Ten years ago, when Germaine Beyl’s son was serving in Iraq, he asked her to serve as a “squad mom,” to write the soldiers in his squad letters to boost their spirits. This duty, Beyl said, was usually reserved for military wives, but he wasn’t married, and she happily complied.
That year, the family wanted to put together care packages for the squad. She and her husband, Grant, a retired colonel and a Vietnam vet, hosted a chili supper and Halloween party with “spooky little things” on their Farmington farm.
They asked guests for a donation of one nonperishable item; it was a request that met with an “outpouring of support,” Beyl said.
The Beyls repeated the Halloween party the next year, when their youngest son was deployed to Iraq, and in the years that followed, the event grew into a haunted house with a haunted trail through the woods. “It just kept getting bigger and bigger,” Beyl said.
Fast forward to today’s annual “Support Our Troops Haunted House.” It’s a 23-room haunted house in the 4-H Building at the Dakota County Fairgrounds, 4008 220th St. W. in Farmington. Organizers expect to draw about a thousand visitors Thursday through Saturday.
Over the years, the funds from the haunted houses have allowed the Beyls and their cast of volunteers — about 95 this year — to spend the year doing a wide range of projects.
They still send boxes to soldiers, sometimes indulging them with requests such as a coveted pack of Oreo cookies. “We send out boxes every month,” Beyl said.
She said that soldiers often send thank-you letters and that “they talk about how important it is for them to know that people back home are still thinking of them.”
As the effort has grown, they have added new projects to their list, such as collecting school supplies for Iraqi schoolchildren. They have sponsored pheasant shoots and welcome home meals for the veterans.
In recent years, they have made holiday bags filled with chocolates, holiday cards and other treats to hand out at the Armed Forces Service Center. Each year, they give money to veterans’ organizations, and in recent years, they have helped to fund the veteran’s memorial now under construction in Farmington.
Over the years, the Beyls have started receiving matching donations from various companies. In 2008, the year they moved the haunted house to the Dakota County Fairgrounds, they received congressional recognition for their efforts from U.S. Rep. John Kline. In 2011, they officially became a nonprofit.
“Everybody said, ‘If you know the Beyls long enough, you will get involved in the haunted house,’” said Dr. Jon Lombardo, a veterinarian based in Red Wing, Minn., who works on the Beyl’s horses. He’s been involved in the nonprofit for about seven years and now serves as its president.
“Most Americans believe in supporting our servicemen and women, regardless of politics,” Lombardo said. “Our servicemen and women give a tremendous amount to all of us. This is just a chance to give something back.”
Lombardo said his “niche is props and effects and things, so I get to play with toys.”
The official title this year is “Farmington FrightNight,” and Beyl said they had volunteers think of their favorite movie scene or creepy setting.
“It’s going to be pretty fresh this year,” said Lombardo. “We have a maze that’s going to have a lot of good scares.”
How long will the group keep up their yearly haunting?
“We said we would keep doing this until they all came home,” Beyl said.
Liz Rolfsmeier is a Twin Cities freelance writer.