When Laurie and Chuck Ness head downtown every Saturday night of the summer, they have a way of standing out. It could be the swish of Laurie’s hoop skirt and bonnet, or the dapper hat worn by her husband as a group gathers around them next to the pink-hued Sioux quartzite Pipestone County Museum building.
Their Civil War-era attire seems fitting for the weekly Ghost Walks, started six years ago to raise money for the town of Pipestone’s Civil War Days. Their somber black costumes also set the mood for the eerie stories they tell during these walks.
Laurie Ness, who is also the mayor of Pipestone, started the tours with 32 ghost stories collected from residents and the county museum. “We now have well over 250 stories and three people telling them,” she says.
Established by Civil War veterans in 1873, Pipestone has fewer than 4,200 residents, but its history runs deep with the local pipestone quarries that were considered sacred long before Europeans arrived. American Indians still quarry the red pipestone (aka catlinite), and visitors to Pipestone National Monument can watch pipe carvers demonstrate their craft, their fingers coated with the chalky red dust.
“The red rock represents the blood of the natives,” Laurie Ness said. There are legends of “Little People” at the quarries, who are known to be pranksters, and stories of Indian children seen playing or heard talking in a nursing home on the former site of an 1890s Indian boarding school.
Other stories involve the Calumet Inn, where a guest died in a 1944 Valentine’s Day fire; unexplained orbs of light; a theater with mysterious footsteps and flickering lights, and buildings where past murders might be the cause of sudden drops in temperature.
Most of Pipestone’s ghost stories originate in the late-1800s downtown historic district, where the stateliest buildings, including the Calumet Inn, sport the distinctive rosy or dark red tone of quartzite, which deepens as twilight arrives. Even a skeptic can appreciate how a ghost story enlivens a downtown stroll, and highlights the expressive faces carved in sandstone on the Moore Block building at Main Street and Hiawatha Avenue.
Ghost tours run Saturday evenings from late May through early September, and reservations are recommended ($7; 1-507-825-2563). Anyone craving more can return for Pipestone Paranormal Weekend, Oct. 10-11.
As for the stories, Ness says, “I let you decide what to believe or not.”
Pipestone National Monument: Late summer is an ideal time to admire the tallgrass prairie and take the circular walk around quarries, red rock formations and a waterfall. The visitor center hosts carving demonstrations, a film and exhibits, petroglyphs and a gift shop with a wealth of pipes and souvenirs ($3; 1-507-825-5464; nps.gov/pipe).
Pipestone County Museum: This multilevel museum blends the area’s pioneer and farm history with American Indian culture and art ($3; 1-507-825-2563; pipestoneminnesota.com/museum).
Keepers of the Pipe: Snap a photo of the world’s largest peace pipe outside the former Rock Island Depot, also a shop with American Indian art, books, music and jewelry, and pipes. (pipekeepers.org).
Pipestone Performing Arts Center: Next to the Moore Block (and with its share of spooky noises), this building hosts the local theater group, the Al Opland Singers choral group, and traveling shows. Look for a Beatles Tribute on Sept. 12. (1-507-825-2020).
Highway 75 Market Day: Cruise for garage sales, vendors and home-baked goods on Sept. 13 along historic Hwy. 75, also known as the King of Trails Scenic Byway.
Civil War Days: Cannons boom and shots ring out during battle re-enactments, with dozens of units gathering at Fort Pipestone in even-numbered years. Get an in-character history lesson on everything from blacksmithing to 19th-century clothing and artillery (Aug. 13-14, 2016. pipestoneminnesota.com/cwd).
Casey Jones Trail: Bike this state trail named for the legendary railroader, including a 13-mile stretch to the county border (1-507-825-3316; caseyjonestrail.org or dnr.state.mn.us).
Take Hwy. 212 west of the Twin Cities to Granite Falls, then follow Hwy. 23 southwest to Pipestone. It’s about 200 miles (or 3½ hours) from Minneapolis.
Where to sleep
Historic Calumet Inn: With a rough rock wall in the lobby and pressed tin ceilings, this restored 1888 hotel has 36 guest rooms and a bar and restaurant. Ask for Room 308 for the best chance of encountering one of the resident spirits that are collectively called “Charlie” (1-507-825-5871; calumetinn.com).
Crossings by Grandstay Inn and Suites: For a modern setting, this hotel has 45 rooms at the intersection of Hwys. 75 and 30. It includes an indoor pool and breakfast (1-507-562-1100; grandstayhospitality.com).
Pipestone RV Campground: Open May 1-Oct. 1 on 15 acres along Hiawatha Avenue. All of the 62 sites have free Wi-Fi, and about half have pull-through access (1-507-825-2455).
Where to eat
Lange’s Cafe by itself can be worth the trip to Pipestone if you hunger for homey roadside diners that serve fall-apart beef brisket, slow-roasted for 12 hours. This cafe hasn’t closed in almost 60 years and is known for its hot beef “commercial” sandwich with from-scratch gravy and mashed potatoes; hand-pattied burgers; gooey caramel rolls; doughnuts made with a great-granny’s recipe, and breakfast anytime. Leave room for pie — especially the sour cream raisin or banana cream (1-507-825-4488).
Pipestone Area Chamber of Commerce: 1-800-336-6125 or www.pipestoneminnesota.com.
Lisa Meyers McClintick (www.lisamcclintick.com) wrote the ninth edition of “The Dakotas Off the Beaten Path” and “Day Trips From the Twin Cities.”