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Uphill battle at ‘Spook Hill” in Lake Wales

As a teenager, Lake Wales native Tina Peak would sometimes kill an afternoon at Spook Hill, on North Wales Drive south of Highway 17, where she’d watch tourists try to figure out why their vehicles appeared to roll uphill.

“People would get out of their car and put oranges and baseballs on the road to see which way they’d roll,” says Peak, now 59 and director of the Lake Wales Public Library. “I can remember tour buses pulling up. People really wanted to solve the mystery.”

It turned out that there wasn’t anything mysterious going on at all. Vehicles seem to roll uphill at Spook Hill because of an optical illusion created by the slope of the road and clusters of trees that obscure the horizon. Spook Hill is an example of what’s sometimes called a gravity hill or a magnetic hill. There are hundreds around the world, although Florida, a land of few hills, only has one.

At some point in Lake Wales’ history, likely during the 1930s, city leaders apparently decided that an optical illusion wasn’t exciting enough to attract tourists, so they concocted the first of many tales to explain how Spook Hill defies gravity and got its unusual name.

The oldest story involves a Native American leader named Chief Cufcowellax and a gigantic male alligator that terrorized Cufcowellax’s village. To remedy the situation, the chief — a Calusa in some tellings and a Seminole in others — waded into a lake near Spook Hill and fought the gator for “many days.”

Depending on which version you believe, that battle ended in one of two ways. One version has the chief killing the gator and emerging from the water to cheers of gratitude from his people. The other version ends with the chief and gator killing each other as the lake’s water turned red with blood.

To further complicate matters, one version has it that the spirit of Chief Cufcowellax pushes vehicles uphill, while in the other version the alligator’s spirit does the pushing. Neither version elaborates on why either the chief or the alligator would want to push cars — especially since motorists have to pull up to a specific point in the road, marked by a white line, for the “pushing” to happen.

The Cufcowellax-vs.-gator story also doesn’t address how the hill came to be known as Spook Hill.

That’s tackled in a few other stories. In one, early settlers, traveling by horse and carriage, noticed that their horses seemed to labor while trotting down the hill, so they named it Spook Hill. A different version of that story involves mail carriers on horseback.

In yet another explanation, an elderly man was fishing in a nearby lake during the 1930s when he saw his car — described as an “old jalopy” — begin to roll up the hill without the engine running. The man was so startled that he yelled “them’s spooks” and then fainted. After that, locals called it Spook Hill.

Peak also remembers a story involving pirates, but she thinks that story might have been fabricated by the Girl Scouts — she was one — who used to have a cabin near Spook Hill.

“When I tell people I remember a story about a pirate ship on the lake, they look at me like I’m crazy,” she says. “There’s not even a lake there anymore.”

After Wisconsin native Monica Drake Pierce became the director of the Lake Wales Museum & Cultural Center in 2015, she made sure to visit Spook Hill as she acclimated herself to the town.

The illusion didn’t work for her. When she put her car’s transmission in neutral and started drifting, she didn’t feel like the car was rolling uphill.

But Pierce still sees value in Spook Hill — and quirky attractions like it across the country.

“Every town has a local myth,” she says. “It’s really about identity, the fabric of the town. Whether or not the story is real, it’s something a community can share: ‘This is where I’m from. This is our myth.’