Eerie creaks coming from a darkened hallway. Visions of ghostly shadows. Strange phenomena that raises the hair on the back of your neck. It’s Halloween, when thoughts go to hauntings, full moons and scares after dark. But for some in the St. Croix Valley, ghosts are very real—and encounters aren’t happening on Halloween alone.
When Wisconsin author Michael Norman decided to write a book of ghost stories, he says he “took the tack of a journalist.” He wasn’t interested in rumor, parapsychology or ghost-busting. He set out to talk to eyewitnesses who were willing to share their accounts of ghostly encounters. Wisconsin Ghost Stories, published in 1980, is the first in Norman’s “haunted” series that includes Haunted Heartland, Haunted America, Haunted Heritage and, most recently, The Nearly Departed: Minnesota Ghost Stories and Legends.
His research includes St. Croix Valley hauntings that reach all the way from Taylors Falls to Prescott, Wisc. As to his personal beliefs regarding ghosts, Norman calls himself an open-minded skeptic. “Ghosts are hard to discount when so many people—professionals and lay people alike—are convinced they really exist,” he says.
The Captain Austin Jenks House
Austin Jenks was a riverboat captain and businessman who, in the late 19th century, built a home on 5th St. in Stillwater, which is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Dr. Thomas J. Vaughan, who has owned the house for 15 years, says several family members have observed unexplained activity in the house, such as hearing party noises or a piano playing in the middle of the night, and seeing visions of an older man. Twice, Vaughan says he smelled “a really sharp odor of cherry tobacco pipe smoke” that was so strong, he considered calling the fire department. “I’m a scientist and the ultimate skeptic. But much later, I found out that the room where I smelled the burning odor had been Jenks’ office and that he had, in fact, smoked a pipe,” Vaughan says.
Recently, Jill Foote’s team at St. Croix Paranormal in Stillwater conducted readings at Vaughan’s house. “They video-recorded these things they called ‘orbs,’” Vaughan says. In his experience, orbs are a normal light-discharge artifact of digital photography, “but in this case, video showed them moving around the room.” Vaughan has no explanation for this movement.
They also inspected the home’s chandeliers, which are controlled by switches. Turning them on can cause the ceiling lamps to swing. Upon seeing the motion (without turning on the light) Foote set up a “spirit box” and set out to ask some questions of the ghosts present.
When Foote asked who was there, Vaughan says, “‘Austin Jenks’ was the answer. It was absolutely clear.” Then Vaughan asked the ghost’s opinions of some renovations he’d completed and the response was, “It’s your house now.” Emboldened and amused, Vaughan decided to ask one more question: “Who is making the chandelier swing?” Clear as day, Vaughan laughs, the sprit box caught him at his own game: “You!”
The Aldrich House on Coulee Road
In this instance, Michael Norman was able to interview members and neighbors of the Dr. Philip Aldrich family of Hudson, who reported a ghost “wandering the premises at night” of a particular house on Coulee Road. The spirit, they believe, is that of Paschal Aldrich, son of Dr. Philip Aldrich. Dr. Aldrich was one of Hudson’s first residents and a “pioneer entrepreneur” who delivered mail by foot or bateau (a flat-bottomed boat), accumulating property and wealth and celebrating “many gala social events” at his home, according to Norman.
After Dr. Aldrich’s death, Paschal inherited his father’s property and other holdings, but not his good fortune. “Paschal Aldrich and his family moved into a small house at the head of the Coulee Road. He farmed a large area for many years, but when a serious illness sunk his fortunes, he was forced to sell much of the property,” writes Norman. It seems Paschal’s ghost remained to keep watch over his family, having been unable to provide for them in life.
Etta Shottmuller and the Old Jail B&B
The Old Jail B&B, writes Norman in The Nearly Departed, is composed of two historic buildings: the original one-room jail and a former saloon known as the Shottmuller building. In 2006, B&B assistant Becky Risler found “the imprint of a human body on a bed’s fresh quilt and pillow…when no one living had been in that guest suite,” Norman writes. Proprietor Don Lawrence’s preschool-age granddaughter reported seeing the ghost of a little boy on the premises during a family picnic, although she had been unaware of any reported hauntings.
As the story goes, Frank J. Shottmuller and his wife, Etta Hovey Shottmuller, acquired the Shottmuller building in 1904. The couple had four boys. Frank, their youngest, passed away at age 2, followed shortly by his mother Etta. Norman says that ghost activity often begins when a building is remodeled, as was the case of the B&B in 2006. According to Norman, Lawrence doesn’t mind what is likely Etta’s ghost on his premises. Norman quoted Risler as saying, “I told [Etta’s ghost], ‘It’s fine you’re here. We don’t want you to go.’ ”
Uncle Otto Wolf in Prescott
Norman writes in Haunted Wisconsin that Otto Wolf was blind at birth and eventually moved into the Prescott home of his brother, Carl, and his brother’s wife. After Otto’s death, Otto’s nephew, George, heard his uncle’s nocturnal wanderings. Norman writes, “His uncle had been a kind and gentle soul during life, so he reckoned that the ghost, if indeed it was one, meant no harm to the family.” Otto’s activities included round-the-clock meanderings and incessant chair rocking. Norman suggests the ghost’s aggression mirrored his concern for Carl’s health and the family’s financial problems, which led them to sell their home.
Uncle Otto tried to persuade the family not to sell by illuminating the house lights, causing areas of the house to be freezing cold and finally tearing a solid oak door off its hinges, all of which George witnessed. Eventually, the ghost appeared to have moved on.
Gertrude Chambers and the Warden’s House
“There’s a lot of history and back story” in the Warden’s House, writes Norman.The Warden’s House was the home to 13 different Stillwater Prison wardens from 1853 to 1914 and is currently the site of the museum and the Washington County Historical Society headquarters.
“Personally, I don’t think the Warden’s House is haunted,” Sean Pallas, the Warden’s House Museum manager, says. “I’ve thought about it and it’s definitely part of the history here, but in my mind, ghosts are in the realm of wizards and dragons.”
Nonetheless, Pallas offers the ghost story associated with the Warden’s House as follows: The last warden of the old prison had a daughter named Gertrude, whom he called Trudy. Trudy eventually married the prison doctor and the couple moved to Blue Earth, where she had a baby boy and then died tragically. Her 8-month-old son returned to his grandfather’s home in Stillwater and spent the remainder of his childhood in the Warden’s House. Previous site managers, museum volunteers and even condo residents next door have reported seeing a woman’s image in the second-floor windows of the Warden’s House, reportedly Trudy’s ghost mourning her separation from her baby. One neighbor reported hearing odd sounds coming from the Warden’s House and seeing glasses flying off of tables. Pallas says he gets requests from paranormal groups to come to the museum and record evidence of ghostly activity.
The Pole Barn Dance Studio and Pub 112
The Pole Barn Dance Studio in Stillwater was formerly an old hardware and grocery store, and was once the gathering site for Native Americans, lumberjacks and others. St. Croix Paranormal recently recorded men’s voices on REM pods at this location.
Stillwater’s 112 Pub, formerly Pub Monique, “also used to be a liquor store and then a bath house,” says Foote. A story has persisted that in the 1800s, a woman was pushed out of an upper-story window of the pub. St. Croix Paranormal caught an apparition on film, which Foote describes as “a shadow figure” on the second floor. In April 2013, the haunting of Pub 112 was featured on the Biography Channel’s program called Ghost Stories.
According to Foote, ghosts can appear when a person who has died has an unusual attachment to a house or a location. They’ve often been involved in a death so traumatic they find it difficult to leave. “What we try to do is communicate with them,” says Foote. “Ghosts aren’t scary. They’re not there to hurt you. They just want you to know their story.”