Coffee Klatsch, Memories, Oh Ja, Stearns, Wobegon Trail

Avon Ghost Story

It’s Halloween, with snow falling in Stearns County. Almost All Soul’s Day.

Time for a ghost story.

A true story, which I retell more than half a century later.

I’ve spoken to few about it over the years.

Those who’ve heard my story say it was a dream. Or an overactive imagination. Or too many s’mores before bed.

Anything but what it was.

It was a ghost.

We’d boarded the rattling orange school bus with sticky vinyl seats early, laden with sleeping bags, pillows, and paper bags of groceries from the Red Owl.

We were a group of pre-teens plus a few adults embarking on an overnight nature trip. The adults were employees of St Cloud City’s summer recreation program, based at the old Roosevelt School on 3rd Street.

The program offered art activities, summer sports, and relief from endless days without enough to do.

It’s the only overnight trip with this group I recall.

Maybe because of what happened.

As dusk approached it was hot and still.

We’d finally arrived at the empty Avon farmhouse mid morning.

The long dirt road ended there, a distance from the nearest county road, without another vehicle or house in sight.

We unpacked and chose spots for our sleeping bags.

Mine was near the locked door in the middle of the living room that led upstairs.

The building yielded little else to explore.

It was a typical early 1900s Minnesota farmhouse with chipped paint, peeling wallpaper, an enclosed porch entrance, plus a big kitchen and living room.

The place hadn’t been occupied for years.

We rattled the knob on the door to the upper storey with its sharp eaves. The bedrooms must be up there, we surmised.

There was no electricity or running water.

The bathroom was an outhouse at the back of the tangled garden.

Furnishings were sparse – a rickety table in the kitchen, a rusty disused freezer in the porch.

We’d be sleeping on the floorboards with the dust motes and spider webs. But what did we care? We were young.

Our pent-up kid energy had flagged on the bus after long renditions of 99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall and I’ve Got Sixpence (a strange ditty for Stearns kids to be singing, I’ve pondered since).

We’d spent the afternoon walking along old wagon paths and swishing through meadow grasses, catching insects and botanical specimens to identify later.

I fretted about deer flies and ticks and bees, but was soon absorbed in my hunt for a lady slipper, Minnesota’s elusive state flower.

I planned to seal it in resin as a keepsake if I found one, our art project for the trip. As the day wore on with no sign of a lady slipper, I scooped a large grasshopper into my specimen jar.

How well I remember the anticipation of that summer adventure … the freedom of being with a group of other young people in a new place overnight.

A delicious thought.

Until it wasn’t.

In the early evening we consumed our supper of cold cuts, dill pickles, potato chips, and Kool-Aid.

The paper plates and cups were soon dispensed with, then we sat in a circle talking in the living room.

Night fell like a heavy movie house curtain.

We didn’t bother with flashlights or candles, apart from one in the kitchen for midnight trips to the biffy.

We were exhausted.

We needed no encouragement to settle into our sleeping bags on the hard floor.

I was surrounded by friends and adults. I didn’t fear the night ahead.

My biggest concern was whether I had centered the unfortunate grasshopper in its curved resin mold. I’d find out in the morning once the resin had set.

We slumbered, drenched in bug spray, our bellies full of summer picnic food including homemade cookies and bars sent by our mothers in large Tupperware containers.

The only sounds were those of the Avon countryside: leaves rubbing against each other in a soft breeze, chatty frogs, night insects.

Soon we all slept the sleep of the dead.

There is nothing like the encompassing dark of a moonless night in the backwoods.

Something had woken me up.

It took awhile for my eyes to adjust to the gloom.

It dawned on me that there was someone upstairs.

At first I wasn’t concerned.

Maybe the adults had unlocked the door and gone up there to have their own space.

But counting the dark mounds on the floorboards, I saw that we were all present, including the grown-ups.

The noise upstairs increased.

Creaking sounds: someone in a rocking chair swaying back and forth on the old boards. Then the strumming of a guitar.

I waited for others to stir so we could investigate together. Everyone in Stearns County (and maybe the world) knows not to explore suspicious noises in an old farmhouse, alone, in the gloaming hours.

But my companions remained deeply asleep.

I realized I was having a supernatural experience.

Something a Catholic Minnesotan should not be surprised by, given our acceptance of spiritual realms, devils, rising from the dead, and the promise of heavenly rewards for good behavior.

I did then become frightened.

Perhaps this supernatural energy had bewitched everyone, and it was only me that could hear the other being’s movements.

Perhaps in the darkness they were all dead and it was only poor young me left to face the horror upstairs.

My dread grew as I heard the guitar thump to the floor, and the squeak of the rocking chair as the entity rose and walked to the stairway.

I heard its heavy boots descend the stairs.

When it reached the bottom, I felt an intense listening silence from the other side of the locked door just a few feet away.

And then I heard the doorknob rattle.

And then I screamed.

Of course I did.

Wouldn’t you?

At once, everyone was awake. Concerned, sleepy, confused.

No one heard a thing from upstairs, and no one believed what I had heard.

The door couldn’t be unlocked so there could be no one up there – the owner had the key, and he was miles away.

I had had a nightmare. A bad dream. Too many s’mores.

After an hour of hyperventilating and tearful adamance on my part, I was taken to the porch and told to calm down or I would be driven back to St Cloud – that this would be unfair to the others, and inconvenient, as someone would have to walk to the nearest farm to phone a supervisor to come and collect us in the middle of the night.

I was left alone with a flashlight to think about this, the black cornfields and night sky menacing beyond the dark porch windowpanes.

There was not a sound from upstairs. All was silent, silent as the grave.

Afterwards came a restless night of no sleep, fearful it would all happen again in a dystopian horror movie loop.

And then came the morning – a morning of relentless teasing, glowers from the adults, and a desperate wish to get away from that farmhouse. To get home, with my perfectly preserved grasshopper in its resin shell and my mother’s empty Tupperware container.

As the orange bus trundled up the dusty dirt road, I looked back at the old house, innocent in the afternoon sunshine, its upstairs windows blank of movement or life.

But I knew what I knew. I’d heard what I’d heard.

I’d encountered a ghost. Male. Not, on reflection, a malevolent ghost – and he had been as curious about me as I was about him.

Some might say he was a time traveller. A future or past resident of that house whose aura sensed mine and vice versa, crossing energies for a few moments in the darkness.

I have no answers.

All I know is that I had this experience as a youngster in an abandoned old farmhouse in Avon more than 50 years ago.

And I’m still curious about that house, and who once lived there, and the rattle of that doorknob in the dead of night.

Who’s woowoo?

Woowoo-ness is a Zwack trait, at least in my family. My mother had spooky intuition and so do several of my sisters. One lived in an old house in the south and had visits from a spirit we nicknamed ‘the hip tapper’ – she would awaken to taps and light shoves on her hip in the wee hours, as though someone wanted her to shift over so they could join her. Yikes. Another sister sees people who have passed away. As far as I know, Hilsgens are not woowoo. Although I’ve had other odd experiences, including one in an old house several years ago while walking the Camino Portugues, they were unbidden. My Avon encounter squashed any desire to actively explore woowoo-ness. Life on the earthly plane is scary enough.

The old ditty we sang on our bus trip to Avon appears to have been a marching tune Minnesota’s soldiers brought home from World War II, and passed on to their Stearns County children to sing in harmony on endless summer bus trips.

I’ve Got Sixpence

I’ve got sixpence
Jolly, jolly sixpence
I’ve got sixpence to last me all my life
I’ve got two pence to spend
And two pence to lend
And two pence to send home to my wife, poor wife. 

No cares have I to grieve me
No pretty little girls to deceive me
I’m as happy as a lark believe me
As we go rolling, rolling home
Rolling home (rolling home)
Rolling home (rolling home)
By the light of the silvery moo-oo-on
Happy is the day when we line up for our pay
As we go rolling, rolling home.

I’ve got four pence
Jolly, jolly four pence
I’ve got four pence to last me all my life
I’ve got two pence to spend
And two pence to lend
And no pence to send home to my wife, poor wife.

I’ve got two pence
Jolly, jolly two pence
I’ve got two pence to last me all my life
I’ve got two pence to spend
And no pence to lend
And no pence to send home to my wife, poor wife.

I’ve got no pence
Jolly, jolly no pence
I’ve got no pence to last me all my life
I’ve got no pence to spend
And no pence to lend
And no pence to send home to my wife, poor wife.

Photo istock

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