Storm Lake's spooky Halloween tales
* Madame Gertrude - Long-time residents of Storm Lake still insist that she had a remarkable gift - to see the unseen. Local history books prominently mention clairvoyant Gertrude Pentico, who, in the 1920s, led authorities directly to the bodies of drowning victims in the lake. She had been blindfolded at the time. Her finds captured headlines in several states, and many came to marvel at her abilities, according to the Storm Lake Centennial History, believing that Madame Gertrude had the psychic abilities to go into trances, foresee the future, and hold seances. And if she didn't, how do you explain the way that she helped to recover two bodies from a vast lake that had foiled all other efforts?
* Harker House Hijinks - The single most stubborn ghost story of the Storm Lake region concerns the Harker House, one of the city's oldest homes and now a museum. For generations of local children, the "church corners" site was known only as "the haunted house." Museum workers say they've seen no haunts, but perhaps the stories spring from a strange twist in the pioneer family's tree. On display in the museum is a small bird, a Wilson snipe now extinct here, stuffed and enclosed in a glass dome. According to Carolyn Hemmen, formerly of the County Historical Society, young Truman Harker was found dead in shallow water off Little Island generations ago, with the cause of the incident never fully explained. The bird was found inside his jacket and preserved as a reminder of the lost son. "The only other explanation for all the stories is the house itself. It was vacant for so long and had that unloved look," Hammen said. "I've never seen anything odd in there, but then, who knows?"
* Jesse Rides Again - Some oldtimers used to tease children with tales that had legendary badman Jesse James haunting a ramshackle building near Newell. Oddly enough, the tale-tellers probably couldn't have known that if Jesse weren't there in spirit, he may have been in fact. Eyewitness accounts claim Jesse James and brother Frank frequented that very building when it served as a stagecoach stop in the very first days of area settlement. In fact, the newspaper found that a relative of the James boys raised horses in Buena Vista County during that period, and a cousin to Jesse still resides in Newell. The stagecoach stop was torn down several years ago and, if a Jesse James ghost exists, he hasn't been reported in these parts since.
* A Baby's Warmth -- The Wolfe family of Arnolds Park area lost a child Nov. 4, 1893. Or did they? After the death, the child's crib and belongings were packed away in an unused room, with a blanket tacked up to save heating costs. Years later, Mrs. Wolfe went looking for something. She ran her hand through the crib in the cold room. The blanket was undisturbed, but a very warm spot was there, as if the child had been there just moments before. After the discovery of the "ghost," she no longer neglected the room. It was cleaned regularly and quite often, the warm spot reappeared. Finally, the story spread to the University of Iowa which dispatched a professor to investigate in 1908. He loaded the crib with thermometers and watched throughout the night, excited to find an outline in unmistakable baby form, with a human temperature. He set up a battery of further tests and planned to move in all sorts of equipment, but the warm spot never returned. The home was torn down in 1914. Perhaps, one has to think, it is best to let sleeping babies rest in peace.
* It Happened at the Cemetery - Jesse Tompkins was the caretaker of a small area cemetery overlooking the Little Sioux River. He always took meticulous care of the site, including the installation of a new fence when he felt necessary. He was digging the fourth posthole from the left when the digging became tougher. Figuring he had hit a stone, he worked harder. Suddenly, he felt a pull on his auger that jerked it from his hands. He stood back in shock as it gyrated back and forth as if shaken by unseen hands. He worked up courage to grab and free the auger, and found the strong steel end of the tool twisted like a pretzel. He rushed back to report to the church elders and, eventually, the possibility of ghostly intervention came up, but no one could see why a ghost would be bent out of shape over a fence, since the hole was 15 yards from the nearest grave. Jesse moped around for several days, then bought a new auger and returned. Again, it was grabbed from his hand. Jesse refused to go near the hole again. Finally, the church elders sent a contractor to investigate. He found that Jesse's auger had penetrated the coffin of an unknown corpse never recorded on cemetery records. The elders never admitted they had a ghost on their hands, but the fence still makes a little jog to the east... where the fourth post was supposed to be.
* The Ghost Squirrel - He was the biggest squirrel the 11-year old farm girl had ever seen, strangely wine-red with black spots on each side of its head that made its big, sad-looking eyes startling. The girl approached to within six feet and was surprised when the creature did not flee. The girl saw it was wearing a tiny blue leather collar. Beth Solar, now of Fort Dodge, grew up on a farm just north of the Little Sioux River between Buena Vista and Clay Counties. In the book Ghosts of the Iowa Great Lakes, she says, "I know it sounds silly, but I swear the thing had a real sad look in its eyes." She ran to tell of the incident, but her mother wrote it off to childish imagination - until the girl's grandmother dropped her pan and ran from the kitchen. The old woman returned with a box of old papers that the little girl had never seen before. Finally, she pulled out an old photograph. It showed a giant squirrel with black spots beside its eyes, wearing a tiny collar. The squirrel was red, the grandmother said, the collar blue leather. It had been her pet when she was a child growing up in the same house more than a half-century earlier. The creature was never seen again.
* A Husband Returns - A young woman from Storm Lake said in an interview that she was forced to move from her home to escape the attention of her beloved, who had died in a tragic accident at work in a quarry when he was 22. Ten days later, the work boots the man had been wearing at the time of the accident turned up inside the back door, in just the spot where he always carelessly left them. Angrily, she questioned her husband's co-workers and hospital personnel, determined to find the perpetrator of what she took as a mean practical joke. All swore they knew nothing of the boots. "Then one night about three months after he died, I was crying in bed," she said. "I felt a hand on my shoulder, patting me and comforting me. I assumed my son had entered the room, but when I turned, there was no one there." That was the first of several weird incidents that she is convinced represents her husband's efforts to say a last good-bye.
* Ouiji Gone Awry - The game Ouiji comes in and out of popularity in northwest Iowa and, supposedly, puts players in touch with messages from the paranormal sphere. Jeff Grimm, a Storm Lake student of the unusual, often fielded stories from those who see UFOs or other phenomena that they are afraid to tell even family or friends. A Buena Vista College student told him of her bizarre Ouiji experience. Friends were using the board game one night, concentrating hard on the images it promotes. One of them fell into kind of a trance. The others took it as a fainting spell and tried to awaken her and grew fearful when they failed. Then one saw "a black, shadowy being" emerge from the girl's stomach and pass down the hallway. The girl recovered but was shaken, Grimm's conclusion is that the incident was a result of subconscious tension among young people who were unprepared for the spiritual experience they concocted for themselves, but the students, no doubt, believe otherwise.
* A Gentle Ghost - One resident of Lake Avenue is convinced her home is haunted, though she says the ghost "isn't an exciting one, I'm afraid." "We only know she is here because we often hear her - a very distinct sound of footsteps," she told the author during an interview in the haunted home in question. "At night, the footsteps often wake us. My husband and I have often heard them in the attic, and our children have told us they sometimes hear them downstairs. I have been told the person was very proud of this house, so I think the old lady is just here to check up on the cobwebs that need to be cleaned." The same woman grew up in a home where the rocking chair would move on its own, and she sometimes saw a flash of purple against the ceiling of the rooms. Her father had died in an accident, and the body was covered with a purple sash.
* Big Footsteps - Sightings of Sasquatch, the man-ape many call "Bigfoot," are the most common of hoaxes. But a respected area family say there is no other explanation for what they have seen. Ron and Carol Hollefsen, Sioux Rapids, were driving home from Marathon with two of their daughters in the "wee hours" of the morning 22 years ago when they had to swerve suddenly to miss something in the road. It was seven to eight feet tall; dark and covered with hair. It stood in the roadway for several instants, giving the whole family a close look. The family did not report the incident for some time, fearing everyone would think them crazy. No other sightings were made, but the family says that, during that period, several reports of animal carcasses left near the river not far from their sighting were filed. A second report of a "large bear-like animal" was filed with the county sheriff in 1988, but no evidence was ever found.
*Spectre of the Ballpark -- His ebony skin shines in fading twilight. The skinny figure in the loose gray jersey lopes in slope-shoulder style, lifts a hand in friendly greeting, then slowly fades when approached. This is the resident ghost of Casino Beach, some claim, a spirit that remained behind when the barnstorming baseball team, "The Tennessee Rats," disappeared in the 1920s. Former resident Harold Larsen said the black players were clowns on the field, running up scores of 25-1 against semi-pros, but gently handling local teams. "Their favorite trick was to pretend to throw the ball all over the infield. They were lightning- quick, and the base runners would get dizzy trying to follow all the motion and, all the time, the ball was in someone's glove waiting to make the tag," he said. They seldom spoke off the field and always fled town after the last out. Their photograph was never taken, and only a few yellowed clippings recall how they dominated. Some say they were a group of black league phenoms who changed their names and abandoned notoriety more than 20 years before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier. Others said they were fleeing the law after some heinous crime in the South. At least two area residents claim to have seen the ghostly ballplayers, but, if he exists, his name is lost in time. The entire team disappeared suddenly in 1926, just about the time a Ku Klux Klan group was given a permit here. Whatever the reason for his haunting, the ballplayer seems to return on rare evenings to that dusty field that once was an emerald lot, to run the bases once again.
* UFOs Buzz the Heartland - Sightings of unidentified flying objects are not uncommon and usually have a reasonable explanation, but not always. A lifelong Buena Vista County resident and a car-load of friends saw a "saucer with windows all around" sail over the south part of the lake one night in the 1950s. "It gives me goosebumps even now just thinking of it because, at the time, I didn't know what would happen," she said in an interview. Another sighting places a UFO over the municipal ballfield for several moments 32 years ago. Don Phillips, Lake View, reported seeing a noiseless UFO with lights in the shape of a triangle at his farm in 1966 and even tried following it in his car. Former Deputy Don McClure recalled a report received during the early 1980s from a carload of young adults who had been driving between Storm Lake and Newell. Two or three other calls came in with the same description. The sighting was eventually classified as a shooting star, but no solid explanation was ever reached.
* The Whistling Well - A story from early-day Truesdale still comes up when gossipers gather. A well was being dug for a creamery in that town in 1901. Newspapers of that era report work was going well until the 100-foot level was reached. That night the entire town was awakened by a dull whistling "as if some giant was blowing huge breaths across the top of a huge bottle." Townspeople tracked the noise to the well and
figured the noise was caused by a freak escape of netherworld gasses. Work continued until, at the 120-foot mark, all the equipment stopped dead. A man volunteered to be lowered to investigate. He yelled his progress all the way down, until exactly the 100-foot level, when he fell strangely silent. It took help from Storm Lake to recover the body, which had turned jet black. The well was abandoned forever, and whatever the unfortunate volunteer encountered deep below Truesdale has never been explained.
* Poltergeist Pounding - A former resident who has since moved away from Storm Lake telephoned in a tale of a not-so-gentle spirit. "It happened when we were living on an acreage eight miles north of Storm Lake. We were in the process of building an addition. One night, we were woken by a terrible racket." It sounded like many vandals smashing wood, tearing down walls, breaking everything. "We practically climbed under the bed, we were so scared." The woman went to investigate the next morning, expecting all to be leveled. Not a thing had been bothered, and the sawdust all around the site yielded not a single footprint. "I remembered a cold feeling that came on me during the noise. I know it was a ghost, I just don't know why."
* Faces in the Well - A story is well-known of a ghost in a cistern on a Spencer area farmstead. Two children of the Walling family discovered the site in 1925, shortly after the family moved to the farm. The boys were throwing rocks down the well, watching their images jump and wiggle on the surface of the water. Suddenly, a third face was there, between theirs. The boys looked around but were alone. The third face was that of a girl about their age with curly long hair. Butch and Art's family refused to believe them, but a deputy was eventually convinced to go to the farm to investigate the tall tale. The deputy later swore, he, too, saw the little girl's reflection. He called a photographer to the site but the man became scared and left without taking the photo. The image never appeared again. The family eventually moved, and the cistern was filled.
* Cinema Spook - Ghost hunters have been called out in 2009 and 2011 to investigate reports of hauntings at the American Theater in Cherokee. Workers report chair seats flipping up and down by themselves, in one case two seats rocking back and forth as if two people were having a conversation there. Lights are known to go on and off on their own, doors open and shut on their own, and employees have reported hearing the sound of a basketball bouncing, not knowing that a children's gymnasium was located on the site generations ago. The Mid-Iowa Paranormal group reported recording some ghostly voices in the building. In a photo they took of the old theater, they said a woman's face can be seen from within a door, expressionless and giving the impression of being lost. Some feel the couple who ran the theater generations ago - never left.