Although Avilla has a population of 100 or so residents, it is considered one of the “living ghost towns of Historic Route 66.” This rural village in Jasper County was founded in 1856, and is the fourth oldest settlement in the county. It has a rich history and a bit of a dark past, and some say the darkness still haunts the once thriving town.
Businesses and storefronts once lined the main strip. In this photo from 2000, you can see the Avilla House, built in 1868, on the far right. Tom Barbado’s Garage, an early Route 66 era Auto Shop is the second stone structure from the left. Both have since been demolished. The white building, Old Flo's Tavern, still stands today next to the abandoned stone IOOF Lodge and Old French's grocery store.
The decline of Avilla started after World War II when people began moving to larger industrial cities for job opportunities. Then in the 1960s Route 66 was bypassed with I-44 and the town lost much of its commerce due to the diverted traffic. The remaining businesses had either failed, closed or relocated by the 1970s. Then a large fire in 1971 at the Avilla lumberyard destroyed several of the buildings including most of the lumber company. Although the lumberyard was rebuilt, the town continued to decline, and has never really rebounded completely. Now all that remains are vacant lots, abandoned buildings, and a few remaining buildings that are still being used.
The 1915 Bank of Avilla served the town for three decades. During the Great Depression, the notorious “Irish O’Malley Gang” robbed the bank and kidnapped the cashier. Although no longer a bank, the historic building has been utilitzed as the village US Post Office since 1952 and stands as a local cultural icon.
Like many Missouri towns, Avilla found itself split during the Civil War. Tensions among residents of opposing views caused some families to be torn apart, while others left the town in fear of their safety. Confederate guerrilla attacks against Union sympathizers were common. William T. Anderson was a pro-Confederate guerrilla leader believed to have led several such attacks. Although he was killed in 1864, Anderson was posthumously nicknamed “Bloody Bill” for his ruthless actions.
Another Civil-War Era legend involves a spirit haunting the town. The “Avilla Phantom Bushwhacker” or, “Rotten Johnny Reb” is said to haunt not only the town but also the “Death Tree.” It is said that during the war the skull of a Confederate Bushwacker was found. Rather than burying it, it was hung from a tree as a warning to other bushwhackers. As a result, the ghost of “Rotten Johnny Reb” searches the town and surrounding woods for his head, and for “Yankees” to kill. Many deaths were blamed on him over the years, with the legend driving off many of the remaining townspeople after the war ended.
According to the old legend, the only way to end the curse and put Rotten Johnny’s spirit to rest is to find his skull, cut it down from the tree and bury it or set it ablaze on holy ground. If you believe such legends, it would be nearly impossible to carry this out because the location of the “Death Tree” died off when the last survivors of the war did. There was a belief that black crows would flock to it during the day as a perch, and that it was an apple tree that no longer would bear fruit. However, time and the changing landscapes have made it nearly impossible to find the tree today, if it still exists at all.
Probably even more spooky than Rotten Johnny Reb and the Ghost Tree are the multiple sightings of Avilla’s “Shadow Folk.” These ghostly figures have been seen through windows, wandering through the halls of abandoned homes and even strolling down the empty roads in town. The shadow folk are dark figures resembling people... shadows without people to cast them. They are believed to be spiritual impressions of those who lived in Avilla long ago. They are most likely to be seen at the old abandoned part of the village along Route 66.
US Route 66 was re-designated Missouri Route 96 in 1985 but by then Avilla was already the small, quiet rural community that it continues to be today. Have you seen the Shadow Folk of Avilla? Have anything to add to the story? Please share in the comments below.