America's most haunted?
SAUK CENTRE -- The Palmer House Hotel in Sauk Centre has what every hotel wants -- to be full every single night.
Even on dead weekends, The Palmer House is believed to be busy with activity no matter the time of the year, month, week or day.
It's the job of owner Kelley Freese and her husband Brett to cater to all her guests -- living and otherwise.
Guests in the Palmer House can't be sure if they are sharing a room or not: They might well be bunking with some of hotel's longtime residents and not know it.
Unless those unseen residents decide to clue them in.
For example, if you're staying in the Jacuzzi suite, Room 17, your companion could be Lucy, a "lady of the evening" at The Palmer House back in it's infamous days.
If she wants you to know it, you'll be feeling more than a slight chill.
Or, if you take Room 12, you may have your own personal maid named Jaclyn.
Or, you might simply be awakened in the middle of the night by the sound of a child bouncing a ball down the hallway.
There are countless stories of these "guests" at The Palmer House, thus making the historical hotel, restaurant and pub widely considered one of the most haunted places in the nation.
The Palmer House has appeared in several books about hauntings, including "The Minnesota Road Guide to Haunted Locations" and "The Nearly Departed."
Ever since Freese opened up the doors of The Palmer House to those interested in the hotel's longtime guests, hundreds of paranormal investigative groups around the nation have investigated the old hotel and its 22 rooms, basement, lobby and all the nooks and crannies it provides.
And in almost all the investigations, the results have harvested amazing evidence of the paranormal.
Even the most diehard skeptics leave with hair raised on the back of their neck, proclaiming there are "unexplainable" things that happened last night.
Respect for the dead
Kelley Freese respects her "unseen" guests as much as her paying customers.
"You can call me the 'Mother Hen' here at The Palmer House," Freese said. "It's just about respect. You can ask questions of them, you can visit with them. But you will treat them with respect ... If you pay attention enough, this building, it will talk to you."
Before it was called The Palmer House, it was the "Sauk Centre House" during the 1800s.
It was not exactly a family destination back then, since it housed unsavory characters attracted by its wild ways of boozing, gambling and prostitution.
But on June 26, 1900, the Sauk Centre House conveniently burnt to the ground.
All that remained were the foundation rocks, which are still present in the basement of The Palmer House.
The residents of Sauk Centre didn't shed many tears over the burning embers of the Sauk Centre House, for up with the smoke went the sins of what went on inside its walls.
Or so they thought.
In 1901, Ralph and Christena Palmer built the Palmer House and spared no expense -- it became one of the best hotels in outstate Minnesota.
With amenities like indoor plumbing and electricity, the hotel attracted a bevy of well-known celebrities, such as Cole Younger, Lorne Greene, and several Minnesota governors.
Nobel Prize winner Sinclair Lewis referred to the hotel as the "Minniemashie House" in his 1920 novel, Main Street.
It had everything needed for a comfortable stay, including a pub and restaurant, along with a gorgeous high-ceiling lobby.
Since Sauk Centre was also centrally located in the state and a railroad ran through town, the hotel housed many railroad workers, migrants and visitors who were passing through.
But as time passed on, The Palmer House aged and fell into disrepair, even sitting empty for a period of time.
In 1993, the hotel enjoyed an ambitious makeover, including the restoration of beautiful hand-carved woodwork in the hotel, all while keeping its historical atmosphere intact.
The renovation also included making the guest rooms larger, turning it from a 38-room hotel to 22 larger rooms.
But by 2002, after going through three owners, The Palmer House again stood empty. And this time was at risk of being condemned and torn down.
That's when Kelley and Brett Freese (who is an optometrist in Sauk Centre) stepped in, along with others, and bought The Palmer House.
"It is a cornerstone of the community," Kelley added. "Tearing it down was not an option."
Since the Freeses were not originally from Sauk Centre, they didn't know about the Palmer House's history, but it's ambience was too much to pass up.
So, after taking The Palmer House over in 2002, the Freeses started the work to get it operating again.
That's when they were introduced to its not-always-visible "guests."
A rude awakening
In the first few months after the Freeses bought the Palmer House, they had to do some renovations themselves.
Kelley's father, Howard, was the first resident there, since he was to become the maintenance man.
His room was on the end of the second-floor hallway -- and that's where the noises started.
"My dad lived in the hotel three to four months alone and before it opened," Kelley said. "We didn't know of any stories of it being haunted."
One morning, Kelley's father asked her if they had rented any rooms out to guests already.
"None," Kelley replied.
Another week passed, Howard finally told Kelley what he had been hearing.
"He said, 'Honey, every night I've heard someone roaming around upstairs (on the third floor),'" Kelley said. "It was right above him in rooms 18 and 19."
Howard could distinctly hear feet shuffling and someone pacing around, before sitting down on the bed.
"Now, my dad does not believe in ghosts, so that was strange to hear that from him," Kelley added.
From then on, more events happened on a consistent basis, making it hard not to believe there was some kind of paranormal activity going on.
"I had really never given ghosts or paranormal stuff a thought, until I owned The Palmer House," Kelley said. "I had local people walk into the restaurant or pub, not being surprised about the (ghost) stories which were told .
"Many already knew it was haunted -- it was almost common knowledge in town."
After being convinced that they weren't alone in The Palmer House, even on nights without guests, Kelley had to make the decision to go public with it.
It wasn't an easy one, since if the word was out that a hotel was haunted, business could cease to exist.
"I was talking with a friend about going public with it, and basically they said it was financial suicide," Kelley stated. "But I was just more and more curious in what was happening and there is power in education."
So in 2006, Kelley included some of the haunting stories on The Palmer House website.
"And it just evolved from there," Kelley said.
But this was not just some hoax to gain attention.
There are a number of documented testimonials from guests in two bound volumes, which are available in the lobby of The Palmer House, along with pictures of potential entities, electronic voice phenomena recordings and evidence from paranormal investigations.
"Yes, I have earned some new clientele who specifically stay here for the paranormal happenings, but I probably have lost some business, too," Kelley added. "We have had guests leave in the middle of the night and not return, too."
The Palmer House isn't advertised as a haunted location, but Kelley doesn't hold that information back from guests, either.
"I will never try and make anyone believe in what I believe," she said. "I don't intend to try and sway anyone about anything."
Stories and evidence
The Palmer House has hot spots of paranormal activity in basically every area of its three floors, basement, pub, lobby and restaurant.
There have been plenty of investigations in all these areas the last three to four years by paranormal enthusiasts from all over the nation.
"On average, I have one to two groups a week," Kelley said. "And that's just counting the legitimate groups who have the equipment and experience."
But Kelley doesn't just let anyone come in without advance notice to conduct detailed investigations.
"I expect everyone to treat (the ghosts) with respect, I don't want any provoking or showing disrespect of any kind," she said.
People who are interested in planning an investigation, can go to The Palmer House website at http://www.thepalmerhousehotel.com/index.html to set up reservations with Kelley.
The staff of The Palmer House has had plenty of "unexplainable" experiences, as well.
The first couple of years after owning The Palmer House, the crystal on the tables and wine glasses were being smashed, either against a wall or by them sliding down the bar and landing on the floor.
"I was going through a lot of wine glasses and finally, Tiffany Johnson -- a psychic I got to know -- told me I have to have the power and lay down the law and don't be afraid to do it."
So after hearing that, Kelley yelled out to "...knock this (stuff) off, you need to stop it!"
The glasses and crystal stopped being broken.
But in another instance, Kelley was introduced to a malevolent entity that was later called "Raymond."
Kelley was folding some towels on the third floor, in the laundry room.
With her back to the door, she could feel someone walking up behind her.
"It was like I could see somebody with a dark cape come up on me and in the next instant, I had a hard time swallowing," Kelley recalled of the moment. "I just felt a choking sensation around my neck, but I kept saying out loud, 'I'm not leaving, I'm not leaving.'"
Obviously, the encounter rattled Kelley and she mentioned it to a friend, who was a psychic in Minneapolis.
He told her that this entity, Raymond, was trying to get her attention and that he was very territorial about his room -- which is Room No. 22.
That's just one of many incidents alleged to have occurred in the old hotel.
Coming up next, testimonials from employees -- including a man from Frazee.
(This is the first of several installments. Fargo-Moorhead Paranormal and Detroit Lakes Newspaper reporter Brian Wierima conducted an investigation of The Palmer House Sunday, Feb. 14.)