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Miller, Mark James

It is one of the most forbidding sights in San Luis Obispo.

Sunny Acres, a two-story brick edifice built in 1931, sports a tile roof, a square chimney and an upside-down V shape looming over the entranceway. Many of the windows are broken, others are boarded up. Some are barred.

Were the bars to keep people out, I wonder, or were they meant to keep misbehaving inmates from escaping when Sunny Acres served as a juvenile detention center?

Signs warn visitors not to venture any further, for danger lurks within. A chain-link fence topped by barbed wire runs all the way around, put there to discourage the curious and foolhardy from going inside to search for the horrors believed to exist on the other side of these walls.

But the warning signs and the barbed wire are not always effective. Almost the moment we arrived, one of the first-floor windows opened and a man appeared. He looked about cautiously before climbing through. Another man followed him, and for a moment they stood silently amid the weeds and bushes, as if unsure of what to do next.

Ghosts? A drug deal going down? Sunny Acres has a reputation of being both haunted and as a place where illicit drugs are bought and sold. Or are they simply sightseers who decided to ignore the warning signs and take a peek inside anyway? Whoever they are, they quickly scurry away, scampering around the back and disappearing.

To get to Sunny Acres you drive to the end of Bishop Street and park in front of the county Probation Department. To your left, at the end of a dirt path, partially obscured by trees, is the Sunny Acres building. Since opening its doors in 1931 it has served as an orphanage, sanitarium and most notoriously, as a juvenile reform school. By the time it closed in 1974 it had a reputation so fearsome that parents would threaten to send their children there if they didn’t behave themselves.

When humans moved out, the spirits moved in, according to those who have either gone inside Sunny Acres or ventured close to it at night. Doors are said to open and close by themselves, pounding is heard from the steel cells that were used to punish troublesome inmates, ghostly laughter is heard as well as the sound of a baby crying. Strange, unnatural lights are seen in the windows at night.

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The ghost of a sadistic nurse called Black Bonnet, who burned her charges with a hot clothing iron, is believed to haunt Sunny Acres. Some believe the foundation is a psychic vortex, a whirlpool of energy able to produce spontaneous combustion as well as being an opening to another dimension. The vortex is believed to be responsible for a fire that engulfed Sunny Acres in 1989.

In 1959 seven of the juvenile inmates overcame a matron named Maude Breeden, gagged and bound her, then stole her car and raced toward the Mexican border. They were caught before they could complete their escape, and as a result, security was increased. But conditions inside Sunny Acres began to deteriorate. Sunny Acres became “Hell’s Acres” to the inmates. Stories of abuse, brutal punishment and overcrowding began to circulate.

A project is now underway to either renovate Sunny Acres or to build low-cost housing on the site for people receiving treatment for mental illness. If there are spirits about, they may or may not appreciate this intrusion into their realm. After all, it has been their’s exclusively for the past 44 years.

Mark James Miller is an Associate Faculty in English at Allan Hancock College, and also president of the Part-Time Faculty Association. He can be reached at