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'Take time to get to know your ghosts'

(Originally published on Oct. 27, 1984) YOU KNOW, Sacramento's killing off all its ghosts.

The remark comes from one so-called Wilbur - a salty octogenarian and self-styled ghost collector. I'd struck up a conversation with Wilbur one day when I was walking along the Sacramento River levee and happened upon the old coot just sitting and staring at some of the Delta's grand Victorians. After a lengthy conversation praising old houses, the subject turned to ghosts. Seems like old Wilbur had known quite a few in his days, and he even considered himself an expert on the care and feeding of old house spirits.

Why back in New Orleans - that's where I come from - every old house has its ghosts. They talk at ya' from the creaks in the stairways and the cracks in the ceiling. We keep'em in every attic and behind all the old pictures.

I recalled New Orleans, rows and rows of opulent Greek Revivals, massive Romanesque stone castles - and of course, the townhouses of the French Quarter, with their curlicue ironwork. There, many times, the concept of renovation means slap another coat of paint on top of everything and hope it holds together.

Take you folks here in Sacramento, Wilbur noted. You take a perfectly good old house - with the spirits of all the people who lived there - then you tear everything out and replace it with new materials. Spirits just can't live there anymore, in the middle of all that new stuff and such.

And you people should have such great ghosts, with all those old pioneers and miners and such. And all those judges and state legislators and what not - those visionaries who were gonna have their government here in Sacramento - come hell or even high water. Wilbur was obviously pleased with his pun.

You folks really should take better care of your ghosts.

And just how should we take care of our ghosts? I asked, not convinced.

Well, first of all, respect their homes. You buy an old house for lots of reasons, but one reason should be because you like old things you know, you like how they feel to you. Don't tear out an old moulding or a door or something just 'cause it's old and worn. It's part of the ghosts' house - why it could even be where the spirit actually lives.

You gotta pay attention to the character of the house, the feel it had years ago, the memories, and what happened to the people who lived there before you. Go into the house while it's still all messed up - before all the fixing up starts. Imagine where the people are, where they entertained, where! they worked and played. If you try, you can almost smell supper cooking, feel the warmth from the fire, hear the people laughing, talking, crying.

Spend some time and get to know your ghosts.

And with a wink, Wilbur plopped his battered hat upon his head, sauntered down the levee, and disappeared into the mist.