Inside Johnsonville, the Victorian Ghost Town That No One in Connecticut Wants

The Victorian-style village was the playground of an eccentric millionaire. When he died, Johnsonville died with him.

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Sep 22 2015, 2:11pm

All photos by the author

Johnsonville, Connecticut is a weird place. Nestled in the town of East Haddam, the village was a prosperous mill town until the mid-20th century, when it was converted into the personal Victorian playground of an offbeat, mega-wealthy entrepreneur. It's now completely abandoned, and nobody quite knows what to do with it.

If you feel like you've seen Johnsonville before, that's because you might have. It was featured in the music video for Billy Joel's 1993 hit "The River of Dreams," as well as parts of the 2014 movieFreedom,starring Cuba Gooding Jr., were filmed there as well. In the 2014 horror movieDeep In the Darkness, Johnsonville is featured as a creepy small town whose locals harbor a dark secret.

In real life, the village is completely deserted. From the 60s until the late 1990s, it was owned by Raymond Schmitt, a rich aerospace manufacturer. When Schmitt died in 1998, his large collection of period-specific items were auctioned off, and though Johnsonville was eventually sold to a hotel conglomerate, it's been unpopulated for nearly 20 years.

The buildings are still there. Inside Gilead Chapel, skeletal remains of animals who fell through the roof and died trying to claw out of the building remain scattered on the floor. From across the green, rows of wooden desks sit empty in a schoolhouse. Overgrown vines crawl up the side of the homestead across the road, which once belonged to Emory Johnson, the owner of the now-defunct mill. A lone chair sits on the front porch. The fence around it reads, "village closed to the public."

At this point, the people who live around Johnsonville seem sick of outsiders. "It's nonstop. A lot of weird ass people. These ghost gangs. It's just all different people," said Mike Dirgo, the Johnsonville caretaker, who shows me around.

A friendly guy with a mustache, Dirgo has been tending the grounds for about 12 years. There are rumors that the village's buildings are haunted, Dirgo said, but people might just be seeing him. "You get people that are stopped out on the road taking pictures and I'll be inside looking out and scare the shit out of them," he told me.

The uptick in trespassers started when the property went to auction in 2014, sparking interest in the odd little ghost town. The problem got so bad, Dirgo said, that his employer, Meyer Jabara—the hotel conglomerate that currently owns the Johnsonville—was forced to hire a security guard to move on to the property about six months ago.

Dirgo was reluctant to give me a tour. "I honestly don't like talking to people. They motherfuck me up and down," he explained. People around town bug him about why Johnsonville isn't in better condition, he added, but said that it's not his responsibility, and anyway, the money is not in Meyer Jabara's budget.

With its mill abutting a pond and cascading waterfall, Johnsonville calls to mind the opening sequence of Twin Peaks. Surrounding the pond is a rash of woods, where there's a covered bridge overgrown with moss. Victorian-style street lamps dot the property. In the Schmitt days, a restaurant used to be here, but in place of customers there's just a sun-blasted can of Budweiser that looks like it's been there since the 90s.

According to Luke Boyd, a Johnsonville obsessive who runs a website called Greetings from Johnsonville, Schmitt was a "self-made man of the modern age, and he yearned for a simpler time." When he bought the property in 1965, the original mill was still functioning. Schmitt and his wife moved on to the property, which at its peak fanned out to 100 acres (Johnsonville now covers about 62 acres).

When the mill was struck by lightning and burned down in 1972, Schmitt decided to restore Johnsonville to its former glory—or its former glory as Schmitt himself perceived it. He brought in structures from around the East Coast, including a clapboard "general store" from Massachusetts, a clock and toy store, a school, and the chapel.

Schmitt then began living out a rich man-child's dream. At one point he even bought a steamboat from New York and docked it at Johnsonville Pond. Although it was never a formal tourist attraction, Schmitt would occasionally open up Johnsonville to the public, or rent it out for weddings and events.

Things started to go south in the early 1990s, when Schmitt got into a dispute with the town of East Haddam. The New York Times reported at the time that the eccentric Schmitt was upset the town had asked him to apply for a permit to put in a large pond. Schmitt eventually tried (and failed) to sell Johnsonville in 1994. (The Times story notes that Schmitt may have been in need of some quick cash.)

Schmitt died just a few years after shuttering Johnsonville. Many of his sleighs, trolley cars, and furniture were sold off, and the property started to fall into disarray. In 2001, Meyer Jabara bought the land, with plans to build a senior housing community.

But that project eventually fell through, thanks in part to the economic downturn, as well as to problems with the development plans. A local newspaper reported in 2006 that the project was delayed due to sewage issues, noting that "the closest sewer plant is more than three miles south, and town officials say there's not enough land to build on-site septic systems for the size and number of houses provided." Penny Parker, a real estate agent who was responsible for the Johnsonville listing in 2012 and 2013, said the project was eventually deemed unfeasible because of "water problems."

"We saw a lot of opportunity there," Justin Jabara, Meyer Jabara's operations manager, told me over the phone. "Unfortunately to us the timing was not right, the economy soon changed. We chose at that point to really stick to our core business."

Parker, though, says the company is at least partly to blame for Johnsonville's deterioration. "To me, it's one of the most tragic things. It ended up in the wrong hands," she said, describing Jabara as "a man who has zero sensitivity to anything that is old or historical. He's a hotel operator."

Parker added that she believes Jabara's current $2.4 million asking price for Johnsonville is too high. The firm "should give it away to the right person," she said." It has to be someone with an entrepreneurial spirit, with a good vision, a good imagination."

After years of trying to find a buyer for Johnsonville, Meyer Jabara put the property up for auction in October 2014. At the last minute, a mysterious bidder bought Johnsonville for $1.9 million, but the deal fell through this past April. A bunch of people on Twitter have also banded together to try and buy the land. But at this point, Jabara still hasn't found buyer.

The property gets almost an inquiry a day, Jabara said, with potential buyers looking to put everything from vineyards and horse farms, to rehab centers and housing complexes on the property. "Right now we've got a handful of people at the table, which I can't disclose," he said. "They are serious buyers."

Until something happens, though, Johnsonville will remain a blank space on the Connecticut landscape. The place is like someone else's memory of a certain time and place: Raymond Schmitt's ideal projection of a past that never really existed.

Follow Justin on Twitter.

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