Supernatural tourism season has sprung: Folklore author presents Haunted Minnesota at Bemidji Library
BEMIDJI -- North of Bemidji sits a ramshackled building most people wouldn't recognize as a tourist attraction. Investigator Chad Lewis has swung by the site to see the sights a number of times. Today, Lewis will be presenting Minnesota's Most Haunted Locations at the Bemidji Public Library. The Old Lake Julia Sanitarium is one of those places.
The Old Lake Julia Sanitarium, about 20 miles north of Bemidji in Puposky, was once home to ailing children in the early 1900s.
"A lot of people think it was an insane asylum," Lewis said. "It was an old sanitarium for tuberculosis patients."
Lewis, a paranormal investigator and folklorist, explained the area was thought to aid children in recovery from the disease because of the fresh air and lake view. The sanitarium closed as a tuberculosis refuge in the 1950s after being open less than 40 years.
"Once TB was conquered it really went out of business and sat vacant for years," Lewis said. "Now it's in a state of disrepair and all but abandoned ... but not empty."
People have reported seeing what appears to be a young girl standing on the second floor of the building. When they try to find her, she can't be found or disappears right before their eyes. Lewis said those stories are telling because most people don't realize the girls were housed on the second floor.
Other accounts on the property include people seeing balls of light shoot up and down the old elevator shaft.
"The place is truly creepy," Lewis said.
He cautions the sanitarium is on private property so people should view it from the road or get permission to go on the land. Not far from the sanitarium, north of Lake Julia, is the Oakhill Cemetery. Cemeteries are generally open to the public and accessible from dawn until dusk.
"Even if it's a public place, just be respectful," Lewis said.
But, it's not Halloween -- why talk about hauntings and graveyards in the spring?
"For years these stories were exclusive to October and Halloween especially" Lewis said. "Over the past 10 years I've seen the trend has really shifted to a lot of people being interested in these things not only year-round but also in the spring and summer."
Lewis said he's heard of people seeking the supernatural as part of family vacations, motorcycle groups rides and even mother/daughter weekends.
"It's really a new form of paranormal tourism that these people want to go to these places that are allegedly haunted," Lewis said. "It makes for the perfect spring and summer road trip."
"You can't turn on the TV without seeing something about ghosts or paranormal activity," Lewis said. When he started investigating as a high school student in Wisconsin, that wasn't the case. He said the interest was still there, but television helped spark people's curiosity.
Lewis said his spark grew from growing up in Eau Claire, Wis., which is next to Elmwood, one of the cities claiming to be the UFO capital of the U.S. While still in high school, Lewis started interviewing people in Elmwood about their experiences.
"The overwhelming majority of people I talked with had a ghost story," Lewis said. "Whether it was a smell of grandma's perfume on the anniversary of her death or grandpa's cigar smoke, something of that nature, most of them took solace and comfort in it, thinking that it was a sign that their loved one is in a better place."
When he began college as a psychology major, his interest in why some people believe in the strange and unusual while others do not, increased. He started talking about his research and people began telling him stories after his programs of hauntings and seeing mysterious creatures.
"What I found over the years is that these are normal, rational, logical, down to earth people, who may not even believe in the paranormal but were having an experience they could not explain and they wanted answers," Lewis said.
Lewis' Haunted Minnesota program will discuss scarier stories of suicide, murder and untimely death, he said, but it is geared toward all ages. Lewis said the majority of the presentation is a psychological scare, there's nothing overtly gory in the program.
"Parents will probably be more frightened than their kids," Lewis said. "Kids enjoy a great ghost story."
Lewis has been to every site he talks about in his presentations. He's tracked vampires in Transylvania, sought the Loch Ness monster, looked for ghosts in Ireland's haunted castles and trailed Tata Duende, the protector of the jungle, in Belize.
"It's important to see and get a feel for the environment," Lewis said. "Other countries really get into their legends. It's a way of life and tradition."
While in Belize, the locals asked why on earth he would seek out Tata Duende because they believed the creature was truly dangerous. In the U.S., Lewis said, people laugh when he tells of seeking Big Foot. Some people have suggested in jest, why not look for mermaids?
"There's been a long history of sailors believing in seeing mermaids," Lewis said. "I've spent time on a lot of the oceans and a lot of the Great Lakes looking for legends."
Because of the Animal Planet mockumentary, "Mermaids: The New Evidence," the U.S. government has had to officially announce it is not researching mermaids, Lewis said.
"The stories of mermaids have been around forever. When you deal with the unusual you have to ask 'what's too weird?' I've had many cases where if I would have said 'this is just too weird for me' I might not have had that great case that was a great story and legend," Lewis said.
Currently, Lewis is finishing a book about and investigating a sea serpent named Pepe in Lake Pepin bordering Wisconsin and Minnesota. Stories date back to the 1800s of Native Americans and pioneers seeing a monster called "Pepe." Lewis said the people in Lake City, Minn. are so convinced Pepe is real, they've offered a $50,000 reward for anyone who can capture the beast.
"If you spend a weekend out on the lake looking for a monster and nothing happens, you're not at a loss," Lewis said. "You just spent the weekend on a beautiful lake enjoying it."
Although Lewis has been to the Lake Julia Sanitarium several times, he has not seen the little girl on the second floor. He said that's not unusual.
"We've had cases where people contact us and things have been happening for two weeks straight and nothing happens when we're there. Once we leave, it starts up again," he confessed.
Sometimes Lewis investigates solo, other times he travels with a group of up to a dozen people depending on the project. His arsenal includes high tech equipment and people who believe they are psychic or intuitive. Depending on the size of the place and what is being investigated, three to six people is ideal. He said it's important to share the experience, have witnesses and for safety reasons.
"I used to bring a lot more equipment than I do now," Lewis said. "I found I was missing out on the legend of it all."
He said some of the best research ever done was in the 1920s by candlelight. Back then researchers sprinkled flour on the floor to make sure nobody walked by. Lewis' can't leave home without equipment includes a camera, a notebook and a flashlight.
"My best piece of equipment is my notebook. I've used it for interviews, getting directions and starting campfires," Lewis said.
The folklorist in Lewis comes out when he's not seeking the monsters, but learning the history of a story dating back 100 years. He enjoys seeing how it's progressed from it's beginning in 1920 to a sometimes completely different idea in 2014.
"After 20 years of researching, I'm left with more questions than answers," Lewis said.
Haunted Bemidji will be presented at the Bemidji Public Library this afternoon at 4.p.m.
Lewis also does Most Haunted presentations in South Dakota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois and Florida.
"It's free and open to anyone who is brave enough to show up," Lewis said. "Keep an eye out."