The History and the Hauntings of the Palmer House Hotel, Sauk Centre, Minnesota
By Adrian Lee \ via ECTOMagazine.com
The Palmer House Hotel in Sauk Centre, Minnesota is one of the most paranormally active buildings you could ever wish to investigate- as well as being one of the most historic and architecturally important. AAA went as far as listing the Palmer House in their top 5 of the most haunted hotels in America, heady praise indeed when you consider that the Stanley Hotel from The Shining and the legendary Queen Mary at Long Beach also furnish the list. Having investigated the Palmer House regularly over the last two years, I would not disagree with them.
The first building to be erected on the site of the Palmer House Hotel was the Sauk Centre House, built by Alexander Moore in 1863. Moore planed the entire layout of the town and the positioning of the hotel was one of his main deliberations. W. F. Barnard did the surveying and Moore filed the first plat which consisted of 33 blocks. Built prominently on the main crossroads of the town, all the other buildings would have been erected in relation to the Sauk Centre House. The population of the town and surrounding area barely reached a couple of hundred at this time, but the town’s folk wanted expansion and the business it would bring. A hotel and hostelry combined with a building that could be used to host functions, meetings and gatherings was required.
This quickly evolving embryonic town could already boast to having: three stores, a saw mill, a flouring mill, a cabinet shop, a cooperage and a tannery. Despite this rapid expansion Sauk Centre was still very much a primitive area and the people that populated this growing hamlet were still full of the pioneer spirit. The hotel was built barely a year after the Sioux uprising for which the stockade was erected in 1862 to protect the town, and the fear of more Indian reprisals must have been ever present in the minds of the town’s folk. During 1866 attacks on people and cattle by wolves were also well documented as well as the regular sighting of bears just wandering through the streets.
The Sauk Centre House was built on land that was of strategic importance for both the Ojibwe and Sioux tribes long before Sauk Centre existed. The treaty of Prairie du Chien signed in 1825 made the area of Sauk Centre a kind of no mans land; if the two tribes stumbled across one another whilst on hunting expeditions along the Sauk River it would normally end in bloodshed. White workers led by Alexander Moore constructing a dam on the Sauk River in 1857 witnessed an all day battle between the two tribes that resulted in many casualties. The Ojibwe had a culture of burying their dead warriors where they fell and many artifacts have subsequently been unearthed around the river banks and the surrounding land. It would be reasonable to suggest that paranormal activity exists on the land the hotel is built on partly due to this bloody Native American history.
In fact some of the activity could easily be steeped in Native American folklore. Many sensitives, including top Minnesotan psychic Tim Baxton, believe there is an entity that visits the basement of the hotel that is ‘from the Earth’ and not human (an elemental). The Native American Indians are probably familiar with this kind of creature and the legendary Pukwudgie springs to mind (a small troll with a large nose and ears and grey smooth skin). This entity, Native American or not, has made its presence known to me through the heavy smell of sulphur and will engulf people in blackness, so they completely disappear whilst being filmed on a night vision camera- just like someone has thrown a dark blanket over them. The sound of dog like noises can also be picked up on equipment as Electronic Voice Phenomena. Although not evil in the biblical sense of the word, it is sometimes best not to engage or give the power of acknowledgement to some of the darker forces we encounter that are just wandering through.
The original Sauk Centre Hotel became a strategic stop over point for the U.S. Army in the late 1860s and 70s. General Philip Sheridan who defeated Robert E. Lee during the Civil War stayed with other famous and prominent Officers like General Hancock and General Greene on their way to inspect the new forts further north and in the Dakota Territories, erected quickly to suppress the Sioux uprisings. Accompanying them would be prominent politicians like Alexander Ramsey, Governor McDougall, and Senator Windom. It also became the meeting place for the local Masonic lodge that held their ceremonies every month in the hall on the first floor, conducted by Edward Barnum, the owner of the hotel from 1867-70.
During this period of history many deaths were recorded and the hotel functioned as an infirmary to the local population. Diphtheria swept through the county; a contagious respiratory illness characterized by a sore throat, fever and skin legions spread through direct contact or through the air; many people would have died in the hotel as a result of this. One unfortunate case was that of William Casebeer who was documented as having died of ‘lung fever’ on the 7th February 1868 in one of the hotel rooms. Accidents were also common place; the spiritualist and medium Mrs. Sands was giving readings from the hotel on the 7th May 1868 when her 5 year son, who was playing on the stairs, fell and smashed his skull. It is believed that the ghost of a boy seen playing on the stairs with a ball by current staff and guests is the very same boy. This also highlights the long and distinguished documented history the hotel has of entertaining spiritualists, mediums and psychics, which it still upholds to this very day.
During the 1880s the hotel allegedly turned into a Wild West type brothel and gambling house and many of the spirits and ghosts are thought to be from this era- when life was cheap and many of the women were abused or murdered. Room 17 is believed to contain the spirit of a woman from this period called Lucille (Lucy). It has been told that she was murdered by her pimp (a nasty spirit called Raymond that resides in room 22). She does not like men for obvious reasons and will physically assault them. Brave curious guest have strayed into this room only to find the door slam shut behind them and lock. They have then been witness to the worst in paranormal activity in all its physicality and raw and have subsequently run out of the hotel never to be seen or heard of again.
Interestingly two separate mediums, the previously mentioned Tim Baxton and respected Sauk Centre resident psychic Lisa Lee (without each others knowledge), both saw Lucy appear in room 17 and both independently gave the same account, both testifying that her appearance was that of being like a zombie, in a full state of decay. This has been the only time that either of them has ever seen a ghost manifest itself in this manner. Both are uneasy about going back into room 17 again for fear of a repeat showing.
Raymond does not treat women well and has issues with the owner of the hotel, Kelley Freese. True to historical beliefs he thinks a woman should not have the job of running a hotel and the responsibility that bring. She has felt his presence on many occasions and has been the target of his assaults and spirit bully boy tactics. To her credit she refuses to be intimidated and remains stoically defiant in the face of such activity.
The Palmer House Hotel was built at the beginning of the 20th century after the Sauk Centre House burnt to the ground in mysterious circumstances, the new hotel uses the same substructure and basement foundations as the old hotel, but that is where the similarities end. When the rebuilt hotel opened in 1901 it was the first hotel outside of Minneapolis to have electricity- all the switches had to be replaced after 6 months due to people just coming in and turning the lights on and off in an moment of awe and wonder. This Art Nouveau styled building that we can still see today with its imported Viennese stained glass windows, tin ceilings and carved butternut brown ornate staircase is a million miles away from the old but equally impressive Sauk Centre House. That boasted a cool white wooden structure that gleamed and loomed out of the dust and heat of a busy growing frontier town. With its Greek revival clean lines and graceful veranda, its pediment roofline, returning eaves and its wide raking boards, that inspired local Stearns County historian Bill Morgan to describe it as ‘a slice of New England grandeur set down on the Stearns County prairie’, an architectural gem in a then dystopic world.
To add to the historical paranormal soup of accidents, incidents, disease, illness, murder and Native American bloodshed is the energy and activity that any historical hotel brings. What is encapsulated within the square red brick walls of the Palmer House Hotel is a microcosm of humanity: people have been conceived there, people have been born there, people have been married there, people have worked there, eaten, drunk and slept there and people have died there, so subsequently people haunt there. Many of the entities I have encountered still think they are working there and are unhappy that my questions and equipment are getting in the way of them doing their job properly. There are beds to be made, dirty linen to wash, drinks to be served and stables to be swept and the strange Englishman is plainly getting in the way.
The new building did not diminish the history or the incidents either. In 1903 the outlaw Cole Younger of the Younger/James gang stayed. He spent all night smoking and drinking and telling stories in the lobby. The Palmer’s small son Carlisle fell asleep with his head on Younger’s lap whilst listening to the outlaw’s tales of murder and daring. Younger picked him up and carried him via the stairs to one of the rooms and tucked him into bed.
The first American to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, Sinclair Lewis, was employed in the Hotel in the summer of 1902 and 1903 as a bell hop and night clerk. He was very clumsy and broke many things in the hotel including the glass on a display case in the lobby (as described in his journal). He was so wrapped up in his embryonic writing that he missed giving an early morning wake up call, which meant that a businessman missed his train, for this he was fired. Lewis then wrote about the hotel in his seminal novel Main Street, calling it the Minniemashie Hotel. It is believed Lewis went down into the basement to write in his spare time and placed his work behind a loose stone for safe keeping. It has never been found but many people have looked. It is believed he still roams around the hotel but only responds to the name ‘Red’ or ‘Harry’.
In the 1950s a man is said to have hung himself in the bar, when it used to be a pool room, by jumping off one of the tables. This is where I have seen a full bodied apparition appear before my very eyes in a humanoid shape and walk right up to my face in a fog of diaphanous dirty grey smoke; this was witnessed at the time by a second investigator. Upon doing more research I discovered that Al Tingley, the owner of the hotel in the 1970s, published a book called The Corner of Main Street that described the same entity in one of its chapters. He saw the same smoky grey humanoid moving down the corridor on the first floor towards him. This apparition has been seen regularly from the 1950s and 60s onwards by guests and staff alike. An impressive shadow person was captured on film by the Minnesota Ghosts team on a separate investigation wandering around the same bar area.
The wife of Ralph Palmer (who built the Hotel) is Christena Palmer. She died in 1936, but she still resides in the hotel. I have had many conversations with her and we have become good friends. She will come through very strong and quickly on the ghost box if I ask for her. During one chat I asked her if she spelt her name Christena or Christina, as I had seen both ways written in historical texts. Much to the amazement of the team she clearly stated.
‘With an e’
I said thank you, from now on I will spell your name with an ‘e’, so it’s Christena Palmer, with an ‘e’.
In the early part of the last century many flu epidemics swept through Stearns County and many Sauk Centre residents lost their lives. The harsh Minnesotan winters render the frozen ground solid; burials were instigated by warming up the ground days before the burial by lighting a fire over where the grave was due to be dug. This was a difficult task to maintain during epidemics with so many dead, so it is believed the Palmer House basement was used as a makeshift morgue until such time the back log could be cleared.
One of the reasons the activity at the Palmer House is so well documented and is prominent in the minds of historians, guests and paranormal investigators is through the attitude, dedication and work of the owner Kelley Freese. She will sit with you for hours and discuss all of the rooms and her experiences and the experiences of others with great enthusiasm and zest and will even take you on a guided tour of the hotels inner workings, if she has the time away from running a fully functioning hotel, bar and restaurant. She feels it is her duty to look after the staff, both living and dead, and run the hotel so that the living and dead can work in harmony together, both getting on with what they need to do and both showing each other a healthy respect. Providing every opportunity in generations to come for the spirits to still have a place to reside and haunt, including all the outlaws, movie stars, authors, businessmen, tourists, honeymoon couples, fallen Indian warriors, barmen, prostitutes, bellhops, receptionists, kitchen staff, chamber maids, dish washers and craftsmen. This is not just a haunted hotel in the middle of the Mid West Plains in a small sleepy town, now by-passed by the transient traffic of Interstate 94; it is in fact a jewel in the crown of American social history; where paranormal investigators now make reservations in the hope of getting a bad night’s sleep.