feb. 22, 1929 to re-launch the remodeled Hotel Rawls and over the years the hotel hosted a number of celebrities, governors and senators. While the Hotel Rawls was technically alcohol free during Prohibition, the rumor had it that those interested in a taste of moonshine could do so by venturing into the men’s restroom on the first floor.
In 1943, JP Rawls passed away and his son Rip Rawls – an employee of the War Department that was crucial in the U.S. government’s purchase of the area that would later become Fort Rucker – returned to Enterprise to manage the Rawls Hardware business and Mack McKinney managed the hotel. The McKinney family actually lived at the hotel.
Business at the Rawls Hotel went downhill with the decline of passenger trains after World War II and by the 1970s the hotel had become a cheap boarding house and even a Halloween attraction in some years.
Eventually the hotel’s condition became in such bad shape that it was headed to demolition before Hayden Pursley purchased the property from the Rawls family in 1978.
Pursley was a U.S. Army veteran stationed at Fort Rucker before retiring in the 1970s. Pursley spent three years of his life remodeling and restoring the once grand hotel to its previous state and even accomplished getting the building placed on the National Register of Historic Buildings.
Since that time, the Rawls Hotel has played host to many social events, businesses and the restaurant has continued to be one of the finest in the area. Keith Gay and his Navigator Development Group purchased the building in 1999 and currently a number of real estate and law firms take up much of the space in the building alongside Navigator and the Rawls Restaurant.
In a building that has more than 100 years of history ghost stories are sure to follow and that is no different with the Rawls Hotel. In fact, Pursley was one of the first to experience ghostly encounters. Over the years Pursely reported seeing a “brown haired boy” running through the halls and his most explicit experience came as he was remodeling the ballroom.
“He was putting up window treatments in the ballroom and he put it up and got back the next morning and they were on the floor,” Navigator Director of Media LeeAnn Capps said. “He put the treatments back up and the next day they were on the floor again. So, the next day he put them back up again and this time a board went flying across the room and hit him and he figured that it was Japeth (Rawls) telling him he didn’t like the window treatments. He got different window treatments and never had another issue.”
One of the most visible spirits over the years has been the “lady in blue,” which Capps says she believes is Margaret Rawls. Capps said a number of paranormal teams and psychics have visited the Rawls over the years.
“When the psychic was here and she came in, the more we kept walking, she asked about someone named ‘Margaret’ and she said that her favorite color was blue,” Capps remembered.
On Oct. 1, 2020, Bill Schleusner and his wife Daphne celebrated their 10th anniversary of running the Rawls Restaurant and the couple have had their share of experiences with ghostly visitors over the years.
“When I first approached coming to working here and taking over the restaurant I had heard some of the backstory and the building and it was interesting and all but I never really had any reason to believe the stuff was actually going on,” Schleusner said. “One day before the restaurant was open I was talking to some of the former secretaries in the building and I distinctly remember hearing the sound of a trumpet, to which I looked at the two ladies and asked if they had someone in the building that was practicing. They didn’t. I said, ‘Y’all heard that, right?’ and that was my introduction to it all.”
One of the more telling experiences Schleusner said that he and his employees have witnessed involves some Diet Coke.
“Down in the basement – where we also kept our butcher paper – we kept all our canned cokes and in the restaurant business you have to have everything six inches off the floor,” Schleusner said. “I would come down and find a can of Diet Coke sitting in the middle of the floor and I would go put it back and when I could come back down it would be back in the middle of the room.
“It got to the point where a lunch server came back up one day and said that if she had to pick up another can of Diet Coke she was going to scream.”
Schleusner said that later a server discovered the small handprint of a child on a piece of butcher paper in the basement and he said that he believes that many of the mischievous spirits in the old hotel are that of children.
Schleusner said that over the years people have seen the faces of children while coming down the stairs and that when he would show up in the mornings the faucet in the ladies’ restroom would be running. Capps also believes children are roaming the old Rawls.
“I was in the restroom one night and I heard two little girls giggling behind the door and the doorknob was jiggling. When I opened the door the laughter stopped and no one was there,” Capps said. “
Capps said that she believes it could be the McKinney children that are reliving happy memories in the Rawls. Another typical experience for patrons of the Rawls Restaurant is walking into a very prominent smell or feeling. Schleusner said that on one Summer afternoon – between lunch and dinner – he took a break by lying down on a couch in one of the restaurant’s parlors and had the sensation of a block of ice sitting on his head and passing through his entire body.
“That sensation of cold coming over you is something a lot of people feel and also people have walked into a plume of vintage smelling perfume or cigar smoke,” he said.
Ironically, as Capps was showing the Sun’s very own reporter around the Rawls a distinct plume of cigar smoke blew right into the reporter’s face with no obvious explanation as to where it could have come from.
“I’ve been with Navigator for almost 18 years and it’s also been a smoke free facility,” Capps said. “It’s interesting, people would say it’s probably tobacco in the walls but it’s not. It just appears and you can smell it like a sweet smell of cigar or pipe or something.”
Schleusner said that the spirits don’t frighten him anymore and he doesn’t believe they mean any harm. They’re just a part of the Rawls’ long history.
“I think they like what we do here and we don’t bother them much. I don’t want to stir the pot with them at all,” he emphasized. “I’ve never tried to capitalize off it. It’s just part of the aura or the charm of the building whether you believe it or not or accept it or not. I like to think we haven’t done anything to upset them or make them mad. They’re just a part of the building.”
The Pea River Historical Society and the staff at the Rawls Restaurant and Navigator Development Group were instrumental in the research for this story.