Do history’s ghosts roam South Dade’s Deering Estate? Take the tour to find out

Posted November 10, 2013


PALMETTO BAY, Fla. — The setting couldn’t have been more ominous. Leaves on looming trees rustled angrily in the wind. A cat moaned and retreated into a bush. Darkness was getting heavier and thicker by the minute, descending on an anxious crowd. The door creaking on the way in was almost too perfect.

I’ve never seen “Ghost Hunters” or “Paranormal State” and I’ve never had what you might call a supernatural experience. But I was about to step into what has been deemed South Florida’s most haunted place by the League of Paranormal Investigators (LPI): the Deering Estate on Biscayne Bay in this South Miami-Dade County community.

The Deering Estate was owned by businessman Charles Deering in the 1920s (Photo by Rianna Hidalgo).

The Deering Estate was owned by businessman Charles Deering in the 1920s (Photo by Rianna Hidalgo).

Owned by wealthy businessman Charles Deering in the 1920s, the estate has been offering ghost tours ever since the LPI gave it an unusually high ranking on the “haunted” scale in 2009.

“We’d all heard stories about this place,” said Ed de Jong, a founding member of LPI. “We heard night guards quit because they saw things happen. We knew there was some activity, but we didn’t know what.”

Disembodied voices, floating orbs of light and missing furniture were some of the results, but the LPI says its most convincing evidence is two full-body figures captured in photos.

“To have an apparition in an investigation is like the holy grail,” de Jong said. “Then, to have two — that’s a really unique thing.”

Today, the 444-acre Deering Estate is operated by Miami-Dade County government and is a place of recreation and education. Plenty of guests stick to kayak adventures, concerts and historical tours, but those who have a penchant for the paranormal have plenty of options.

On a gusty Friday night in October, I went to see for myself on the “Be Your Own Investigator Tour,” in which guests are encouraged to bring their own equipment to find evidence.

Visitors David Klein and Joe Reiger practice with their ghost-seeking equipment (Photo by Rianna Hidalgo).

Visitors David Klein and Joe Reiger practice with their ghost-seeking equipment (Photo by Rianna Hidalgo).

Visitors Joe Reiger and David Klein came prepared — they were hard to miss as they stood with an odd collection of gadgets. Klein had invested in a $100 ghost hunting kit, complete with temperature sensor, magnetic field meter and night vision goggles. When one of his many gadgets started blaring, he sheepishly popped out the battery.

“This is our first time doing this,” Klein said. “We came last summer to the estate, saw a sign for the ghost tours and wanted to come back.”

Friends Caryl Lucas and Carol Nagengast read about the ghost tours in the Neighbors section of The Miami Herald.

Nagengast said she doesn’t believe in ghosts, but is open-minded.

“Hey, that’s what we’re here to find out, right?” she said. “We thought it would be something fun and interesting.”

Within the first 10 minutes, it was clear that the Deering Estate — haunted or not — is the ideal place for a ghost tour. A staff member set the scene for roughly 60 guests (later split into two groups) by providing some history. The tree-lined path behind her looked more and more like something from sleepy hollow as darkness fell.

She explained that humans have inhabited the property for thousands of years, starting with Paleo-Indians. The Cutler Fossil Site contains fossilized human remains dating back 10,000 years, while the Cutler Burial Mound contains 12 to 18 Native American women and children buried face-down in a spiral pattern.

With that knowledge fresh in our minds, she handed us off to members of the LPI.

“There’s a lot going on here, and hopefully the spirits will cooperate tonight,” said Atena Komar, LPI founding member. “Remember, these are the pioneers of our town, and they deserve respect.”

We started by heading into the Richmond Cottage, which was built in 1896 and once served as an inn. We filed into the first room in complete darkness.

Komar’s arsenal of spirit-finding tools included pendulums, dousing rods and electromagnetic field meters. With the idea that spirits can manipulate their magnetic fields at will, we placed the grey boxes on the floor and waited anxiously for their LED lights to spike.

“We would like to know if there is anyone in this room,” Komar said softly. “If so, we would love for them to give us a sign of their presence.”

“Please?” a visitor added from somewhere in the corner of the room.

Nothing … nothing … then, a flicker and the light turned yellow.

LPI member Atena Komar shows visitors how to use a pendulum (Photo by Rianna Hidalgo).

LPI member Atena Komar shows visitors how to use a pendulum (Photo by Rianna Hidalgo).

Even if flickering lights don’t convince you, it’s hard not to get caught up in the atmosphere. I’ll admit that wandering through a pitch-black, 100-year-old house with creaky wooden floors and a group of frightened visitors invoked more than one adrenalin rush.

We moved from room to room, watching the meters, taking flash photos to look for suspicious blurs and paying attention to odd sensations. A hush came over the group when a woman proclaimed that she could feel a little dead boy standing next to her.

“I have goosebumps,” she said with a strained voice. “He’s so close to me.”

I was surprised at how many people were staunch believers in ghosts, even though statistics seem to support it — a recent poll by YouGov, an international market research firm, found that nearly half of Americans do. Needless to say, the tour drew a cast of entertaining characters.

In one room, we placed a flashlight on a sprawling wooden table and sat around it in silence. When a participant asked if the spirit in the room wanted us to leave, the flashlight instantly turned on by itself, easily garnering the award for spookiest moment of the night. By the time the group had finished its collective gasp, people were already on their way out.

In the main house, we visited Deering’s prohibition-era walk-in safe in the basement. Deering took every precaution to ensure the safe stayed secret, hiding it with a bookcase door, guarding it with a bank-style vault entrance door and leaving it out of the blueprints. It housed thousands of Deering’s once-illegal wine bottles. Now, they are empty antiques lining the walls.

When we got to Deering’s former study, the question on everyone’s mind was whether we would encounter Charles Deering himself.

“Mr. Deering, we have all come here to meet you,” Komar said. No response. It wasn’t until we asked about his brother James that another flashlight lit up, this time, it was a participants’.

By the end of the tour, we had seemingly come in contact with the spirits of children, pets, butlers, maids and James Deering. De Jong said they believe there are 10 to 12 spirits in the buildings that regularly interact with visitors, while spirits of Native Americans watch from afar.

“They don’t work on appointment,” he said. “We have nights where there’s a lot of activity, but nights where it’s quiet. We never know what’s going to happen.”

Participant Frances Madison said that both she and her mother experienced severe nausea in the Richmond Cottage and had to leave.

“I felt a lot of things that can’t be explained,” Madison said. “I just wanted to see one and feel one and know that there’s existence after we pass on.”

There were clearly some skeptics on the tour as well, but de Jong said they welcome doubters.

“If you are skeptical, we like to have you on the tour because by experiencing it yourself you can open up,” he said. “We don’t make stuff up. It happens, and you have to draw your own conclusion based on the experiences you have.”

Regardless of whether you believe in ghosts, the Deering Ghost Tour is a fun, spine-tingling experience. The tour was entertaining at worst, thrilling at best and well worth the $30 just to wander the estate by night and hear about its history.

My photos revealed no odd shapes or mysterious figures, but when I was in the Richmond Cottage, I felt an icy hand tap me on the shoulder. Was it a ghost? Or was it the teenage boy behind me making mischief? That is something I’ll never know.

If You Go

The Deering Estate offers three different ghost tours –

  • In “Be Your Own Investigator,” participants spend two hours looking for evidence of paranormal activity. It goes from 7 to 9 p.m. and costs $30 (includes admission to estate).
  • In “Voices from the Past,” participants learn about the evidence gathered during the initial paranormal investigation conducted at the estate. It goes from 7 to 9 p.m. and costs $20.
  • In the “Spookover,” participants spend the night and are taken on a full investigation of the historic houses and main grounds. It goes from 11 p.m. to 4 a.m., and costs $65.
  • Check the website,, for the schedule. Go to “Featured Events,” then “Ghost Tours.”
  • Tickets can be purchased in advance on the website or at 305-235-1668, extension 233. They recommend purchasing tickets in advance.
  • The Deering Estate is located at 16701 SW 72nd Ave. in Palmetto Bay, Fla.

*Tours may contain mature subject matter, so it’s best to call and check with staff if you want to bring young children. Tours are led by members of the League of Paranormal Investigators, accompanied by a Deering Estate staff member.

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