It was almost Halloween, so to get into the spirit, my three children, along with my 11-year-old son Max’s three friends, unplugged for the weekend and put their imaginations to use for some ghost-hunting in Mantorville, Minn.
“It’s pretty much the most haunted town in the Midwest per capita,” said Christopher S. Larsen, author of “Haunted Mantorville: Trailing the Ghosts of Old Minnesota,” when I called him for advice. To bring on a ghost, Larsen says, our group will need somebody with conducive energy and openness — less likely with the comfort that daylight brings. Which one of the older boys would feel enough fear to be our catalyst?
It’d be easy to zip right past the stillness of Mantorville in southeastern Minnesota, as Hwy. 57 cuts right through it. Many of the buildings in the town, which was settled in 1853 by the Mantor brothers, are built from limestone mined from nearby quarries.
“Limestone is comforting to spirits,” says our guide, Jane Olive, a 20-year resident dressed in an 1890s day suit, paired with an equestrian jacket and hat. She and her husband, who’s the fifth generation of his English lineage to inhabit Mantorville, own one of the quarry mines. Olive leads us on a tour of the town’s ghostly sites.
The 1918 Opera House is an intimate 150-seat theater. During Prohibition, the locals drank hooch here. It feels haunted. Its windows and decorative wall stenciling were covered up for the Mantorville Theatre Company’s Halloween production, “Noir Suspicions,” a murder mystery staged like a black-and-white movie.
In the ’70s, disappearing props, flickering lights and a white Victorian apparition led the theater troupe to use a Ouija board to reach out to the other side. They met Ellen, a woman still searching for a child of hers who died of influenza in the log cabin that originally stood here in the 1850s.
“Ellen, we have guests here to see you,” Olive calls out, as she opens the door to the green room. Announcing yourself is ghost protocol. They don’t like surprises. My 7-year-old daughter uses my electromagnetic frequency detector app to search for preternatural energy fields. “Is the needle supposed to go up or down?” she whispers to me. I have no idea.
The normally field-trip-resistant boys listen wide-eyed as Olive shares how a group of ghost hunters many years ago asked Ellen to move a toy car across the coffee table in front of them. Being able to move objects is a rare gift, apparently. Ellen didn’t cooperate. Later, though, as the ghost hunters listened to their tapes, they heard a faint mocking voice say, “He wants me to move the car.”
The Restoration House, built in 1856, served as the first courthouse in Dodge County, and the kids delight in shutting each other in the tiny, rusty basement jail cell — the only one ever built in the county.
Upstairs, pale, lithe mannequins and dolls spook the boys. “That teddy bear’s smirking,” says Max’s friend Ethan, 12.
“I made this bed right before you came,” Olive says, running her hand over the handmade quilt to flatten a lump in it. Her raised eyebrows indicate that the impression may have been left by a ghost who had lain down to rest.
Crack, pop — sudden spooky noises explode through the air. My skin bristles. Air pressure in the water pipes, or a ghost? My daughter lets out a shriek to scare the boys, and they rush for the stairs.
Behind the Restoration House is the Log Cabin, also built in the late 1850s. A barrel-maker — called a cooper — for a nearby brewery lived in it. “It’s like we’re in a movie,” says Lucas, 12, given the iron hoops and hammers, planes and broadaxes he finds in the dusty stone basement.
On the main level, Olive tells of one of her supernatural encounters while the boys flip through a dusty old Bible. “I was telling the story of how the building was slated to be destroyed, when the lateral side of my left leg and the lateral side of my daughter’s right leg suddenly got icy cold,” she says. “A probe showed the temperature between us had dropped 4 or 5 degrees. It was like a spirit was standing between us, listening.” Her story gives the boys pause.
“Are you cold?” asks Austin, also 12. It puts a thought in their head they can’t shake out.
“I’m scared,” my 9-year-old son says. Time for lunch.
We stop at the three-story Hubbell House restaurant, originally built out of logs by John B. Hubbell in 1854 before he disappeared. Olive says two people in separate incidents — a tragic suicide and an intoxicated fall down the basement stairs — have died here. But we take a break from ghost-hunting to eat. The boys divide up two pizzas while I order a light, creamy soup with chunky tomatoes strewn in.
At the top of a hill sits an old Episcopal church that’s now the Dodge County Historical Society. A pastor and his wife, Sarah, built it out of dreams in 1869. Sadly, she died before its completion, but is said to be buried in the basement at her request — where she’s rumored to be restless without her husband, whose remains lie in California.
Mary Ann Bucher, the 80-year-old secretary of the board of directors for the Historical Society, shakes her head from behind the front desk when I tell her we’re here for Sarah. “She’s never come out,” she says, preferring to enrich the children with the history of the area rather than the idea of hauntings.
We tour first-floor exhibits and then follow Bucher to the recently remodeled basement. Eventually, they’ll fill this bright space with artifacts, but for now, she gives us the history of what’s in it — a wooden, horse-drawn hearse carrying two children’s coffins, and World War I machine guns.
Against the back wall is a door with a sign that reads, “Private: Sarah’s Room.” Uneasily, the boys go in. It’s mostly stacked storage, except for one part of the wall with off-colored stones left exposed.
“Sarah’s behind there, and she stays there,” Bucher says, tapping the wall. “We should just let her rest in peace.” But the boys don’t look too sure about what night will bring. I think they’ve had it with ghosts for the day.
If you go
Mantorville is about 75 miles southeast of the Twin Cities via U.S. Hwy. 52 and state Hwy. 57.
For a ghost tour, contact Jane Olive, president of the Mantorville Restoration Association, at 1-507-269-2659.
Jennifer Jeanne Patterson lives in Edina and is the author of “52 Fights.” Find her at unplannedcooking.com.