You can feel it driving around on the dark, country backroads at night or right after turning off the light for bed before your eyes adjust. It’s heavy. It makes your skin tingle. Maybe you freeze; maybe you start to sweat. Either way, you know something’s there, watching you. And it’s the fact that you can’t see it and don’t understand it that messes with you. Yes, the mind plays tricks, but it’s not always in your head.
According to folklorist Robert Gard, “Wisconsin contains more ghosts per square mile than any other state in the nation,” and Door County proudly makes its share of contributions to that statistic. Books and articles have been written about our peninsula’s ghosts, paranormal investigations, ghost tours and more, but I decided to conduct a search of my own to get the eerie accounts straight from those who’ve experienced them.
von Stiehl Winery
What if ghosts are something entirely different from our traditional understanding? Perhaps they’re not the poltergeists we imagine, but simply memories of times forgotten, trapped and doomed to be replayed for years to come. That’s what Brad Schmiling, co-owner of von Stiehl Winery in Algoma, believes.
Schmiling doesn’t go looking for what’s out there, but unexplainable encounters have come to him and others just the same. It’s no surprise: his winery building has 150 years of history behind it.
The von Stiehl Winery’s restrooms are a particular hotspot. A visitor in 2003 reported that while she was using it, a woman who wasn’t there whispered in her ear. The visitor ended up fleeing the property — and what’s worse, she didn’t buy any wine first.
On another occasion, an employee saw a woman in period clothing standing in the restroom waiting to enter a stall. After several minutes, the employee approached the woman to ask if she needed anything. The woman replied that she was waiting for the person in the bathroom to be done, but when the employee pushed the door open, the stall was empty.
The winery’s cellars have also been the sites of some unexplained occurrences. Years ago, Schmiling’s dad and brother were washing the cellars’ floors. After they’d cleaned up, they returned to find a receipt — completely dry — for a bag of feed purchased by one of their relatives in 1956, when feed bags were stored in the building. The story goes that the receipt appeared on the floor out of nowhere.
More recently, a tour group was in the tasting room when a wine glass that was sitting on a shelf exploded in front of them, scattering glass shards all over the shelf. Earlier that day, before customers had arrived, the tasting-room manager kept thinking she could see someone moving in the room, though no one was there.
Another warehouse-type building that the winery uses for production is particularly spooky. An upper level houses two apartments that were built in 1902 and, Schmiling said, may have been part of a onetime brothel. The winery’s owners once hired some flooring work to be done in the building that required a contractor to stay overnight. While working, he kept hearing noises coming from upstairs, and was bothered enough to check it out. When he was halfway up the stairs, he suddenly turned around. He felt something, or someone, that he didn’t like, Schmiling said. Though there was a winter storm outside, the contractor chose to sleep in his truck instead.
While photographing at von Stiehl Winery for the Haunted Door story, Len Villano thought an HDR (high dynamic range) photo would work great to bring out the haunted feeling of the 100-plus-year-old building that serves as the winery’s warehouse and production building. When you shoot HDR images, the camera takes a series of bracketed exposures one stop apart. The separate images get combined to produce one supposedly perfectly exposed HDR image. With the camera on a tripod, Len photographed down the stairwell leading to the upper level of the warehouse in a sequence of nine images: 4 stops underexposed, 3 stops underexposed, 2 stops underexposed, 1 stop underexposed, normal exposure, 1 stop overexposed, 2 stops overexposed, 3 stops overexposed, and 4 stops overexposed. When he opened the images with HDR software he noticed an aberration in the 5th frame of the sequence, what appears to be a figure in a dress. It is not present in any of the other eight images. The resulting HDR photo is quite haunting. Len cannot explain where the aberration came from. Is it a poltergeist or some sort of camera phenomenon?
Alexander Noble House
Do mirrors in the dark make you nervous? There’s good reason for that. There are many superstitions surrounding them, including childhood conjurings of Bloody Mary or the belief that souls trapped within them can haunt you. The Alexander Noble House has a few haunted mirrors of its own.
This house is famous for being Fish Creek’s oldest remaining residence, built in 1875 by Alexander Noble, one of the town’s founders. Today the Gibraltar Historical Association (GHA) gives tours of the building, and it commands a stop on Door County Trolley’s Ghost Tour because many visitors have reported seeing apparitions, orbs and faces in the windows, among other sightings.
Laurie Buske, director of the GHA, shared stories of some visitors’ experiences. The most shocking was about a girl who took a selfie in the mirror of Noble’s bedroom but found that the resulting photo was that of a skeleton’s face. People’s faces are often seen in the upstairs and downstairs center windows at the front of the house — images that have been caught on camera many times. Buske believes the spirits of the house watch tourists leave.
She is often alone in the Noble House but hasn’t experienced any strange activity herself. Buske said that it happens more frequently when groups visit because they “disturb” the house’s ghostly inhabitants on a larger scale.
The purpose of this house is not to be a Halloween scare. Buske assured me that the paranormal activity within the house is not caused by props or tricks set up by the GHA. In other words, it’s not fake. It’s a museum after all, and they aim to keep everything open and happy, she said.
Similarly, they won’t let paranormal teams conduct investigations in case such examinations would bring forth … well, something unwelcome. Hungry Lion Productions even wanted to film there for a television show that would air on Amazon Prime Video. They are the makers of Haunted State: Whispers from History Past and Haunted State: Theatre of Shadows. They were turned down.
Buske’s daughter Katie worked at the Noble House for two summers and often experienced odd things, especially while she was alone waiting for tour groups to come through. On her first night, she felt what she believed to be a child tugging on the back of her skirt. She’s also heard a child crying upstairs and doors opening on their own. In the upstairs mirror, she saw a man with a beard standing behind her. And, while sharing information during a tour about Noble’s wife Emily, who died before the house was built, Katie said she felt a cold hand patting her back, as if to console her.
There is plenty of activity at the Noble House, but none of it has been bad, Katie said. “It’s just a family that never wants to move out.”
Buffalo Ridge Road
There are posts on hauntedplaces.org and Wisconsinhauntedhouses.com stating that Sturgeon Bay’s Buffalo Ridge Road is doubly haunted. Legend has it that there was a horrific murder in the area, but there is no record to back up the story.
Despite the lack of a true backstory, there have been spooky occurrences on Buffalo Ridge Road. The road eventually becomes dirt, and it’s said that if you drive down it slowly, you’ll see an apparition of a dark-haired woman in a dress. But it gets worse: supposedly someone saw apparitions of people running on all fours!
This road is a favorite of the Green Bay-based Northeast Wisconsin (N.E.W.) Paranormal Investigators, a group that has completed multiple investigations of it. Talking with one of the lead investigators, Christine Vande Hei-Sanders, I learned that this spot is a mystery because the investigation-team members always encounter something new. Though they haven’t seen any apparitions, they have had physical contact with unseen entities while walking down the road. They’ve also felt a sense of being surrounded.
Vande Hei-Sanders said she can’t say whether the energies there are good or bad. “There’s just something that doesn’t want us there,” she concluded.
The team uses an Electronic Voice Phenomenon — or EVP — device in all of its investigations because this is how the otherworldly entities communicate. The EVP device plays both FM and AM radio transmissions backward, and between the static, you can hear snippets of words or phrases. Several times on Buffalo Ridge Road, the entities have uttered the name of a team member — Casey — through this device.
Casey DeWitt — the other lead investigator along with Vande Hei-Sanders — is a psychic medium, so the entities that the team encounters often communicate with him because he’s more attuned to them. On Buffalo Ridge Road, the N.E.W. Paranormal Investigators members have captured sound clips that are available on the group’s website (newparanormalinvestigators.com). They say, “Casey D., he’s right,” and “Casey, go find Joe.” Even scarier is when Casey asks the invisible entity, “What kind of spirit are you?” It answers, “Me? I’m evil.”
Shipwrecked Brew Pub & Restaurant
Egg Harbor’s Shipwrecked — a building with a rich history dating back to the 1800s — is famous in Door County for being haunted. It’s offered food and board to many guests over the years, including Al Capone, and part of its website is dedicated to some of its more noteworthy visitors .
The N.E.W. Paranormal Investigators spent time at Shipwrecked in 2016 and posted their evidence online, but a bartender named Laura has collected first-hand stories of her own.
During her first year, a couple staying in the rooms upstairs reported a strange smoke in their room around 3 am. They thought maybe it was exhaust from the kitchen but ruled that out — exhaust couldn’t have reached upstairs. Laura went up to look and found what she described as a white cloud hanging over their heads. By this time, she was familiar with the building’s ghosts and knew it was them. She told the spirits to quit it, and the smoke cloud disappeared.
On another occasion, a group of bikers rented the whole top floor, and some of them were interested in talking with Laura about ghosts, including how ghosts like to communicate using money. Around 11:30 pm, the bikers bought some beer and moved outside to sit on the patio so the staff could start closing down.
One woman went upstairs to get a sweater from her room. She and her husband were completely packed up to be ready to leave early in the morning, but she found something out of place: when she went to wash her hands in the bathroom, she saw a penny standing on its rim next to the sink. Meanwhile, Laura had also gone to use a bathroom. Upon coming out of the stall, she, too, found a penny standing on its rim by the base of the sink.
An August 2017 fire caused major damage to the Shipwrecked building. A banner that hung during the reconstruction proclaimed that “Shipwrecked is unsinkable,” and indeed, the new building opened in summer 2018. The guest rooms are no longer part of the building, but ghostly encounters haven’t ended — which doesn’t surprise paranormal investigator Christine Vande Hei-Sanders. If anything, she feels that they may increase.
Shipwrecked bartender Laura has already encountered strange things — she and another employee were there alone one night when the front doors started rattling and thudding.
“The rattling doors scared me, shocked me,” she said. “[They put a] lump in my throat.”
Door Community Auditorium
If you’re a theater buff, you’ve probably heard of a ghost light: a lamp with a naked bulb that is placed center stage when the theater is unoccupied. This practical measure saves people from falling off the stage or tripping over the set.
But what if the theater isn’t really unoccupied? The light also keeps the area illuminated for any ghosts that may dwell there — because theaters are often thought to be haunted.
Grace Johnson, a once longtime theater participant at Door Community Auditorium, said that leaving a light on for spirits of the dead so that they, too, can perform dissuades them from disrupting the shows of the living.
Johnson remembers one particularly spooky night at the auditorium. She stood on stage waiting for a friend who was in a back room after everyone else had gone home. The ghost light provided just enough wattage for her to see the balcony area that’s off limits to all but the tech-crew members — who were gone by that time. She looked toward the balcony and saw a person just standing there. When her friend went to look, the person had gone.
Johnson’s friends believed her because many of them have experienced strange things themselves. It’s a common occurrence, for example, for the toilet in the last handicapped stall in the women’s restroom to flush on its own. Johnson observed this herself while she was alone washing her hands. She thought the flushing could have been coming from the men’s room, but as she opened the stall’s door, she could see the water draining out of the toilet.
The unearthly event that’s most memorable for Johnson happened while she was on stage during a rehearsal. In the wings of the auditorium, there’s a black rocking chair that always sits on a little platform. Johnson looked over and saw that it was slowly rocking back and forth. She couldn’t stop looking at it, she said, thinking that it couldn’t be real.
“[The auditorium has] always had this weighty feeling, being in there.”