The Unique Historic Auto Attraction Museum

Originally published in The Rock River Times. 

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A lot of people have collections. Some folks might collect salt and pepper shakers, others might like butterflies or tea cups or many other items.. But few have a collection like Wayne Lensing. Wayne collects automobiles. He has a lot of automobiles.

Wayne’s love of cars started when he was a young man. He worked at the Chrysler Plant in Belvidere for 16 years making cars and in his spare time, he raced them. As a racer at the Rockford Speedway, he collected winning titles.

Wayne would eventually expand his car obsession when he opened his own business, Lefthander Chassis. This dream grew into a very successful business. His success allowed him to expand his obsession with automobiles to include his obsession with aviation. This obsession would lead him to obtain his pilot license. Wayne grew so successful, people started to believe that everything he touched turned to gold.

So when Howard Hughes’ 1960 Cadillac Limousine went on the market, Wayne had to buy it. It was the start of what would, years later, become his own museum, the Historic Auto Attractions. Wayne would explain later that he noticed that people were interested in viewing the car and also in the history of the vehicle. Wayne decided that maybe other people might like to see his collection so he began to work on designing a museum.

The museum open its doors in 2001 with a 36,000 square foot facility and 60 cars and trucks. It would be just like Wayne’s other business ventures, a great success. The business was so good that in 2022 Wayne expanded his facility. He added another 50,000 square feet to showcase all of the vehicles and other artifacts he has collected throughout the years.

There are exhibits featuring cars from different eras. There are Presidential cars, gangster cars, and cars from TV shows and Movies. There is a huge exhibit all about the assassination of President Kennedy. It includes a car that carried the Secret Service men on that day in Dallas.

But this museum also includes so much more than automobiles, there are horse drawn carriages, and a wonderful collection of dresses worn by the First Ladies and movie stars. Each artifact has been carefully researched and placed in artistically designed exhibits. Extremely life-like mannequins are used to create authentic tableaus that capture moments in time.

It is easy to see that Wayne has a great fondness for each artifact. He knows the stories of each piece and can recite them by heart. His enthusiasm is as strong today as it was on the day the museum opened.

But Wayne got a little more than he bargained for with some of the items he has collected. And like some of the other museums in the area including Tinker Swiss Cottage, the Veteran Memorial Hall and the buildings of the Heritage Museum Park, these artifacts hold certain energies. And sometimes, this energy allows certain spirits to cross the veil between the living and the dead.

One of the items featured at this museum that has a darker history is a piece of the 1955 Porsche 550 that James Dean crashed on September 30, 1955. This little piece of history was featured on the TV show “Mysteries at the Museum” for Season 2. The story of the car supposedly features a curse. This curse was allegedly so strong that Dean’s friend Sir Alec Guinness was startled when he first saw the car. He told Dean that there was something wrong with the car. Guinness warned Dean that if he drove that car, that he would be dead in a week, Guinness’ premonition came true when exactly one week later Dean crashed the car on the way to a race in California.

The Haunted Rockford Crew has been investigating this museum with team members from the Midwest Ghost Investigators and Ghost Head Soup Paranormal Investigators for a while now. The teams work on a tri-fold approach when investigating locations. They have the historical research on the location and artifacts, they are accompanied by teams that use the latest equipment for gathering evidence of a possible haunting and they also use psychics that might be able to connect with the spirits.

These investigations have led to some exciting evidence at this particular museum. The investigators have witnessed footsteps, disembodied voices, and EVPs in the museum. They have also picked up words on equipment that answer specific questions asked by the different team members. These results are very exciting and have led the members to believe that the museum is definitely haunted.

When they reported their findings to Wayne, the down to earth, no nonsense man didn’t seem surprised. In fact, it seemed to make him even more determined to share his obsession with a greater variety of people. He has agreed to host some Haunted Rockford events at this very active location.

The Historic Auto Attractions is definitely a special place that offers something for everyone. Whether you are interested in automobile history, Hollywood history, or fashion history this place is worth visiting. And if you happen to love history AND paranormal locations, the sheer number of artifacts located here makes the possibility of having a ghostly encounter even more likely.


Copyright © 2023 Kathi Kresol, Haunted Rockford Events


Truesdell Bridge Disaster

Originally published in The Rock River Times.

Dixon, Illinois has always been an important city because it has been a crossing point for the Rock River for centuries. The first white settler in the area was a man of French descent named Ogee that built a cabin along the riverbank in 1828. One of Ogee’s major contributions was continuing a ferry that had been operated by the Native Americans that lived in the area for years. Ogee sold his land to John Dixon, who became the town’s namesake.

The first bridge to cross the Rock River at this point was built around 1846. Between 1846 and 1868, there were eight bridges built to cross the river at Dixon. These only lasted a few years each because of the periods of high water and flooding which brought large amounts of debris down the river. This debris smashed into the bridges causing them to break apart quickly.

Eventually, city officials decided to look for bridges designed with better materials that would outlast the wooden bridges. The proposal required a bridge that was six hundred sixty feet long. It would be quite an engineering marvel for that period.

City authorities looked at many different plans before finally deciding on a bridge made from iron that was designed by L.E. Truesdell from Massachusetts. Truesdell designed other bridges in Illinois but none of his previous projects were as long as the Dixon bridge required. Not all the people involved were convinced that Truesdell’s design was the best, but their doubts were silenced by the majority.


The bridge was built for a cost of $83,000.  It opened to great fanfare January 21, 1869, with music and a parade to highlight the accomplishment. Large loads were carried across the bridge to show the sturdiness of the design.

Four years later on May 4, 1873, all seemed well with the bridge. Reverend J. H. Pratt from the Baptist Church had scheduled a special event for the Baptist Church for that day. Pratt had been Reverend of the church for about nine years by 1873. This year his flock had brought in six new candidates to the church and the reverend wanted to highlight this success with a special occasion. He scheduled a mass baptism that would involve full-immersion in the river. People gathered all along the banks and onto the bridge for a chance to watch the ceremony. There were even families in carriages that stopped on the bridge.

One of the excited onlookers was 18-year old Clara Stackpole. Clara had a busy schedule that day but she brought her little sister Rosa to see the baptism. This was to be Clara’s last day in Dixon. She was moving to Chicago where she was scheduled to begin work as a teacher. It would be an understatement to say that Clara was excited. Her little sister, Rosa was only 10 years old in 1873. Both girls were well known with their community.

Another family that joined the crowd was part of the Dana family. Minnie Dana was 7 years old and attended with her mother’s sister, Agnes Nixon. Agnes was 17 years old and staying with the Dana family.

Most of the candidates that were being baptized that day were young women who had moved to the area to work in the factories. Their families came to take part in the event and were proudly watching the festivities. Later, it was estimated that at least 200 people lined the bridge for the event.

The first two baptisms went as expected. When the third woman stepped into the water and the choir began to sing once again, another sound rose. As the voices of the choir swelled a horrible shrieking noise rose above the music. At first the crowd stood stunned, confused by the sound that rose above all others. Then as the realization of what was actually happening rushed over them, the folks on the bridge began to move. The mass of people turned almost as one and made toward the closest bank. But they moved too late and only a handful on each end of the bridge escaped.

The iron tresses which had seemed so decorative only minutes before became like giant metal jaws as they closed down over the helpless people standing on the bridge. The jaws ripped flesh before it fell, dragging the victims into the water below. Over 175 people were dumped into the river.


Almost as soon as the shrieking of the bridge stopped, it was replaced by a sound even more terrible than the one before. Screams from family members filled the air as people began to realize what had just taken place. The screams were soon joined by the wails of the wounded.

Grown men were screaming for their children and wives, women that were there to witness their co-workers or friends welcomed into the house of God, fainted at the sight of the mangled bodies piled under the wreckage. Some witnesses were struck by the fact that one moment the day was bright and shining as if the heavenly gates were thrown open to celebrate this joyous occasion and the next moment it was as if the Angel of Death himself had spread his dark wings over everyone and everything.

Help began to arrive almost immediately. Men jumped in to save the survivors. Many victims were pulled up on the bank to safety. The injured were grabbed by others who carried them to the nearest houses to set up makeshift hospitals. Wooden planks from the bridge were used to pull both living and dead victims from the water. One man mentioned in the newspapers of the day was William Dailey who saved at least 16 people single handedly with a plank from the broken bridge.


The houses closest to the river were quickly filled with the injured, the dying and the dead. Family members staggered from house to house looking for their loved ones. Heartbreaking scenes took place of family members reunited after hours of searching after thinking all hope was lost, only to find their loved ones alive. And the other scenes, even more heart wrenching, of people searching through the crowds of survivors, only to find their family members laid out on the bank in the makeshift morgues.


Special machines arrived to help lift the wreckage so that they could search for the missing bodies with long lines containing grappling hooks at the end. After 11 days the last of the missing was found. One body, that of 17-year-old Lizzie Mackey was found by the dam in Sterling over 14 miles downstream of the accident.

Minnie Dana and her Aunt Agnes and the Stackpole sisters were in the mass of dead and dying caught in the river. Little Minnie was pulled out alive but died shortly afterwards. Her Aunt Agnes was found trapped in the metal work of the bridge. The men who were recovering the bodies were heartbroken at the sight of the victims, especially the young children like Rosa and Minnie. These men would talk of seeing the faces of the victims in their nightmares even years later.


It is no surprise that there was a lot of finger pointing after this disaster. One surprise though was the people who blamed the Baptist Church for the accident. The emotions against the Baptists rose so high that the newspaper felt the need to comment. “There are some people in this town—those in the habit of censuring Christians whenever they have an opportunity—who consider the Baptists, especially the Rev. J. H. Pratt, the minister who was immersing the converts, responsible for the accident. This is unfair …”

Reverend Pratt must have been devastated by the tragedy. He left the church in Dixon by the end of the year and moved away. He was brought back to Dixon ten years later to be buried in Oakwood Cemetery. In fact, he is buried near Clara and Rosa Stackpole.


The news of this accident spread quickly. The Dixon Sun reported that it had spread around the world by the next day. Some of the headlines in the different papers told the tale, “Baptism of Death” , “Dixon Horror”, “The Great Bridge Murder.”

This accident shut the town down for days. Businesses and schools stayed closed as folks mourned their dead. In the end, 46 people lost their lives. 37 of those that died were females while 9 were male. The focus in town was the cleanup and the churches were the busiest places in town as funerals were held for the victims.

A Coroner’s Jury was gathered the next day, but the emotions were so high on both sides that it was hard to determine where the true issue of blame should rest. Some blamed the City Council while others felt that the City authorities had been tricked by Truesdell. The Dixon Sun reported on May 7, ““Give no ear to those men who accuse their neighbors of murder, as stated in the Chicago Times. Many good men believed the Truesdell bridge to be a perfect structure, and were as honest in their belief as those who were of a contrary opinion. Scientific men and bridge builders knew the faults of the miserable structure; and the rotten iron of which it was built was well known to the rotten contractors.”

Truesdell never built another bridge. He opened a silver mine back east. It eventually failed. Truesdell died in 1890 and was buried in Massachusetts.


This year will mark the 150th Anniversary of this dark day in Dixon’s history. There are two different plaques on the riverwalk to honor those killed. Many articles have been written about this terrible event and they all contained many tales of heroic deeds conducted by ordinary men that would later say that only did what anybody else would have done. Though this tragedy took place so long ago, the courage and compassion demonstrated by those heroes, the survivors, and the family members of those lost is awe inspiring.



Mrs. P.M. Alexander, Dixon
Mrs. Peter Corney, Dixon
Miss Kate Sterling, Dixon
Miss Maggie O’Brien, Dixon
Miss Ida Vann, Dixon
Miss Agnes Nixon, Dixon
Miss Irene Baker, Dixon
Mrs. Col. H.T. Noble, Dixon
Miss Rosa Stackpole, Dixon
Mrs. Carpenter, Dixon
Frank Hamilton, Dixon
Mrs. William Cook, Nelson
Mrs. Peterborger and daughter, Dixon
Mrs. Thomas Wade, Dixon
Miss Mary Sullivan, Dixon
Mrs. Elias Hope
Mrs. Henry Sallman, Dixon
Jay H. Mason, Dixon
Thomas Haley, Dixon

Mrs. James Goble, Bloomington
Miss Melissia Wilholm, Nachusa
Mrs. Dr. Hoffman, Dixon
Miss Nettie Hitt, Dixon
Miss Ida Drew, Dixon
Miss Bessie Rayne, Chicago
Mrs. J.W. Latta, Dixon
Miss Clara Stackpole, Dixon
Mrs. Benjamin Gillman, Dixon
Daughter of J.P. Danna, Dixon
Miss Emily Deming, Dixon
Mrs. Merriman, Dixon
Mrs. C.W. Kentner, Dixon
Abram Hope, Dixon
Miss Catherine Foley, Dixon
Mrs. E. Wallace, Dixon
George W. Kent, Dixon
Robert Dyke, Dixon


Copyright © 2023 Kathi Kresol, Haunted Rockford Events

Local Rockford Ties To A Horrible Tragedy

Originally published in The Rock River Times.

On July 24, 1915, Grace Stevens was more excited than she could remember. She was getting ready for her company picnic. Grace worked for the Chicago based Western Electric Company for the past three years and considered herself lucky to have secured such a position.

Grace was born in 1891 in Fond Du Lac, Wisconsin. Her family moved to the Rockton, Illinois area where her parents, Winfield and Belle rented a farm. Winfield passed away in 1907 when he was 48 and the family moved to Rockford to look for work. Grace’s brother Alvey seemed to have trouble finding a job. It must have seemed like the family’s fortunes had finally turned when Grace got the job with the Western Electric Company in 1912. The family moved to Chicago when Grace was offered the job.

Western Electric had quite a reputation for splurging on their employees for their annual party. This was a highlight of the year for most of these workers. It meant a special treat for the whole family for the married folks. As far as the non-married employees were concerned, it was an opportunity to meet other eligible men and women. The single women got together to shop for new dresses and hats. They also would help style each other’s hair and to dress.

The company hired five boats to carry their workers across Lake Michigan to Michigan City for the day. They warned folks to arrive early, and Grace took the warning to heart. She waited for her turn to walk up the gangplank and board the U.S.S. Eastland, the first boat scheduled to leave the dock from downtown Chicago. Even though it was just a little after 7:00 in the morning, the celebration had already begun. There was a band playing as the passengers walked onboard. People boarding were shouting and waving to folks already on the ship.

Over 7,000 tickets were sold for this day-long excursion and the crew of the Eastland made sure that every available space was filled. They were even federal inspectors along to make sure of the count for each ship. The 275-foot boat normally carried 2,500 passengers plus the crew but on this day the number reached higher.

Some of the families with younger children headed below decks so the little ones couldn’t wander off in the party-like atmosphere on the deck. Up top, folks were scrambling for seats and leaning on the rails to wave to the people left on the dock.

By 7:15 a.m., the ship was filled to capacity and though the passengers didn’t notice, it had begun to list away from the wharf. The ship listed only for a short while this time but within a few more minutes, the first of a long list of small warning signs began.

By 7:23 a.m., the Eastland began to list once again. This time, water started to enter the engine room and some of the crew climbed up ladders to the main deck. Within a few more minutes, the list had shifted to 45 degrees. Furniture began to slide, causing injuries to some of the passengers. Water also poured into the portholes in the cabins below. Each of these incidents would lead to one of the worst shipwrecks in the history of the Great Lakes.

The next time the Eastland started to list, she didn’t stop. The boat rolled slowly onto its side, the people on deck were thrown into the water. Their clothes soon weighed them down making it impossible to tread water. Folks below deck were trapped in their rooms, as doors and passageways were blocked by shifting furniture. Whole families tried to make their way off the sinking ship as the water poured inside.

One eyewitness said that after the boat flipped there was a full minute of silence, like no one could believe what they had just seen. Then the screams began. By 7:30 that morning, the boat was completely on its side in 20 feet of water, still tied to the dock. It had rolled over so quickly, there was no time to use the life-saving equipment that was on the Eastland.

This was a busy Saturday morning and hundreds if not thousands of people were on the docks conducting business. They quickly began to pull folks from the water almost immediately. There was no lack of heroes on this day.


The water was a mass of people trying to stay afloat. There was a lot of chaos as the air filled with shouting and screaming. One eyewitness, Harlan Babcock, was a reporter for the Chicago Herald. He stated in his article about the tragedy, “In an instant, the surface of the river was black with struggling, crying, frightened, drowning humanity. Wee infants floated about like corks.”

One can only imagine the horror of the moment as parents tried to save their children and spouses, only to watch as they slipped under the water for the final time. Later, many of these family members would be found clasped in each other’s arms. The survivors would mention the sounds of people’s screams. Even years later, they would talk of hearing those screams in their nightmares.

Men with boats launched them to save as many survivors as they could reach. Others pulled the injured ones from the wreckage and commandeered cars and wagons to take them to local hospitals.

One of the many selfless helpers on this July day was Helen Repa.  Helen was on the way to the docks to catch one of the boats for the outing. She was a nurse who worked for Western Electric. She jumped aboard a passing ambulance and made her way quickly to the docks. She, too, mentioned the sounds of screaming. Helen rushed onto the hull of the overturned ship to help pull the survivors from the water and through the portholes of the ship. Some were badly injured. Helen arranged for blankets to be sent from the nearby Marshall Fields Store. She also called local restaurants and had them bring soup and hot coffee to the scene and to the hospitals for the staff.

In the end 844 people died in the disaster, including 22 whole families. The dead were carried to the Second Regiment Armory which had been turned into a makeshift morgue. The dead were lined up rows so their family members could walk down the aisle to find their loved ones. Unfortunately, some folks who came through were more interested in grabbing jewelry from the corpses than helping identify them.


One of the dead was Grace Stevens. Her mother and brother had to walk up and down the aisles of the dead until they could find her.

The investigation of the sinking of the Eastland started even before all the dead were removed from the area. There were many aspects to the investigation of this ship. This was only a few years after the sinking of the Titanic. One of the changes that had resulted from that tragedy was that every boat needed enough lifeboats to carry 75% of the people onboard. The Eastland carried 11 lifeboats, 37 life rafts and 2.570 life preservers to accommodate for their passengers. Since the boat had been made in 1902, before this new rule, all these items needed to fit somewhere. The crew eventually stored all these items on the deck causing it to become top heavy.

This would surely have contributed to the sinking that day, but the Eastland had its share of issues even before the new rules.  In fact, some sailors claimed the ship was cursed from the start and called her a “hoo doo vessel”. Several good books have been written about the sinking and mention close calls through the years. One such near disaster took place in 1904, when she had 3,000 people onboard and another in 1906 with 2,530 passengers. One crew member described the Eastland like riding a bicycle, “wobbly at first, then steady as she got underway.”

Donations for the families poured into the American Red Cross and they disbursed the money to the family members after an interview with each family. Belle and Alvey Stevens were given $102.00 from Grace’s life insurance, $126.00 from Emergency Relief, and $630 from donations. (In today’s money it would be about 20,000.)

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The Western Electric Company also changed its hiring practice after the tragedy and gave first priority to anyone who had a family member killed in the accident. Alvey was given his sister’s spot in the company.

The headlines of the local newspapers mentioned this hometown girl who had been killed in the horrible tragedy. They also mentioned that her mother and brother traveled with Grace’s body so they could lay her to rest beside her father in the Rockton Cemetery.

Despite research, there are no records to tell of what happened to Alvey and Belle after Grace’s death. Neither is mentioned in the records for the Rockton cemetery.




Copyright © 2023 Kathi Kresol, Haunted Rockford Events


The Strange Fate Of Mary Jonas

Originally published in The Rock River Times.


Mary Jonas lived in the Kickapoo, Wisconsin area for years with her family. They owned 160 acres that ran along the Kickapoo River. Her father, John and mother, Elizabeth brought their family to Wisconsin around the late 1850’s.

The family was typical for the settlements in the area of the time. They moved their way across the Midwest, farming and looking for a place to set down their roots. The Jonas’ had three children, two boys and a girl, who helped their parents break the land and build the farm.

William was the oldest boy and by the 1860’s he was married and started his own family. He died of disease while serving in the Wisconsin Volunteers during the Civil War.

The patriarch of the family, John passed away in February of 1890. The remaining son, Daniel decided to move to Missouri leaving Mary and her mother to run the farm all by themselves. When Elizabeth became too crippled for Mary to help, she followed Daniel to Missouri. Mary made the decision to stay in Wisconsin to work the family farm.

Mary struggled with what she felt was her duty to her father’s wishes for the family farm and her loneliness for her family. She rented out the land to neighboring farmers and filled her time with gardening and visiting with the neighboring wives. But her loneliness for her family grew.

All this put Mary in a vulnerable position. That is exactly what one of her neighbors, Samuel Buxton was counting on. Samuel worked for Mary on and off for years and knew that her father left her in a good financial condition.

Samuel also knew that Mary was superstitious and that the whole family had believed in curses and hexes. Mary’s father, John was born in Pennsylvania and would share stories of the power of the witches in the east. He told Mary that whole families had come to ruin when cursed by those who followed the devil. These stories had a great impact on Mary, and she grew fearful that she would come under a witch’s spell.

Samuel Buxton knew all of this and decided that he would use it to his advantage. In 1891, Samuel brough a series of letters to Mary, claiming that he had found on the edges of her property. The letters were filled with horrible graphic descriptions of all kinds of depravity. He told Mary that they had been left by a witch and that he could help protect her from the evil curse that the witch would place upon her.

Mary was so grateful to Samuel that eventually, she fell in love with him. They began an affair that would last for three years. Even though they were lovers, Mary paid Samuel handsomely for his help to keep the evil at bay.

For his part, Samuel made sure that Mary believed that the witch was still around.  He did this with more letters, strange relics made from twigs, and by strange knockings and thumping on the side of Mary’s house.  After these “attacks”, Mary would summon Samuel who would prefer a ritual that would chase the witch away for a while at least.

Mary would often talk of her love for Samuel and of wishes that they could marry. Samuel grew tired of his mistress and her increasing demands that he leave his wife. So, he decided that he would use the witch one last time to help himself of Mary.

Samuel came to Mary and told her that the witch had offered to help Mary get her heart’s desire. In order to win the heart of her beloved, she needed only to fake a hanging. By hanging herself “just a bit”, she would cause the death of Samuel’s wife and then he would be hers forever.

Mary was overjoyed and agreed to Samuel’s evil plan. They practiced the hanging for several weeks until Mary grew more comfortable with the rope around her neck. Finally in November of 1894, Samuel decided that the day had arrived and went through the now familiar ritual.  This time he moved the chair a little further away from Mary so she could barely reach it. As she began to struggle for air, he broke down and put the stool back under her feet, sparing her.

When he returned a few days later he told Mary that when he reached his house, his wife was unconscious on the floor. He emphasized his belief their plan would work. They need only go a little farther into the hanging.

One can only speculate what was going through both of their minds in the time it took to prepare the ritual.  Mary must have been so torn between happiness that she would finally have Samuel for herself and having to kill for that to happen. Or maybe she told herself that it was the witch that was committing the killing. While Samuel was obviously looking forward to being done with Mary.

Mary stepped up on the stool and put the noose around her neck. The last thing she saw was Samuel reach over and move the chair completely away from her reach.  He stood in the room and watched her struggle. When it seemed to be taking too long, he wrapped his arms around her legs and pulled until she stopped moving.


Neighbors noticed that Mary wasn’t out doing chores for a couple of days. When they went to check on her they found Mary hanging from the rope. Though Samuel spent time setting up the room to look like a suicide, they were a few things that troubled the authorities.

The chair was the main clue that troubled Sheriff Silbaugh, the man in charge of solving the crime. Usually in suicides the chair would be knocked over. This chair was set back a few feet but still upright. There were several items missing from the house including $300.00 and a special watch given to Mary by her father. The way the rope was tied also bothered the man put in charge of solving the mystery. When he testified to the Coroner’s Jury, they came back with a “death at the hands of persons unknown” ruling.


That person wouldn’t stay unknown for long.  Mary’s brother, Daniel traveled up from Missouri to make sure the authorities got justice for his sister. He told them every detail that his sister had shared in her letters. When the authorities questioned the surrounding neighbors, they too stated that Buxton had been visiting Mary at all hours of the day and night.

Mary had saved all of the letters from Buxton and the witch, so the authorities had all the proof they needed to arrest him. Mary’s neighbors and friends were outraged and formed a vigilante posse and marched upon the jail at Viroqua where Samuel was being held. The Sheriff had to smuggle Buxton out the back to save him from a lynching. He was kept in Sparta to await his trial.

The trial lasted long enough for the judge to sentence Buxton to life in prison. He was sent to the Wisconsin State Prison in Waupun, Wisconsin. He died there on June 27, 1900 and was buried in an unmarked grave.

This story was reported in papers all over the United States from New York to San Antonio, Texas.


Copyright © 2022 Kathi Kresol, Haunted Rockford Events

Legends and Lies — Charles Wright

Originally published in The Rock River Times.


Legends are by their very nature mysteries that can’t be proven either true or false. They spring from thin air, mostly fictional renditions of some story that one person heard from another person. Most times, everyone who hears it adds their own embellishments to the tale until it scarcely resembles the original story.

Sometimes these legends are based on actual facts that can be proven and other times, they are completely fabricated. One thing that fascinates folks who study legends and lore of a region is how quickly they spread. And how slow they are to fade even when facts disprove their validity.

There is a local legend that is a perfect example of one of these types of stories. It involves a grave located in Rockton Cemetery in Rockton, Illinois. The cemetery itself was officially established in 1857 but contains graves going back to 1847. Find a grave contains quite a bit of information about a lot of the people buried here. This author is always extremely grateful to those who spend their time researching and documenting the burials in these small cemeteries. They have saved a lot of stories that would have been lost a long time ago if not for their dedication to local history.

It is the fact that there has been so much documentation at this cemetery that makes the legend even more mysterious. The legend has been circulating for at least 20 years and it is based on a baby’s grave that is contained within a small fenced area.

The story shared for two decades is that a young woman who lived in Rockton in the 1854-55 time period was deemed a witch by the townsfolk. The young lady became pregnant though she had no boyfriend or husband at the time. The baby died at about 10 months old under very mysterious circumstances. According to some versions of the story, the young mother sacrificed her own baby as an offering to the devil.

Shortly after the baby died, folks started seeing strange lights and shadows moving through that portion of the cemetery. Others claimed to hear wailing and feeling an intense cold near the grave. The fence was allegedly placed to keep the evil that surrounded the grave cordoned off in an attempt to contain the spirits of the young witch or her demon child from wandering. The legend states that the young woman was forced to flee her home on the edge of town in the middle of winter and succumbed to the elements. She was not buried in the cemetery because of her alliance with the devil and her spirit can be seen on the edges of the cemetery trying to get in to be united with her child.

Modern day visitors have written accounts of their visits to the small cemetery and told stories of feeling intense sadness and also anger. They have picked flowers from inside the fenced area and then the flowers wilted and dried right before their eyes. Some have also picked the beautiful flowers as a memento only to notice on the return ride home that those same flowers became infested with insects crawling all over the petals.

There are some who visit here who leave presents for the baby. The grave is covered with stuffed animals, cars, and other child appropriate gifts. But other things are left within the fenced area, too. Macabre skeletons, creepy postcards, and cans of alcoholic beverages line the grave.

The Haunted Rockford Crew has been visiting this grave for a while now and has researched the claims and the actual history of the baby and his family. The crew has had their own experiences and were surprised to learn the real truth of the haunting of this grave.


The child buried here was not born out of wedlock. His name was Charles Wright and his parents were James and Elizabeth. They were married in Winnebago County in 1849 and settled in Rockton Township where James worked as a blacksmith. By the time Charles was born in February 1855, the couple already had a son George and a daughter named Mary. Charles died in December 1855 at the age of 10 months old. According to the Find a Grave website, Charlie’s grave was being dug up by the wild animals in the area and the fence was placed there in 1857 to keep them out.

Child mortality was high in the 1850’s and parents feared the loss of their children just as much then as they do now. Records indicate that the Wright family must have planned to stay in the Rockton area because James bought five additional plots in the cemetery. They must have thought they would be around to visit the grave and to protect it.

The records of who was buried in three of the additional graves have been lost. The other two contain the graves of Mr. Paul Dalee who died in 1868 and his wife Mary whose death date is unknown. They are thought to have been family members of James and Elizabeth.

Neither James or Elizabeth are buried next to their child. They moved from this area and by 1870 were living in California with George, Mary and two twin boys who were born after Charlie.


James and Elizabeth may have been buried a long way from their little baby boy. But the couple does not rest in peace. The Haunted Rockford crew psychics were able to communicate with Charlie’s parents and find out the truth. James and Elizabeth are tormented by the legend that has been told and retold about their family. Elizabeth was never accused of witchcraft and the fact that the family was in the area for at least 5 years after Charlie’s death shows that the legend as it is told is untrue.

The feelings of utter sadness and anger do come from spirits but not for the reasons stated in the legend. They spring from the anguish of a young mother and father who have watched as people visited their baby’s grave. They appreciate the kindness of those who bring appropriate gifts for their beloved little boy. But it is those who bring the inappropriate gifts and talk of Elizabeth being a witch who would sacrifice her own child to the devil that frustrate and enrage James and Elizabeth. It traps them there and causes them to haunt the cemetery. They feel like those kinds of people desecrate their child’s grave and their family’s memory.

The Haunted Rockford Crew made a promise to Elizabeth and James to tell the true story behind the haunting in the Rockton Cemetery. Legends like this one die hard and we know that this one story is not going to stop folks from believing a tale that has been made up and
embellished upon for decades. But we will keep visiting little Charlie and hope that eventually we can set the record straight and bring this family the peace it deserves.





Copyright © 2022 Kathi Kresol, Haunted Rockford Events


Mary E. Holland

Originally published in The Rock River Times.


When local farmer John McDougall knocked on the door of Margaret Grippen’s home on April 29, 1909, he couldn’t know that he was about to be swept up in the worst crime ever seen in the small town of Winnebago, Illinois.

Margaret Grippen was a 60-year-old widow and had lived in Winnebago with her husband, Demus for many years. The couple were farmers and when Demus died in 1895, he left Margaret in good financial standing. The newspapers of the day told of Margaret’s fears that something terrible would happen to her. Her house set near the both the railroad line and the interurban line and this caused the old lady concern.

The night that Margaret was murdered there was a fierce spring storm that kept all of her neighbors inside. The heavy rain and almost continuous thunder covered the sounds of her screams as she fought for her life.

Coroner McAllister was shocked at the damage that had been done to the elderly woman. By the condition of her body and the damage done to the inside of her home, he could state that Margaret had fought hard for her life on that stormy night..

The only real clue that was left by the killer was found on a glass chimney from a lantern. The lantern had been set on the floor by Margaret’s body and covered with one of the lady’s shawls in hopes that this would set a fire to the home. But that is not what happened. Some called it divine intervention when they discovered that the shawl had actually smothered the flame of the lantern. When the chimney was examined, authorities found three blood stained fingerprints.

Fingerprinting was just beginning to used in the country at this time. In 1904, one of the country’s only instructors was Detective John Kenneth Ferrier, an inspector at Londan’s New Scotland Yard. Ferrier was traveling the country and during 1904, he was demonstrating the art of fingerprinting at the World’s Fair in St.Louis. Two of his pupils were owners of the Holland Detective Agency in Chicago, Illinois. Phil and his wife Mary attended the Fair and met Ferrier. Fascinated by the science of fingerprinting, Mary decided to join Ferrier for classes.


This was extremely significant and unusual for this time period. Women were not usually allowed to take part in actual investigations. But Mary Holland was not your typical woman. She would eventually visit London and learn the fingerprint technique called the Henry Classification System. This system used a counting system for the whorls, ridges and loops to identify criminals. Authorities would obtain suspect’s fingerprints along with other identifying features and keep them on file. When a crime was committed and fingerprints were left, the authorities would spend hours comparing the known criminals prints to their samples.

At the time of the Grippen murder, Mary Holland was one of the top fingerprint experts in the country. In 1907, she was hired by the United States Navy as one of the first professional fingerprint trainers. Mary traveled all over the country to teach members of the Military and Police forces how to collect, store and compare fingerprints.

The fact that the authorities reached out to Mary Holland with the evidence from Margaret’s murder speaks to the dedication they had to solve this case. Mary began her work by comparing the collected prints to thousands of already processed fingerprints on file in Chicago.

She worked many long hard hours, bent over the prints with her magnifying glass but could find no match. Mary then sent the fingerprints on to other Police Bureaus in the midwest to see if they had a match in their files.

Mary became completely absorbed by Margaret’s murder and decided that she needed to see the crime scene for herself. Mary had been involved with murders before but she would later state that nothing she had witnessed up to that time could prepare her for the scene that she found in the Grippen home. The entire hallway was smeared with Margaret’s blood from the attack and more had been cast off the iron as the murderer brought it down on Margaret’s face time after time.


Mary Holland’s next move was to fingerprint the men of first Winnebago and then Rockford. m. She and the men that assisted her, gathered and compared the fingerprints of 1,000 men. The people who knew and loved the elderly victim were only too glad to give up their fingerprints to help catch  the killer.

Unfortunately, though every avenue was explored, the owner of those three bloody fingerprints was never found. Mary Holland worked this case to the best of her ability and the fact that she didn’t solve it, never left her. She would go on to consult with authorities in some of the country’s worst crimes and put many criminals behind bars. This amazing woman who earned herself the name “the most famous woman detective of her time”, would remain haunted by Margaret’s murder. Her greatest fear in all her cases would be that if she did not catch these killers then someone else would die.

Margaret Grippen’s murder has never been solved. Mary E. Holland died on March 27,1915.


Copyright © 2022 Kathi Kresol, Haunted Rockford Events


Screams In The Night

Originally published in The Rock River Times.


The police didn’t know what they would find when they arrived at the old building on South Main Street. It was around 1:00 a.m. on October 24, 1972, when they got an anonymous tip that there was screaming coming from the old Capri Theater on South Main Street. The theater was not in use anymore but the upper floors of the three-story building had been converted into apartments.

It was inside one of those apartments that the police found a horrific sight. On the floor just inside the door was a nude body of a young lady. The woman had been beaten so badly that there was a 2 foot puddle of blood surrounding her head. The coroner would later state that her cause of death came from trauma with a weapon (such as an axe or hatchet) that was “wielded by a strong hand”. That weapon had shattered the girl’s skull.

The police did not find very many clues at the apartment. The young woman had some hair clutched in her hand and there were bloody shoe prints leading out of the door and down the stairs.

The police were able to identify the girl quickly as 18-year old Karen Camper. The manager of the apartments recognized the body. He told police that the girl had lived there in the same apartment with her boyfriend for over a year but the couple had moved out weeks before.

Karen had broken off the relationship with that boyfriend, Lawrence Mathis, Jr. She moved back into her parent’s house which was located on nearby Knowlton Street. The police went to break the news to her family. Albert and Mattie Camper were distraught on hearing the news of their daughter’s murder. Albert had to fight back the tears as he tried to give the police the information they needed.


Albert proudly pointed to the art pieces scattered around the room. “She did all of this herself”. He went on to tell the officers of how impressed Karen’s teachers were with her artwork and grades. Karen attended school at Muldoon High School until it closed in 1970.  She tried Boylan for a time, then transferred to East High School and that seemed a better fit. “They (the teachers) did everything they could to keep her in school. One teacher at East was working to get Karen a scholarship for college.”

But Karen had fallen for an older man and dropped out of high school just months before she would have graduated. Albert told the police that it was like this man controlled Karen’s mind. Karen’s mother stated that it was like she was two different people. Sometimes Karen enjoyed spending time with her family bowling, playing tennis and baking wonderful desserts. And other times, Karen spent time with the older man and made bad choices, doing things her parents never thought she would do. They could not understand the hold this man had on their daughter.

The older man was 27 year old Lawrence Mathis Jr. Karen’s parents didn’t like the fact that he was so much older than their daughter. But against their advice Karen moved into the apartment over the old Capri Theater with Mathis. Mathis was an unemployed painter and the couple struggled to make ends meet. They couldn’t pay their bills and soon began to look for other ways to get money.

In May of 1972, Karen was arrested when she was caught with U.S. Treasury checks that had signatures that had been forged. She entered the Wayne Western Auto store and cashed one of the forged checks. Karen was accompanied by a man but he had taken off running when it was obvious that the cashier was suspicious. Witnesses saw the man toss something into a trash can. When the police searched the can and found 7 more U.S. Treasury checks and 5 identification cards.

When the police found Mathis, they recovered four more checks in his possession during the arrest. Mathis and Karen were supposed to be in Federal Court in Freeport to face those charges before Karen’s murder but failed to show up. Bench warrants had been issued for both Karen and Mathis. The police wondered if that could be a possible motive for Karen’s murder and decided they needed to question Mathis.

It took police 19 hours to find Mathis and bring him in for questioning. He was bound over for a Grand Jury by Judge John Nielsen. The judge made his decision after he heard the statement of a man who was with Karen and Mathis on the night of the murder. This man stated that he dropped Mathis and Karen at the old apartment and was supposed to pick them up an hour later. When the man returned, he heard a scream as he approached the apartment. He knocked on the door and it opened. He didn’t see anything at first because the room was dark. But then he stepped in the room and his feet kicked something. When he looked down, he saw Karen’s naked body on the floor. When asked if he recognized the girl on the floor the man said it was Karen. The attorney then asked what she had on. The man stated, “She didn’t have nothing on her but blood.”

Though Mathis originally claimed he was innocent of the charges against him, in March of 1973, he changed his plea to guilty. Chief Circuit Judge Albert O’Sullivan sentenced Mathis to 20 to 40 years in prison for the murder of Karen Camper.

Assistant State’s Attorney Robert Gemignani laid the case out for the judge and stated that he believed the motive in the murder of Karen might be that Mathis feared that Karen would testify against him in the trial for the forgery charges. Since the checks were U.S. Treasury checks it was a federal case and could carry serious consequences for Mathis. Mathis was given the chance to respond to Gemignani’s statements but he declined.

The pretty, talented, young girl who showed some much potential that her parents were sure she would make her mark on the world was laid to rest in a grave on a small hill in Cedar Bluff Cemetery. Albert would join his daughter in the family plot in 2006.



Copyright © 2022 Kathi Kresol, Haunted Rockford Events

Rockford Public Library: 150 Years Of Service

Originally published in The Rock River Times.

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The Rockford Public Library is celebrating one hundred-fifty years of service to the Rockford Community this year. This seems like good time to share some of the tales of its history. One of the favorite stories is about the beautifully carved wooden dog that was part of the Rockton Centre Branch for decades.

This work of art was carved in Switzerland over one hundred years ago. It was brought to Rockford by Robert and Nellie Rew. Their story is like many who traveled to Rockford to build a better life.

Robert was born in 1853 in England to Mary Rew. When he was still a child, he came to the United States. Robert’s early history is a little harder to discover than when he became an adult. He would become  a citizen of the United States in 1876.

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Robert met Nellie Goodwin in High School when they both were part of the graduating class of Rockford High School of 1873. Robert went off to college at Northwestern where he studied to become a teacher.

Nellie was born here in Rockford. Her parents were Adelia and Azro Goodwin and they were considered to be pioneers of early Rockford. Azro grew up in poverty and worked very hard to put himself through medical school where he graduated with honors. Azro started his medical career in Clintonville, New York and it was there that he wed Adelia Fields on July 8,1852. They moved to Rockford in 1854 into a home at 726 Jefferson Street. Azro and Adelia quickly became popular in early Rockford’s Society. By 1857, he was the Assistant Health Officer for the city and also maintained a large medical practice.

When the Civil War broke out in 1861, Azro enlisted as an officer in the 11th Infantry Division and then joined the 108th Division. Azro was appointed the title of Assistant Surgeon for the battlefields. Azro’s regiment was sent to Vicksburg where he was horribly wounded in the stomach. Azro would suffer from this wound the rest of his life.

After the war, he was elected as the Postmaster for Rockford and also served as one of the first members of the Rockford Public Library Board of Trustees. He was part of the group of local doctors that requested a charter for a hospital from the secretary of state of Illinois which was granted December 15, 1883. Rockford’s first hospital, Rockford Memorial, opened in 1885 in the former home of Dr. William H. Fitch on the corners of South Court and Chestnut Streets.

Nellie’s Father AE Goodman

Azro must have been impressed with Robert’s hard work in school and his dedication to the community. He agreed when Robert requested Nellie’s hand in marriage. The young couple married on October 18, 1879. Robert had worked his way up from a teacher to the principal of West High School by the time of the wedding. The couple settled into Nellie’s childhood home.

They had no children of their own but served the city in other ways. Robert would eventually become a lawyer and built a very successful law firm here. He would serve as a respected member of the Winnebago County Bar for fifty-one years. Robert also served as Rockford’s Mayor from 1917 through 1921. It speaks volumes about Robert’s character that he would run for mayor during such a traumatic time. There must have been many challenges for our city during the war years including building Camp Grant and facing the Spanish Influenza outbreak.

Robert Rew-w

Nellie was an accomplished young lady in her own right. She was very involved with the rights of women, children and animals. She founded a chapter of the Illinois Humane Society for Winnebago County. Nellie would serve as secretary for the society for over 40 years. She would give presentations to sold out crowds about the places that she and Robert visited in their many travels.

It was on one of these trips to Switzerland that Nellie and Robert purchased the beautiful carved dog. He was displayed on the grand staircase landing in their home on Fifth Street. The area looks very different now than when Nellie and Robert lived there. It was a residential area with carefully tended gardens. In fact, there was once was a park in front of their home.

Nellie later gave the dog to the Rockford Public Library in honor of her father. Nellie died in 1926 and was buried in Cedar Bluff Cemetery at the top of the hill. Robert joined her after his death in 1934. Their tombstone reads “Until Day Breaks.”

Julian Poorman Funeral Home

After Robert passed away, the home on 5th Street became the Julian Poorman Funeral Home and has served families in Rockford for many years. The house is over a hundred years old now. Most people pass it without ever wondering about the family who lived there.,

The carved dog was displayed at the Main Branch of the Rockford Public Library for well over thirty years. At first, the dog sat on the landing that ascended on both sides of the central lobby. When the library was renovated, places to display the dog were eliminated and it was kept in storage for many years. Eventually, sometime around 1963, it was decided to make Rockton Centre Library Branch his home. Patrons seemed pleased to see him there. Many of them shared the stories of seeing the dog as children and then bringing their own children in to visit him. It is easy to tell the spots that have been worn on the dog’s nose and head from generations of Rockford children petting him.

The dog stayed at Rockton Centre Branch until 2021 when that library closed. It seemed fitting to move this library icon to the beautiful Montague Branch, now the oldest Rockford Public Library location. As Rockford Public Library celebrates its next chapter with the building of a new Main Library, it is comforting that this familiar face will continue to greet the patrons as he has for generations.


Copyright © 2022 Kathi Kresol, Haunted Rockford Events

Lonely Struggle — Charles Patterson

Originally published in The Rock River Times.


The young man walking through the little cemetery wasn’t the least bit frightened on that chilly November night. Not at first anyway. Britton Thorsen’s father was the Sexton for the Newark Cemetery and he spent many hours there. Britton would later say that he had always found the cemetery to be very peaceful. All that changed as the 17-year-old Britton approached the cemetery’s small building that at times was used as a chapel.

He stopped in his tracks as his brain struggled to comprehend what it saw in the dim light. It was a young man’s body and Clinton could tell that the death was not a natural one. The body was face down and there was a wound in his head. Britton had a good idea of the young man’s identity. Charles F. Patterson had been missing from Beloit College since the previous Wednesday, November 15, 1933. The word of his disappearance had spread all over southern Wisconsin and northern Illinois.

Charles F. Patterson was 19 years old and a junior at Beloit College. He was a good student and involved in many clubs including sports, photography, and business groups. He belonged to the Beta Theta Pi Fraternity. The fraternity was established in 1860, and was the oldest on the Beloit campus. Charles appeared happy and well-adjusted to campus life.  A popular boy, he always seemed surrounded by friends. A fact that was proven when large groups of students showed up to search for him on the several days he was missing.

Charles was seen leaving his fraternity house in the morning of November 15, 1933.  He had a car at the school but left it parked in front of the fraternity house that morning. But this was just the beginning of this mystery. When Charles did not return that evening his friends and fraternity brothers reported him missing to the college President, Irving Maurer.

Charles Follett Patterson graduated in 1931 from New Trier High School in Winnetka, Illinois.  He worked hard through his high school years and was considered one of the top students from his class. He pledged and was accepted into the Beta Theta Pi Fraternity at Beloit College. It would be these fraternity brothers that would later carry Charles’ coffin to Eaton Chapel where his service would be held.

Friends described Charles as very organized, a deep thinker, and a gentle soul. He had a great work ethic and was very successful in his school work. His parents were very proud of Charles and very touched that he wrote home so often.


It was Maurer who notified Charles’ parents that he was missing. They lived in Jackson, Michigan with his sister, Jean.  The police began the search immediately but soon, Charles’ family and many friends came to help. Charles had gone to high school in Winnetka, Illinois and still had many friends there. It speaks volumes about this young man’s character that people flocked to help search for him.

All who knew him were baffled first by his disappearance and then by his death. When young Britton found Charles in the Newark Cemetery on that Sunday evening, it really only answered one question, “Where was Charles?”  On the other hand, it led to so many more.

When Charles’ body was recovered, the men who were sent to retrieve his corpse discovered a .22 caliber handgun underneath. The police who were working on the theory that Charles might have met with foul play now changed their minds. Their focus now became on gathering evidence of why Charles would commit suicide. The police met with a lot of resistance to their new theory. The thought that Charles had hurt himself was incomprehensible to everyone who knew him.

When police recovered and later tested the gun, they discovered that it had recently been fired three times. The fatal bullet entered his right temple and exited under his left cheek bone.

Police worked hard to interview the many friends and classmates of the young man. Again, the interviews brought more questions than answers. No one who knew Charles believed that he would ever hurt himself. But one of his teachers stated that during the previous six weeks, Charles seemed quieter and his grades had slipped. His fraternity brothers mentioned that Charles was worried about something but wouldn’t tell them any details. Whatever was worrying Charles didn’t seem that serious to any of his friends.

The police interviews found a couple of men who saw a young man walking on the same afternoon that Charles went missing.  Eric Thorsen worked as the sexton at the Newark Cemetery and was the father of the young man who discovered Charles’ body. Thorsen and another man stated that they spotted a young man walking in the direction of the cemetery. It was 16 miles from Charles’ dorm room to the little cemetery, and the time given by the two men didn’t allow for Charles to walk to the spot he was seen. Police tried to find someone who might have given Charles a ride but no one ever came forward.

Police were hopeful when they realized that there was a house nearby the little cemetery. They hoped to narrow down the time of death. But when they interviewed the family that lived in the house, the mystery once again deepened.  The family had been home during the evening but never heard a shot, let alone three. Police never recovered any evidence of the other two bullets.

Charles’ funeral was hosted by Eaton Chapel at Beloit College. His heartbroken parents, Charles and Emma and his sister Jean, attended the service. They found some comfort in the fact that over 500 students came to pay their respects. Many of the students approached the family and spoke of the things they admired about Charles.  Things like the fact that he was a hard worker, a good role model for the underclassmen, and that he had accomplished so much in his short life. But no one could tell them what they really needed to hear. No one could answer the question that they needed answered. They left shortly after the ceremony.

There were so many questions left unanswered when Charles died. The mystery of this young man’s death will remain forever unsolved.

Beloit College President Maurer spoke eloquently at Charles’ funeral and put it much better than this author could ever hope to express.

“ Into the dark tragedy of his sudden death and into the forces which played upon him so swiftly in the last few days of his life we cannot enter. Here we find ourselves baffled
by the inscrutability which cloaks the human soul. God knows-we simply bow in sorrow
at the thought of the lonely struggle into which this talented, able, promising life was
was hurried.”



Copyright © 2022 Kathi Kresol, Haunted Rockford Events

The Mysterious Ghost Ship of Lake Michigan

Originally published in The Rock River Times


The Holiday Season between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day is often referred to as “The Most Wonderful Time of Year”.  But others point out that there is something beyond the colorful lights and tinsel that can make this time of the year seem eerie and dark.  The shorter days and much longer nights leave a lot more time for the bumps in the night to make us wonder if something else is lurking just beyond the flickering lights. In fact, many cultures share ghost stories during their Winter Celebrations.

During this time of year, friends and families gather to celebrate the season with certain traditions.  One of the most enduring traditions involves hauling an evergreen tree into the house and decorating it with lights, ornaments, and garland. While it is very easy these days to find these trees, it wasn’t always the case, especially in the bigger cities like Milwaukee or Chicago.

Most folks purchased their tree from wholesalers or local store. These vendors were supplied the trees by local shipping businesses.  These men loaded their ships with freshly cut trees from the upper parts of Michigan and Wisconsin and then sailed down the coast of Lake Michigan to deliver them to the vendors.  It was a dangerous business with the severity of the storms that would blow in without warning to the lake. These ships were called “Christmas Tree Ships” and during the years between late 1870’s and 1920’s, they brought thousands of the trees to this area.

One family that became famous for delivering these trees were the Shuenemanns.  There were three brothers in the family and they began to transport trees in 1876.  They ran this business even after one brother, August was killed during the November run in 1898.  Herman Schuenemann had to put his grief aside that season and he brought two loads of trees down that year. By this time, Herman had three children of his own to support and took on the responsibility of August’s wife and children.

The Shuenemann families lived in Chicago close to the Clark Street docks and knew that many folks couldn’t afford a tree.  They decided that they would sell the trees directly to the folks in the area.  In order to keep their overhead low, they sold these trees right off the boat.  They decorated it with Christmas lights and guaranteed the lowest prices.  A lot of the people that lived in the area stated that the Christmas Season started when the Schuenemann ship sailed up to the dock.  Herman was always known to give a few trees away to the families that couldn’t afford to pay for one.  Herman earned such a good reputation for his generosity, that he was given the nickname “Captain Christmas”.

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In 1910, Herman bought a share of the 124 foot long schooner named the Rouse Simmons. The schooner was built in 1868 and had been used for hauling lumber for its whole life. Herman was proud to be the captain of this ship that had created a good reputation for over 25 years of sailing the Great Lakes.  By 1912, the Rouse Simmons was beginning to show her age and many speculated that she might not be sea worthy any longer. That year the storms had been particularly brutal and roared in earlier than other years.  Some of the Christmas Tree ships had decided that it was too risky to make the run that year.

This made Herman even more determined to make the run.  The wagons carrying the trees from the local farms came to the dock and were unloaded.  They stacked the evergreens into every available space until over 5,000 trees were jammed onboard.  The Rouse Simmons sat low in the water and Herman cast a worried eye to the ominous clouds that were moving in.  Though some of the crew thought they should wait out the storm, Herman knew that this would be the last sail of the season.  He decided to head out and hoped that he could outrun the storm.

Unfortunately, the storm slammed into the ship shortly after it left the safety of the port.  The 60 mile an hour winds drove the icy rain down on the deck of the Rouse Simmons.  Soon the trees stacked on board were covered with snow and ice.  The weight of the trees pushed the already overloaded Rouse Simmons deeper into the water.

The ship was seen by the Life Saving Station at Sturgeon Bay.  They reported that the ship was flying its distress flags and was struggling with the large waves that were now breaking over her bow.  All of the Life Saving Stations were on high alert because of the gale.  The Two Rivers Station had a power boat that was sent to spot the Rouse Simmons.   The ship was spotted only once for a brief moment.  Later reported to look more like a block of ice than a ship, those that witnessed her felt there was little chance for the ship to survive the storm.  It was the last time the Rouse Simmons would be spotted for over 60 years.

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By December 13th, all hope was gone when frozen Christmas trees began to wash up on the shores of the Lake.  A tree decorated with black ribbon was placed along the bridge at Clark Street where the Rouse Simmons would normally dock.

Later, a bottle was washed up by Sheboygan, Wisconsin.  The message inside read, “Friday..everybody goodbye. I guess we are all through. During the night the small boat was washed overboard.  Leaking bad.  Invald and Steve lost too.  God help us.  Herman Schuenemann.”

Herman’s wife Barbara and her two daughters would continue his legacy by shipping the trees on trains and then selling them off a rented ship.  They continued to sell trees on the Clark Street Bridge until Barbara’s death in 1933.  The daughters later opened a store on North Lasalle Street to sell trees and other Christmas decorations.

The Great Lakes held onto the secret of what had happened to the Rouse Simmons until October 30, 1971 when scuba diver Kent Bellrichard from Milwaukee stumbled unto the wreck by accident.  The ship lay in 165 feet of water about twelve miles northeast of Two Rivers.  After close examination it was discovered that the wheel had been damaged when the mizzenmast driver boom, which was the support for the main sail, snapped and crashed in to the wheel, damaging it.  The Rouse Simmons was completely at the mercy of the storm and unable to steer to safety.  The Christmas trees still lined it decks.  One of the trees was later stood on the front as a memorial to the men who died onboard.

Shortly after the disappearance of the Christmas Tree Ship, rumors began to spread amongst the sailors on Lake Michigan.  Many of them told stories of spotting the doomed schooner, still covered in ice, laboring low in the water as she made her way toward home.

Other stories came not from sailors but from folks who lived on the shore of Lake Michigan.  One woman, Joyce Phippen was interviewed by Rochelle Pennington for her book, The Historic Christmas Tree Ship.  Phippen swore she had witnessed the ship twice: once at dusk and another time during the night.  She described the ship as seeming to float above the water, still heavily covered in ice and emerging from a heavy mist.

None of the crew of the Rouse Simmons was ever recovered.  Herman’s wallet was brought up in a fisherman’s net from the bottom of the lake in 1923.  It was wrapped in oilskin which protected it contents.  Inside were business cards, an expense sheet, and an article about the Christmas tree ship and Captain Santa.

The Schuenemann family’s legacy of supplying Christmas trees to everyone whether they could afford to pay or not continues even to this day.  The US Coast Guard Cutter Mackinaw brings a load of trees from northern Michigan to hand out to families who otherwise would not have a tree for their celebrations.

The storm of 1912 was reported as one of the worst up to that time on the Great Lakes.  Many lives were lost during that storm.  But the story of the Rouse Simmons is still shared today. Some say it is due to the sacrifice of Herman and the other men who died trying to bring joy to folks for the holiday.  Others say it is due to the women in Herman’s family who carried on his legacy.  Still others say that it is due to the sightings of the ice ladened ship that continue even today.


Photographs are from Schoolcraft County Historical Society.

Copyright © 2022 Kathi Kresol, Haunted Rockford Events