Banta (Tracy), CA – Off the beaten path, away from large cities and burghs, there are small towns with curious histories. Travelers stop to brush away the road dust and enjoy a hearty meal while soaking in some of the local atmosphere. Between the tables there’s a faint mist that floats without benefit of a breeze, accompanied by the sounds of a crying child. Behind the bar, a man stands ready, dutifully handing out cold long-necks, but he knows he’s just holding the space. The owner may have died years ago, but someone must’ve forgotten to tell him, because he still thinks the bar is his.
Every town, no matter how small, has seen its share of tragedy. Whether the population is six or sixty-thousand, death is just a part of daily life. In many places, a place is so beloved that the town won’t let them just quietly fade away. When one owner passes on, another steps in to take his place. The places get their own personality, one that is created by its patrons and it becomes a living embodiment of everything that makes up that town. While some of these small-town spots could be considered quirky or quaint, there is another word that more aptly describes them: Haunted.
In the early 1800’s, the wide-open space of land called California held ample opportunity for those willing to grab it. Such a man was Henry Banta. His choice of home placement proved to be a good one, as travelers crossed through his land quite often over the years, resulting in the founding of Banta, between Stockton and Tracy. When Banta realized just how many people crossed through his land, he built a hotel in 1879. Many who stayed at the hotel never left, building their own general stores and establishments around it, creating a town where there had once been just one building and a good idea.
With the Lincoln Highway opening in 1913, the town seemed destined for great things. Then, in 1937, fire raged through the town, burning the hotel to the ground. According to legend (though there are no records to verify), only two people were killed in the fire: A woman and her infant child. Undaunted, the town rebuilt the hotel. The trail may have gone cold years before, but the construction of the Lincoln Highway proved to be the lifeblood of the town, with much the same purpose as when it was founded. Weary travelers still stopped for a good night’s rest and meal.
There are several restless souls reputed to haunt the historic site, and all of them can give a person quite a start when experienced. The first phenomena is a thin mist that floats about, settling occasionally before moving on. It is believed that it is young mother who perished in the fire in 1937 because her appearance is most often accompanied by the phantom voice of a terrified screaming child.
Another reported phenomena is the presence of “shadow people,” living shadows that seem to dart about with no discernable source. While moving shadows have many explanations, those that move without any apparent light or person attached to it can be disconcerting. Many have reported the phenomena of these shadowy figures reacting to investigators before disappearing around corners.
The most persistent presence is reputed to be the spirit of Tony Gukan, who owned the bar and worked as a bartender until his untimely death of a heart attack behind the bar in 1968. Since then, his presence has been well documented on many occasions. He is well known for appearing to the current bartenders in the mirror that runs the length of the bar, and will knock things off the walls and glasses off the bar if he is so inclined. He also has a habit of opening and closing doors at random. Often, the bartender will open the cash register to find someone, believed to be Tony, has stacked all the coins very neatly into columns. And any time someone finds an 11-cent tip, it’s reputed to be Tony who left it.
The Banta Inn has appeared on many paranormal-themed television shows, including “Sightings.” Paranormal investigator Loyd Auerbach, author of A Paranormal Casebook, related that Tony even appears to have a sense of humor, as, during an investigation, the jukebox, which was not plugged in, began playing “Spirits in the Material World” by the Police.
The structure built to replace the old hotel still stands, as does a general store and a post office. Though few travel the Lincoln Highway anymore, The Banta Inn still functions as a restaurant and bar. Boasting “pure country home cooking,” live music and karaoke, the little shop also offers catering and patio parties. Though sightings of the shadow-people are few and far between, they are still occasionally reported, as are the sounds of the woman and her baby who died in the fire. As for Tony, there seems to be no signs of his leaving any time soon. He’s become something of a celebrity for the restaurant, having been featured on numerous television programs, targeted by dozens of paranormal investigations, and talked about in newspapers and radio programs across California. The activity continues, day after day, with Tony giving his own proof that the Banta Inn still belongs to him.
The best times to visit are wholly dependent on what a person’s looking for. If it’s a good meal in a place with great atmosphere, the Banta Inn features live music every Friday night, with Karaoke on Thursdays. If a person is looking to experience something out of the ordinary, then the best times are after the restaurant has closed its doors for the evening. It is then that the shadows seem to come alive, and that the child screams out for its mother. Tony, however, seems to be a constant presence that can appear or disappear at any point during the day. It seems the best advice is just to keep one’s eyes open.
See you in two weeks!
- Scott A. Johnson
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