With a lifetime of interest in the paranormal guiding us, my friend and I set out from Green Bay on October the 17th to make a two hour trek to Wisconsin Rapids’ infamous First Ward Schoolhouse. The drive was full of lonely rolling highways, the roadsides full of lush orange trees showing that Autumn is here. The browning fields next to the farmsteads were only broken up up by the occasional church pock-marking the otherwise empty roadsides. We made great time and soon we were at the front steps of a three story building full of ominous happenings.
The First Ward School was built in 1896. It has four huge classrooms, and an equally large basement and attic. It once was filled with children ranging from Kindergarten to the sixth grade and was sporadically used to teach a high school class in grammar. It went by the name of Irving School at first (named after author Washington Irving) but eventually changed to the name to it’s current form. Budget setbacks forced the school to close in the early 1900’s but overcrowding in the other schools nearby forced the city’s hand and it was reopened – now with nuns living in the attic to help teach the children. In 1921 the nuns were already reporting paranormal activity and began to keep a log of all the happenings. They were bothered enough by the strangeness that they arraigned their schedules to avoid the school during the peak hours for spooky occurrences.
By the 40’s the school was used for special education classes and deaf children. One of the teachers from this period, Muriel Holliday, still roams the premise in specter form. 1954 saw a major remodel of the school. A kitchen, cafeteria and new bathrooms were put in. The school was ultimately closed down in 1977 and abandoned in 1979. It was bought by a man who wanted to convert it to a bed and breakfast in the 90’s but after it proved to be too costly he used the school for storage. He renovated several area homes and placed literally tons of garbage into the school from those other projects. The school was in ill repair and the owner was seeking permission from the fire department to do a controlled burn before leveling the school so he could place three to five more houses on the property space. Thankfully that did not happen and ghost hunter Justin Libigs was able to buy it in the mid-2000s and has since worked tirelessly to remodel and restore it to its former glory. His website is RelativelyHaunted.com and it features more pictures and history of the school and his other ghost hunts.
Things that go bump in the night…
The ghostly caretaker from the past is known to be crotchety, has been heard to swear loudly, and has shoved at least two different women into the walls down by a room in the basement where coal was once stored. One of the women was the current owner’s mom and she now refuses to go into the basement alone. Other activity reported in the basement includes a little girl who was seen dancing out of the corner of the owner’s eye while he was playing Christmas music in the basement kitchen. He didn’t even think anything of the sight at first as he thought it was a kid who was visiting at the time until he realized that child was upstairs. Another time saw the owner and another man sitting at the table down there when a ghost of a woman appeared on the stairwell next to them. She vanished and a cold air came over one of the men who then began crying uncontrollably.
A different event in the basement saw an EVP taken of a voice saying “Erin.” Everyone was a bit confused by this as there was no known history of an “Erin” – then somebody noticed that a hat sitting on a Halloween prop in the room had the name “Erin” on it. Various other knocks, screams, shuffling feet, shadow people, and voices have also seen and heard in the basement. One time a skeptic came to investigate and heard a voice say “Hello!” in the basement. The skeptic then starting cussing loudly and later admitted he still thought the voice was done by a hidden speaker.
The most startling occurrence that came from the basement is when the owner’s mother felt a hand on her shoulder and quickly asked for a picture to be taken. The result was an impressive shadow man image that drew enough interest that the family was able to present it on a cable TV show documenting paranormal evidence. You can see that video below:
Up in the classrooms, the owner has adopted a philosophy that “ghosts are people” and as such he does things for them to attempt to make them happy, such as playing Christmas music for the kids, leaving them toys and candy out and hanging stockings for them for St. Nick’s. They also play old music from the 30’s-50’s to entice the old spirits to come and listen.
One of the classrooms has a back closet that was once used by teachers to stick students in as punishment for their misbehaving in class. As the story goes, one time a teacher forgot about a kid and he was in the closet until 10:30 at night. That is unconfirmed but strange things do surround the closet. An EVP was recorded of a boy saying “I didn’t do it” in there. Later, a psychic visited the school and unprompted went right to the closet and said, “There is a little boy here and I’m hearing ‘I didn’t do it.” The ghosts will also often knock on the door if it is left closed.
An author once came to the school and he was a total skeptic to all the paranormal happenings so as an experiment he stood in front one of the classrooms and asked if the kids wanted to play. He then requested they knock on the walls if they wanted to go outside. Knocks were heard. He then told the kids to line up and footsteps could be heard on the floor. He had them pound on the wall one more time and they complied, then he walked them all the way outside and back in again.
A neat aspect of this place is that the owner is also collecting other items that may hold spiritual energy, such as a furniture set that came from one of Al Capone’s mobster buddies:
A far more infamous piece of furniture is a dresser that came from the hotel where serial killer H.H. Holmes resided and murdered people at. You can see the hidden compartment where he kept his murder tools:
A local family committed mass suicide in the 1920’s. These are the beds they used:
The owner also has a giant picture Vigo from Ghostbusters because he’s a self professed nerd and Vigo is terrifying:
Other ghostly activity the owner has seen includes: A little girl running across one of the classrooms and physically opening a shut door, a little girl crying in the bathroom, a chair creaking as if someone sat down on it – followed up by a very cold spot forming in the air above it, a woman in old time clothes walking near the old office, and an old man standing over the owner’s bed while he slept. The same old man later was credited with taking all four pillows off the bed and placing them on the stairs leading to the bedroom. Neighbors report that an old man can be seen in the attic windows and a black cat is seen in other windows – no cats reside in the school. The owner was also greeted at 2 a.m. with a loud and clear “Hello!” from a woman’s voice while walking to the bathroom one time. He seemed to believe this was Mrs. Holliday for whatever reason. A friend was once staying in the upstairs and went to the bathroom where he ran into a woman who was dressed in old clothes, he thought it was a cleaning lady playing dress up until he later mentioned the incident to the owner, who then informed him that there is no cleaning lady. The man freaked out and had to smoke a pack of cigarettes to calm down.
The attic is also the home of a ghost named “Oscar”. The local legend states that Oscar was a special needs child hung to death in the attic by bullies (or he hung himself due to being bullied) but no news reports can verify this. A ghost of a little boy has been seen running up the attic stairs and one time the owner and another man witnessed a ball of light move across the attic and go into a pail sitting on the floor. The pail was illuminated and then went out. When the owner looked in the pail all that was in it was a Halloween prop….of a noose. I got serious goosebumps when he told us that story.
The Ghost Hunt
The Fox Valley Ghost Hunters put out an offer to the public to join the team for one night for a fee. My friend and I jumped at the opportunity and upon our early arrival, we were given free reigns to the grounds. We explored all three stories, plus the attic and basement. Not knowing the ghostly activity specific to each room yet, we roamed around taking random pictures and exploring the awesome antique furniture that adorns each room. My comrade experienced a disembodied voice possibly speaking briefly to him and we both heard an unexplained knock in one of the school rooms. Once we headed into the basement, we discovered it pitch black and filled with Halloween decorations of ghouls. The school had a haunted house up coming thus the spooky decor. While taking pictures, we did catch random orbs on screen, but that could be dust particles caught in the flash. We sat in a room in total darkness for 10-20 minutes. A sound like a dog squealing and walking was heard by us both but apparently that isn’t a common “ghost” there, so it could have been a pipe or whatever else. It was only later that we learned that we were in a room that the ghost of a former caretaker for the school tends to occupy.
As far as our personal ghost hunt, we split into groups of 10, with one group heading to the attic and the other the basement. All of the lights in the places we were investigating were extinguished. I went to the basement first. We sat in the room where the old man is known to roam and began to ask for knocks and for them to set off the REM Pod and EMF meters (boxes that supposedly can pick up on the energy changes in the room and set off a flashing signal.) We received a little action but then broke out the spirit box (a transmitter that is suppose to allow the spirits voices to come through white noise). The ghost hunters prompted “them” to count along with us and began “1, 2, …” and a very loud and clear “THREE” came through the box. This continued with some success for a bit. The spirits also kept saying the name of the ghost hunter “Rick”.
We then moved to under the stairs in the basement and ran the same tests to similar results. A flashlight that was set to be half on/half off turned itself on brightly at one point and then when the hunters asked the spirits to shut it off… they did. I was 4 feet away from the flashlight during this and no one was near it to touch the settings.
Next we went to the attic and that was a big dud. So we headed to the classroom with the infamous closet. There we again experienced the flashlight phenomenon (I should note that the ghost hunters weren’t nearly as wowed by this as I was). We then placed the REM Pod in the closet and it went off right away. The hunters seemed to believe it was a false positive though, possibly set off by something else.
We then had some free time, so with only 4 of us left in the classroom, I decided to go in the closet and listen for a while. I didn’t hear anything and my attempts at knocking for a response netted nothing. The group from the basement then came upstairs and reported that Oscar the ghost had been very active and even “sat” on one man’s lap. This prompted a handful of us to return to the basement around 1:30 A.M. for a final adventure. What followed was an amazing event that even left the ghost hunters wowed.
We talked to Oscar and “Betty” (another ghost that hangs around) and asked them to play a game with us. We asked what 2+2 was and had them answer by flashing our sensors the appropriate amount of times… AND THEY DID. We repeated this several times before the spirits seemed to lose interest, so the owner asked Oscar if he was excited for Christmas and the meter went bonkers! We then asked if they found the cupcakes that were left in the kitchen nearby. Things then went quiet and some assumed the spirits went to take a look. They then replied they found them by setting off the sensor once for “yes”. Betty was good at answering quickly and cohesively, while Oscar struggled when asked. The ghost hunters then asked Betty to help Oscar out and suddenly his answering improved.
Oscar was drawn to one of the ghost hunters who had been there before and set the man’s meter off by standing so close to him. Finally we asked if they were tired and they said yes, so a bedtime story was proposed and they excitedly set off the meters. We told them to meet us in the classroom.
At this point the hunters all exclaimed how amazing the contact was and wished they had taped it on camera in order to have the evidence for others. Then they decided that it was so good that skeptics would assume they had faked it anyway.
At this point, with a long drive ahead of us and the activity having possibly peaked for the evening, we headed home and left the hunters to read Dr. Seuss to little Oscar. All in all it was a great experience and if anyone lives in the mid-west and loves a good ghost hunt, I’d suggest going on one of these tours.