LEROY, MINN. – Let’s get something straight from the get-go: Lu Overocker doesn’t believe in ghosts.
But even among the most skeptical in town, it is pretty much accepted as fact that Sweet’s Hotel on Main Street is haunted. Include Overocker among them. She has owned the business for 10 years.
Suspending disbelief for just a moment, the evidence keeps piling up with each slamming door and light that won’t stay off.
There was the couple who had their picture taken during a romantic dinner in an upstairs bedroom. Closer inspection on their smartphone showed what appeared to be the image of a woman peering inside from a window.
There was the housekeeper carefully piling pillows on a luggage rack while cleaning, only to have the pillows flung across the room at her. (“She told them to leave her alone and she got her work done,” Overocker said.)
There was the camera that appeared to be pulled from a guest who had come to investigate spirits; it conveniently landed in a trash can. Flashlights turn on and off, too, seemingly on their own.
“I still don’t believe in ghosts, but you keep getting things thrown at you all the time [and] it’s hard not to believe it,” Overocker said.
Lifetime LeRoy resident John Jones remembers playing cards upstairs one night and looking up to see a chair rocking by itself.
“Was there beer involved that night? Sure. But not that much,” said Jones, another local who said he normally doesn’t believe in such things.
When it was just a bar, former owner Jim Merten, usually a nonbeliever, said the jukebox once malfunctioned. When the repairman came to fix it, he found that a switch inside had been turned off, although no one there had a key to get inside.
There are also stories about ashtrays sliding across the bar.
“I never seen that,” Merten said, drawing a line.
The haunting legend
The hotel was built in 1898 by prominent local businessman and onetime LeRoy mayor and Mower County commissioner W.W. Sweet. Described as “one of the most modern three-story hotels in many miles around,” it was designed to accommodate traffic from the two major railroads that intersected near this southeastern Minnesota town on the Iowa border.
Over the years, the hotel has gone through numerous incarnations. Its once-austere 36 rooms have been converted now into eight themed suites targeted at the weekend bed-and-breakfast crowd, bridal parties, girls’ weekends and the occasional ghost hunting party.
Legend has that it was once a brothel. Meatpacking tycoon Jay Hormel and business ally Cy Thompson are listed on records as owners in 1921 and may have used it as a retreat from the prying eyes of big-city Austin, 30 miles away.
Paranormal activity seemed to increase after the renovation, almost as if the resting spirits inside had been disturbed.
Overocker said she has been told by experts who came from the Twin Cities that as many as seven ghosts may have inhabited the building at one point, but she thinks the current number may be down to three. That includes a cigar-smoking doctor named Joseph who may have treated the prostitutes at the brothel and seems to confine himself to the basement. The others are said to be Frank Sweet, son of W.W, and his wife, Matilda. They wander throughout the building, it is said. Two that may have departed are a lady in blue and a man who hanged himself.
The hotel’s website makes lighthearted note of the haunting legend, but Overocker says staffers don’t mention it to guests unless asked. She said she prefers to promote the quaint accommodations and the quality of the hotel’s award-winning bartenders and its all-you-can-eat Friday night fish fry and Saturday night prime rib dinner.
“There were four guys staying here for work. They had me tell one of the guys the stories and they kept teasing him,” she said. “He was so scared he packed his bags and went to Rochester and he wouldn’t stay here. After that, I quit telling people.”
‘Good ghosts here’
Ghost-hunting hobbyists Deb Gibson and her sister, Deanna Billingsley, both of Rochester, visit Sweet’s several times a year to study the goings-on. Gibson describes herself as “open but skeptical” about such phenomena.
They’ve visited other paranormal sites such as the Myrtles Plantation in Louisiana, Bobby Mackey’s Music World in Kentucky and Minnesota’s more celebrated haunted venue, the Palmer House Hotel in Sauk Centre.
Why spirits would inhabit a specific venue like Sweet’s can be explained several ways, Gibson said. If they feel attached to a location they may stay, or a residual energy may be imprinted onto a building.
“It’s probably both there,” Gibson theorized.
The sisters use a meter that measures electromagnetic fields, sensitive digital audio recorders and their cellphones to record their findings. While other sites they have visited have sometimes left them shaken, their experiences at Sweet’s have never felt threatening. At worst, the spirits here have seemed more irritated than anything, perhaps just wanting to be left alone, she said.
“I try to prepare myself spiritually by going in calm and visualizing a nice clean, white, good energy surrounding me and protecting me,” Gibson said. “I don’t feel anything bad at Sweet’s Hotel at all.”
Gibson was in one of the suites videotaping when a flashlight blinked on. She asked that it be turned off. On the video she said she could hear what sounds like a sigh and then the light blinks off.
During another visit, a friend felt the back of her hair lift and her necklace pulled while sitting in the basement. Another time, a friend had to wake several times to turn off lights that kept turning on in her room.
Despite her skepticism, Overocker said there is one strict rule demanded of guests: no Ouiji boards in the building. It’s believed the boards can act as a beacon for anything that wants to come in, like opening a doorway.
“They say if you have a place that is supposedly haunted, Ouiji boards bring out the bad,” she said. “We have good ghosts here and we want to keep it that way.”