Ziemann: A spooky tour of Story County

Happy Halloween. Columnist Megan Ziemann takes you on a written tour of the spooky spots around the Iowa State area.

Megan Ziemann

A couple of years ago my roommates and I attended the Ghost Stories of Iowa State lecture on Halloween. People from around campus shared spooky stories and we talked about our own experiences with the paranormal.

Personally, I have none, but much to the chagrin of our community adviser my freshman year my best friend and I pretended there was a ghost in Eaton Hall so that has to count for something.

Let’s face it. Ames isn’t Villisca. We don’t have a ton of spooky history, but in 2014 Iowa State University was named the fifth most haunted campus in the Midwest, so there has to be something here, right?

I’m curious. And because I’m curious, I want to take you all on a written tour of the spooks of Story County. Spoiler alert: most are from campus.

Before we start, I want to give a little bit of a disclaimer. Usually I use scholarly sources, academic journals and otherwise citeable content. Due to the nature of this particular column, I cannot guarantee accuracy as “iowahauntedhouses.com” can only do so much in terms of fact checking. Regardless, I have done my absolute best to deliver accurate information. 

Don’t worry, though — the academic journals will return next week!

Our first location is Friley Hall, specifically a room on the ground floor in the older part of the building nearest Lincoln Way. Unlike the infamous Eaton ghost, Friley Hall may actually be haunted.

There is one room on the lower floor that is sealed because it does not meet fire code and thus cannot be used as a residence hall room. Rumor has it this room was the college home of a student who unfortunately took their own life.

Ever since the death, anyone living in that room would feel uneasy. Things would move around unexpectedly, lights would flicker and some say the students would scratch at the walls as if they were trying to escape. 

Eventually, no one wanted to live in that room. The then-hall director, in an attempt to put a stop to the whispering, decided to stay a night in the room to prove once and for all it was perfectly safe. They lasted until midnight.

Others on the floor heard scratching, some commotion and eventually a door slam as the hall director exited the room for the final time. They pledged that no student would live in that room again, and it has been sealed ever since.

Not all hauntings on campus are malevolent, however, according to a former intern at the oldest building on campus, the Farm House Museum. I heard this story on a tour of the museum (remember when we could cram 15 people into a small space and hear about kitchens that also heated the house?) and it has stuck with me ever since. 

Every holiday season, the Farm House is decorated for a ghostly holiday party. The dining room becomes the star of the house, and the intern in question was responsible for setting the table to prairie living standards. The intern worked alone, and often was the only person in the house.

According to the tour guide, the intern would set the table and then leave to decorate another area of the house. When they returned, the silverware would be turned about 45 degrees to the side. Confused, they reset the table, but it happened again. And again.

Eventually, they got so annoyed they took a needle and thread and sewed the silverware to the tablecloth. They left work that day feeling triumphant. Try that, ghost, they thought. 

The ghost tried it. The next morning, each stitch looked like it had been cut, and the silverware was once again sitting at an angle. So, maybe don’t eat dinner at the Farm House.

Stephens Auditorium may have had its time in the news spotlight earlier this semester, but the ghostly apparition of namesake C.Y. Stephens has kept the venue popular long before then. Performers have spotted him chilling in the basement and perched atop the third balcony, presumably watching a show. Some claim to have felt cold spots around those places and others hear his footsteps. 

No need to worry, though — apparently he just likes to enjoy the performances! Seeing him is akin to “breaking a leg” in the theater world. Strange, but lucky nonetheless.

The Gold Star Hall in the Memorial Union honors Iowa State’s fallen. Soldiers who passed away during conflicts all the way back to World War I are memorialized on the stone walls in the north entrance to the Memorial Union. One female name appears on the wall too.

Hortense Elizabeth Wind was the chief dietitian at the Naval Hospital in Norfolk, Virginia, during World War I. Unfortunately, Wind died during the 1918 flu pandemic. Because of her work at the Naval Hospital, Wind was buried with full officer’s services.

Wind may have had a soldier’s burial, but according to employees of the Memorial Union, something may be troubling her still. People have reported hearing her voice crying out in a sort of low moan. In all my time as a student, I haven’t heard her, but that doesn’t mean she’s not there.

This last one is technically in Boone County, but it’s a stone’s throw away from the county line (and it’s really interesting) so I’m counting it anyway. This place may not be haunted per se, but the mystery surrounding “The Shrine” in Jackson Township is strange enough to pique any ghost hunter’s interest.

The Shrine has an intricate front gate with an elemental emphasis. The words “SUN,” “PARK” and “LAND” are sprinkled around the location on signs. The actual structure is comprised of two towers that, according to the Des Moines Register, resemble medieval tree houses. The centermost tower has some sort of staircase-adjacent platform with a handrail. The weirdest part? The property owner lives right across the street.

No one knows why the property owner built The Shrine. Some say it was a memorial to a family who passed away in a tragic accident. Others claim the owner just likes art and wants a physical representation of their hobby. Either way, many passersby experience a lingering, haunting eerie feeling as they continue down the gravel road.

No matter what you think of The Shrine, please be respectful if you choose to drive by. The Shrine is private property, and the property owner has had to contact the Boone County sheriff a number of times because of trespassing. There’s no harm in slowing down a little as you make your way through rural Boone County, but remember a real human owns that property. Whether The Shrine is a memorial, an art piece or just some structure the owner built for fun, don’t go in there.

I’m going to conclude with this confession. I’m a skeptic. I don’t think ghosts are real. However, I do think ghost stories are real. So much of an area’s culture is rooted in oral history, and it’s important we value that.

That said, I hope you enjoyed your written tour on the spooks of Story County. While the ghosts may not be real, the playful spirit of Halloween will always be. Please celebrate safely this weekend  dressing up with your roommates is just as valid (and safer) as going out to a huge party. 

Just be careful if you live in Eaton Hall  something may be haunting your staircase.