Part III: Local lore

Editor’s note: The following is the third in a series. Part one appeared in the Oct. 14-20, 2009, issue, and part two appeared in the Oct. 21-27, 2009, issue.

By Stuart R. Wahlin

Staff Writer

Twin Sisters Park is a popular wintertime destination on Rockford’s southeast side. Boasting sizeable twin hills, there’s little question where the park got its name. It is rumored, however, the park is not only popular with those who sled, but with those who are dead.

“Some people claim that this park has attracted more sinister guests,” local writer and historian Michael Kleen said of the legend during a recent talk at the Rockford Public Library. “The woods have been the scene of several murders, hangings and even a drowning. People say that they experience feelings of dread. They see things moving in the shadows. They feel like they’re being followed in the woods.”

Kleen acknowledged the stories are most likely the products of imagination from students of nearby East High School—also alleged to be haunted—and one local paranormal consulting team may have laid the Twin Sisters legend to rest.

In 2008, Rockford Interdisciplinary Para-investigations (RIP) released its analysis, which appears to have busted this urban myth.

“Upon arrival, power lines were observed to be present on-site, most notably above the wooded area in the park’s southwest quadrant,” the report stated. “It was immediately apparent the power lines may very well account for perceptions of the paranormal.”

As noted in previous installments of “The science of spirit-sleuthing,” paranormal activity is often associated with higher levels of electromagnetic frequencies (EMF), which investigators measure with EMF meters.

“Traversing the wooded area, electromagnetic readings steadily increased, apparently in direct correlation to the proximity of overhead power lines,” the analysis noted. “EMF spikes topped out between 9.5 and 10mG [milligauss], which is extremely high by any standard.”

The report added: “Depending on one’s school of thought, high EMF could either be an explanation for perceived paranormal experiences, a magnet for such activity, or both. The jury’s still out in some cases, but at this site, the power lines are most certainly bleeding EMF into the area below.”

During their visit to Twin Sisters Park, the group reported none of the physical or psychological effects associated with long-term exposure to high electromagnetic levels (see Part I in the Oct. 14-20 issue), but not all of the team’s findings could be explained.

“Beyond the base range of the overhead power lines, several isolated EMF spikes (3.5-4.5mG) were recorded, but based on the fleeting nature of the hits, no obvious sources could be identified,” the findings noted.

The group reported having conducted electronic voice phenomenon (EVP) sessions with digital recorders where the electromagnetic spikes had occurred, but analysis of the recordings yielded no ghostly voices.

Additionally, “orbs” appeared in several photographs snapped by team members. Although some believe photographic orbs are spirit energy not visible to the naked eye, RIP’s report suggests a more rational explanation.

“Orbs can be caused by a variety of natural phenomena, including dust, insects and light/lens anomalies, so we tend to discount them,” the report explained. “Orbs most commonly appear in conjunction with flash photography, but ours was an afternoon visit. One might assume the orbs we photographed do little to settle the debate, but our findings support the flash explanation.”

The group conducted a series of tests in which photos were taken with and without the use of a flash. Only the flash photos yielded orbs.

In its conclusion, the RIP team found no evidence to support a haunting in Twin Sisters Park, but Rockford’s ghost stories are plentiful enough to keep investigators busy for years to come.

Is Emma still waiting?

Kleen revealed a number of other local legends, including one about a Norwegian immigrant named Emma Pauline Jones.

Emma is said to have lived on First Street from the 1920s to the 1950s. After her husband died in 1941, the story goes, Emma remained in her beloved home on a hill near the river with her three dogs. When her canine companions died, the legend continues, dementia began to set in, and Emma would bide her time in a rocking chair, waiting for her loved ones to return.

The home was later sold, Kleen explained, and Emma went to live with relatives until her death in 1964.

“But some people say that she returned to this home that she loved for so long,” Kleen said, turning to stories of strange occurrences in the home after her death.

“The earliest one is of a Realtor who was showing the house, and he walked down into the basement…and he couldn’t find the light switch,” Kleen began. “So, he lit a match, and the first match got blown out by the wind. And so, he lit a second match, and this match he dropped, because he was startled by what he saw. In the shadows, he thought he saw a person standing there in the basement.”

A young couple, unaware of what the Realtor had seen, is said to have purchased the house, only to have experiences of their own, including unexplainable sounds of footsteps.

“One of the things they said was that they could hear someone tapping on their headboard at night,” he added. “The straw that broke the camel’s back was, one night, they were getting ready for bed. They were coming downstairs to the living room to check and see if all the doors were locked, and suddenly, an elderly woman appeared out of nowhere and demanded to know what they were doing in her house. And, of course, they were completely startled by this, especially when this woman disappeared.”

The next owner, Kleen said, was an older widower who also heard strange noises.

“He heard what sounded like claws tapping on the floor, like if a dog were to be walking by,” Kleen reported, noting the gentleman had also heard tapping on his bedpost. “The tipping point for him was when he was awoken by a phone call on his birthday. And he answered the phone, and on the other end was an older lady who asked him if she was dead—and she kept asking him over and over again: ‘Am I dead? Am I dead?’”

Kleen explained the home was then owned by a series of businesses and other agencies, but that the activity did not stop.

According to Kleen, one employee had a startling encounter in the home’s attic, which was being used for storage.

“Suddenly, the room was no longer the storage room,” he said. “The room was transformed. It had a dresser in there. It had all this old furniture and what looked like an old bed.”

As she raced down the stairs, Kleen added, “Out of the corner of her eye, she thought she caught a glimpse of something, so she turned around, and standing there on the stairs was the ghost of this old woman.”

Rockford College—doorway to the paranormal?

With several points of paranormal interest, Rockford College is rumored to be one the most haunted locations in the city.

The Adams Arch, for instance, is a piece of the original college moved from its first home near the river. The sounds of long-ago-laughter are said to emanate from the stone structure.

Kleen attributes the alleged phenomenon to the place memory theory outlined in Part II. The theory is also referred to as a residual haunting, which is essentially believed to be a “recording” of past events.

“Whenever you’re in high emotional states, be it happy or sad, or upset or angry, you leave energy behind, according to this theory,” said Kleen, who is also a member of the Forest City Paranormal Society. “So, certain emotions are said to be able to be imprinted on the landscape, on a house or, in this case, a doorway to a building. … Adams Arch is supposed to, at certain times, replay the laughter of girls who attended this school for decades. And so, supposedly, their happy emotions have been imprinted on this doorway.”

But stories of the unexplained only begin at the arch.

The basement of the Burpee Building, once used as the studio of a campus radio station, is said to be haunted by the ghost of a man who allegedly committed suicide there.

“There was a professor who evidently was doing some work in the room that used to be the radio station. He was looking at papers on his desk, and suddenly there was a breeze that came from…somewhere,” Kleen said. “He looked around to see where the origin of the breeze was, but the window was still closed. And when he turned around, and he looked back at his desk, allegedly, the papers had been cleared off his desk—all except for this one article talking about the suicide of the person in this building.”

The college’s Maddox Theatre is also the subject of ghostly tales. In addition to stories surrounding the Hopi Indian kachina dolls on display at the theater (see Part II), Kleen noted the dolls aren’t alone in welcoming visitors.

“There are a bunch of frescos on the walls of, I would describe them as cherubic characters, in various stages of celebration,” he explained. “Supposedly, these frescos will watch you as you come in, and their heads will move. You may think that they’re facing a certain direction, but then when you turn around, they’re facing a different direction.”

The theater is allegedly haunted by the man who designed the building, and by the ghost of a former student who is said to ring a bell.

Echoes from the past in the Coronado

Rockford’s 2,400-seat Coronado Theatre opened its doors in 1927, but restless spirits are said to have wasted no time moving in.

“This theater has supposedly been haunted from the beginning,” Kleen asserted. “Some people said that it was built on an Indian burial mound. In fact, there’s a nearby park that has Indian mounds in the park.”

According to legend, during the theater’s construction, several workers fell to their deaths from catwalks, leaving some to wonder if an unseen force had pushed them.

Kleen said the building is believed by one local medium to be haunted by three distinct ghosts, including Willard Van Matre, the original owner, who is said to still greet guests as they enter the theater.

“Ms. Kileen,” the theater’s first office manager, is said to spray lilac perfume on visitors, and the original manager, Louis St. Pierre, is also rumored to still be on duty.

Crowded mall

Although acknowledging it doesn’t fit the stereotype of a haunted locale, Kleen reported a number of strange occurrences in CherryVale Mall, which was built in 1973.

“You might think that such a modern building couldn’t be haunted, especially not a mall where thousands of people go every day,” he indicated. “Modern buildings can be as haunted as older buildings.”

According to Kleen, employees have reported a sensation of being followed in the mall after hours.

“They say that they clean up the store at night, but when they come in and they open the store in the morning, it’s been messed up,” he added.

Other claims include employees who’ve been prevented from leaving the bathroom, as though something on the other side of the door was holding them in.

“Suddenly, the door will swing open, and nobody will be there,” he said.

In addition to these stories, Kleen noted several more well-known incidents, including a man who set himself on fire in front of Christmas shoppers in 2001, and a foiled 2006 terror plot that targeted the mall.

Kleen wouldn’t go as far as to suggest a paranormal link to the incidents, but asserted, “A lot of unusual things have happened there.”

From the October 28-November 3, 2009 issue

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