As fall tightens its grip across the state and darkness slowly swallows the daylight, there is no better time for a Wisconsin ghost story. The state’s long history of spooky tales began with American Indians and continued with white settlers who brought their own spiritual traditions and superstitions.
By the early 1900s, every community in the state was gushing with ghost stories, leading the noted Wisconsin folklorist Robert E. Gard to declare that Wisconsin had more ghosts per square mile than any other state.
For more than 15 years I have sought the supernatural in old structures, trudged through spooky cemeteries, explored ghost-filled forests and rambled along haunted highways, in search of our state’s most haunted places. This fall, do some ghost-busting of your own with this list of 10 spine-chilling spots – and you might want to sleep with the light on.
1. Summerwind, Land O’ Lakes
The state’s most haunted site sits in the far northern reaches of Wisconsin. Summerwind Mansion was built as a fishing lodge in the early 1900s and remodeled in 1916 by Robert Lamont, who would go on to be U.S. Secretary of Commerce under Herbert Hoover.
The house appears to have been haunted from the start, but the Lamonts disregarded the whispers among the wait staff of strange noises and events. Then one night, Lamont fired two shots at what he thought was an intruder, only to discover there was no one there. The Lamonts abruptly left the house – and all their belongings – that night and never returned.
The house had numerous owners over the ensuing years, including Arnold and Ginger Hinshaw, who bought Summerwind in the early 1970s. For six months the couple and their four children endured all manner of psychic phenomenon, including fleeting shadows, whispering voices, random pockets of chilled air and objects that moved on their own. While they were living there, Arnold had a nervous breakdown and Ginger attempted suicide. Their story was documented in a 2005 Discovery Channel episode of "A Haunting."
Although the structure was almost completely destroyed by fire in 1988, the paranormal activity continues. Some claim the place is a sort of beacon that inexplicably attracts supernatural beings and events. Visitors have told of a strong sense of someone or something hovering around them, orbs and floating mists show up later in photos taken at the site, and audio recorders pick up voices and sounds not heard by the human ear. With so much paranormal activity, it’s no wonder the Lamonts packed heat.
2. Nelsen’s Hall, Washington Island
Nelsen’s pub is steeped in history and tradition thanks to former owner Tom Nelsen. Deeply devoted to bitters (which he drank daily until his death at age 90), Nelsen managed to keep his bar open during Prohibition by getting a pharmacy license and selling his spirits as medicine. Such was his love for his pub that he has refused to leave the place, even 100 years after his death. Nelson lived and died in the apartment above the bar, where phantom footsteps have been heard on the stairs. The ghost often acts in mischievous ways, including appearing in front of unsuspecting women using the restroom and changing the radio station so he can still enjoy his favorite music.
3. Mary of Elk Lake Dam, Elk Lake
Like many ghost stories, this one is rooted in tragedy. In 1974, the body of young Mary Schlais was found in the rural Elk Lake area. At the time, police believed the victim had been hitchhiking from Minneapolis to Chicago when she was picked up by her killer. A man had been seen pushing a body out of a car, but that lead went nowhere and the case remains open, and cold, to this day.
This lack of resolution may explain why Mary’s restless spirit has continued to stay on the scene. Paranormal activity in the area includes fleeting and disappearing shapes and shadows, mysterious floating lights, spectral noises and apparitions. One local elderly woman reported daily visits from Mary, while two fishermen claimed to have had a frightening encounter. They were fishing on a dam when one said to the other, “There is a glowing white woman behind us.” “I know,” the other man replied. “But I’m not turning around.”
4. Riverside Cemetery, Appleton
Discreetly set apart from the main gravesites at Riverside Cemetery is the final resting place of Kate Blood. Rumors have long swirled around this woman with the fateful last name – according to various sources, she was a witch, a child-killer, an adulteress and a murder victim at the hands of her husband. Although the details of Blood’s life or fate are unknown, her gravesite has become a hotbed of paranormal activity. Many visitors have reported an eerie chill, and some have seen a darkhooded figure that vanishes into thin air. Even more spine-chilling are the stories of blood oozing from the headstone.
5. Brumder Mansion, Milwaukee
Since 1910 the 8,000-square-foot Brumder Mansion has gone through numerous incarnations, once operating as a boarding house and later as a coffee house and parsonage. There was no evidence of paranormal activity here until renovations began in the late 1990s to restore the home to its original state. Today, the mansion is a B&B, providing lavish accommodations for both the living and the dead. George Brumder’s sister was said to be so fond of the house that she never left; her presence has been felt in her old room, now the Gold Suite. She is said to have shown her displeasure with changes in the decor or with animals on the premises. Up to three other spirits are also thought to inhabit the mansion. One overnight guest, an American Indian medicine man, declared the spirits benevolent, but very talkative.
6. The Phantom Man of Highway 12, Baraboo
Highway 12 between Baraboo and the Dells is brimming with water parks, oversized animals and a slew of other bizarre roadside attractions. But the road’s strangest attraction is the phantom hitchhiker. Witnesses have described a man standing on the side of the road wearing a tattered green army jacket. Drivers pass the hitchhiker, only to see him appear again down the road. We aren’t sure who he is because no one has had the nerve to actually pick him up.
7. Bloody Bride Bridge, Stevens Point
This story has all the elements of the classic ghost story: a bloody bride, a terrifying being that appears in a mirror and a corroborating authority figure. According to lore, many years ago a young woman was killed on her wedding night in a car accident on the Highway 66 bridge. Since then, there have been reports of a woman wearing a bloody wedding dress standing on the bridge and sitting in the backseat of passing cars, visible to the driver in the rearview mirror. On the same bridge, a police officer reportedly hit a woman, then saw nothing when he ran back to help her. Offically, the Stevens Point police department has no record of a dead bride or of one of their officers seeing a ghost there.
8. Bodega Brew Pub, La Crosse
Since the early 1900s, this downtown bar has been serving up all sorts of spirits. When pool hall owner Paul Malin died on the premises in 1901, he wasted no time getting down to his ghoulish duties. The establishment changed hands several times over the next decade as Malin was credited as the source of unexplained noises, apparitions and other phenomena. The pub hosts ghostly goings-on to this day. Numerous patrons have reported feeling a tap on the shoulder – only to find no one there when they turn around. Bartenders have seen a ghostly apparition float throughout the bar, and customers have noted a mysterious chill in different spots. The building’s basement is an especially spooky spot, where bricks and other stored materials have stacked themselves and the clicking sound of high heels can be heard pacing the empty room.
9. Plainfield Cemetery, Plainfield
In a morbid twist of fate, Ed Gein is buried in the same cemetery where in the 1950s he dug up the bodies of women who reminded him of his dead mother. By the time he was arrested in 1957, Gein had also killed at least two women. Most of the body parts that were found at Gein’s farmhouse could not be identified and were not returned to their graves. Not only is this location creepy because of what happened there and the fact that Gein is buried there, but there are also claims that the place is haunted. The restless soul of one of his victims is said to roam the cemetery late at night.
10. The Siren Bridge, Siren
This much is true: A young family was heading home on County Highway B when their car crashed through the guardrail and landed upside down in the swampy waters below. A father, mother and their young daughter were trapped inside the vehicle, and all drowned. Although gone, the family is not forgotten. A number of motorists who have passed that fateful spot have reported hearing the voice of a young girl crying through the radio, “Mommy help me, I can’t get out.”
Chad Lewis is on a never-ending quest to discover Wisconsin’s oddest places. The weirder the location is, the more likely you will find him there.
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